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Down the Great Unknown

3.87 of 5 stars 3.87  ·  rating details  ·  668 ratings  ·  100 reviews

0n May 24, 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. No one had ever explored the fabled Grand Canyon; to adventurers of that era it was a region almost as mysterious as Atlantis -- and as perilous.

The ten men set out down the mighty Colorado River in wooden row

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Paperback, 320 pages
Published April 22nd 2003 by HarperCollins (first published September 30th 2001)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,373)
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Zedder
This is the weakest adventure/exploration-type book I've read so far and I don't recommend it. Most of it is pretty damn boring. It gets a little more interesting towards the end, but only for a little bit. The interesting bit concerns the situation at the end of their trip down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. No one had ever been all the way down it before, on boat or foot, so they had no idea what was in store for them. For most of the trip they had dealt with this by exploring th ...more
Taylor
That the author was so present in the telling of this story was both its best and worst feature. He brings context to events and circumstances, but he does so through odd illustrations. For instance, he describes a boatman stuck in a muddy whirlpool as being in the center of a massive glass of chocolate milk as it is stirred by a giant 8-year old. It was consistently distracting, but I think it enhanced my understanding of the challenges the expedition team faced in the process of exploring the ...more
Randy
Living in northern Arizona, about one hundred miles from the Grand Canyon, ready to celebrate Prescott's sesquicentennial, and having read and enjoyed another of Edward Dolnick's books ("The Clockwork Universe," about Sir Isaac Newton), I decided to read this book. It is a very well documented story of John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers and the hardships they endured with that adventure. I also enjoyed the many side stories that Mr. Dolnick included in the book. D ...more
Adrian
Story of the 1,000 mile voyage down the Green and Colorado rivers in the summer of 1869. The ten men who undertook it were led by one-armed John Wesley Powell and were reduced to six by the end. They were the first to traverse the Grand Canyon. Inexperienced and badly outfitted they encountered over 400 separate rapids. They finished the journey as their remaining food- flour and dried apples- was running out. Three men who decided to leave the expedition less than 24 hours from its end walked o ...more
Paulcbry
'Down the Great Unknown' about John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition to map the rivers to and through the Grand Canyon is a very good (and relatively quick at 292 pp.) read. The book focuses on the expedition itself and leaves out extraneous information. The author (Dolnick) does a very good job of taking the 3 different diaries to form a narrative of the trip taken (initially) by 10 adventurers. What amazes is the not oftened mentioned fact that Powell had only one good arm. Suffice to say, ther ...more
Cris
This is a non-fiction account of the first Powell expedition down the Green River on through the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. The account is based on journals from three of the ten men who started the hard and desperate journey. Having lived in Green River, WY and having hiked in that region as well as the Grand Canyon, I was keenly interested in the descriptions and series of events. The multiple perspectives presented made it a good first choice to read about the expedition. I enjoyed it a ...more
Eric_W
In 1869 John Wesley Powell decided to set off down the Green River and follow it to the Colorado and then down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. All of this was territory that had been unexplored by Europeans. Edward Dolnick recounts the passage in Down the Great Unknown. It's a fascinating story told masterfully of a courageous -- or foolish -- adventure.

His companions had no experience running rapids and their equipment was sturdy but not designed for shooting rapids. Fortunately, by star
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Kathleen Hulser
Gripping tale fleshed out with highly useful commentary on shooting rapids, river craft, boater drownings and other material designed to make you realize how very extraordinary or foolhardy the expedition led by the one-armed Powell was. In 1869 they did not even face down river, as they rowed their absurdly heavy Whitehall boats towards the rapids. Powell would hold onto a strap to keep from being thrown, as he called out rock hazards. They lined and portaged the heavily loaded boats, as their ...more
James (JD) Dittes
I just couldn't put this book down once I started it--shall I blame it on the rapids or the writer?

Most accounts of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition focus on Powell and his account of the trip, but Dolnick elevates two other accounts by crew members to tell the story of the trip. The focus is on the rapids and the barreling river, rather than on Powell. Even better, Dolnick regularly breaks into the narrative to offer modern takes on many of the rapids by experienced boatmen.

The science o
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Katherine
If you enjoy true stories of courage and exploration, this book is for you. Major Powell and 9 others journeyed through the Grand Canyon in wooden boats, the first white men known to do so.
One man left the group at the first opportunity after one of their boats was destroyed early on. The rest faced extreme temperatures, rain, rapids, lost supplies, food that went rancid or moldy, and more rapids. Lining the boats or portaging them, was often necessary, but difficult work and time consuming.
I f
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Josh
Really!? That happened? Wow. Reading about Powell's trip reminds me of when I first read about Shackleton's Antarctic adventures. Wow. I enjoyed this book all the more because my family and I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time last month. And because I'm a kayaker; river stories are up my alley (down my canyon?).

I had considered reading Powell's book about this trip, but I'm glad I read this secondary source instead. Dolnick does a great job comparing what Powell wrote vs. what others
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Jeff Jellets
Spoiler Alert: There are whitewater rapids in the next chapter!

The story of John Wesley Powell's journey through the Grand Canyon is undoubtedly epic and an amazing testimony to the indomitable determination (and luck) of the rag-tag group of men who were first to brave the cliffs and rapids of the mighty Colorado River and the first to survey the full length of the Grand Canyon. Author Edward Dolnick provides an accessible narrative that captures not only the spirit of the adventure, but someth
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Kay
One of the great true adventure stories of the past few centuries is surely John Wesley Powell's expedition down the unexplored Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon in 1869, a journey of some 1,000 miles in ninety-nine days. Ten poorly-prepared men set out in six ill-equipped wooden boats, but only six survived.

Powell, a multi-faceted one-armed Civil War veteran, was the leader of the group, and much like another of my favorite adventurer-heroes, Ernest Shackleton, probably singlehandedl
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Jan
The Clockwork Universe was hard to put down, and I am not usually real intrigued with reading a book on science! I do hike and camp and always wanted to raft a river, and enjoy a good tale of an exploration/journey/courage in the face of danger. This journey through the Grand Canyon has all the necessary elements, but somehow it fell short for me. The hardships were great, and the men were brave. The story was well told, but on occasion I was skimming through, wanting to get to the end. I am gla ...more
Heather
This was an extremely gripping story about the first white men who (as far as history is concerned) got through the Grand Canyon in what amounted to row boats. They were incredibly lucky in the face of the unknown, and the book pulls you in from the beginning when they dump a bunch of supplies that are just too heavy (and end up starving later). How anyone as unprepared and inexperienced as this group of men made it a week let alone several months is mind-blowing.
Aaron
Interesting though often dry

A solid overview of not only Powell's expedition, but other pertinent stories. From accounts of the American Civil War to frontier anecdotes to modern river running tales, Dolnick does an excellent job filling out the figures of the expedition and the canyon itself. Sadly, the tangents are often far more interesting than the expedition itself. That being said, it's still a worthwhile read.
Daryl Conley
I'm not a river / rafting type and I'm not a non-fiction reader by nature, but I have to admit - I really liked this book. The author can be a bit long-winded at times to make his point clear, but often it is worth it in the end. The story is amazing. You'll be blown away at the sheer courage of the expedition members and the trials they suffered through. They were the FIRST to go down the Grand Canyon and no one thought it possible. They had the wrong boats, no experience, and no knowledge of w ...more
Oyster
Before we started sending our kids down the Grand Canyon on donkeys, the Arizona territory was a frightful unknown. In 1869, one-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell decided to brave the narrow strip of Colorado River with 9 men in wooden rowboats. Recreating the true story by examining journals and diaries, Dolnick takes us on the adventure of an audacious man on one doomed mission.
Connie
I read this excellent book in conjunction with my trip to the Grand Canyon. Seeing the places described really helped bring the text to life. Dolnick is an excellent writer who knows how to conduct exhaustive research and put it together into an engaging narrative. This book wasn't dry. Instead, it used the words of John Wesley Powell and two of his expedition crew who kept journals to describe the awesome trip they took in order to map and explore the Colorado River. They were the first organiz ...more
Heather
This story was great insight into the Civil War and the time after the war. For a non-fiction book, it is an exciting read. The fast pace and dangers of the rapids that Powell's crew ran are portrayed so well that the reader can envision being there. I would recommend this book to any history buff or anyone interested in a real-life survival story.
Ted Haussman

Really an excellent account of John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers from Wyoming through the Grand Canyon in 1869. The author does a great job explaining what they were facing and provides many good anecdotes to help the reader appreciate the obstacles. Having just been in the Grand Canyon helped me to visualize it as well. The book is based mostly on firsthand, contemperaneous accounts and he goes a good job of explaining the different personalities and tensions of
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Andy
John Westley Powell was an idealistic, one-armed Civil War vet with the outlandish idea of rafting through the previously unexplored Grand Canyon. He and 9 others set out to do this in 1869. They really had no idea what they were getting into. They didn't bring life preservers (except for the disabled Powell) and brought wooden row-boats completely unsuited for the rapids ahead.

That seems like some pretty good elements for a great adventure story. And while the journey for Powell and his men was
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Cari
An enjoyable read, simultaneously gripping and informative. I picked up Down the Great Unknown after reading another of Dolnick's books (The Clockwork Universe) that I enjoyed immensely, and while this isn't quite in the same league as that one, it's still worth looking into. Dolnick's style isn't as dense as many nonfiction writers, so this is an easy read but doesn't skimp on the details, and even his tendency to put in anecdotes surrounding this period is entertaining. (Granted they are occas ...more
Suzanne
Jan 08, 2012 Suzanne rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bethy, Dad
Recommended to Suzanne by: January Challenge - New/Discovery
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Whew, that was an incredible read! I can't even imagine the courageous foolhardiness of John Wesley Powell and the nine other men who decided to travel the Green and Colorado Rivers. Mr. Dolnick obviously did a ton of research and did a masterful job of reconciling the various diaries and trip accounts. Not only was the book a great adventure, I learned something of geology, river running, and history.

I felt very emotional at the end when the crew finally made it back to 'civilization' and throu
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Annette
On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell http://www.canyon-country.com/lakepow... and a small band of frontiersmen set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, in four wooden boats. The one-armed Union veteran and geology professor, Illinois State University, planned to explore the uncharted Green and Colorado rivers and pass through the mysterious Grand Canyon. Ill equipped and inexperienced in navigating wild rivers, the main party - - long given up for dead - - reached their destination. T ...more
Gerry
This book belongs to a small set of books I've been reading with my son on early river explorations (see River of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelts' exploration of a Amazon tributary, or Blood River, a modern excursion down the Congo laced with great back round stories of early Congo exploration). Down the Great Unknown deals with the 1869 journey of discovery and tragedy on the Colorado River, specifically the stretch through the Grand Canyon. It was nothing like modern runs down this now tamed ri ...more
Alyson Stanfield
I am planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and read this in early preparation.

I LOVE reading adventure books and have read other books about river exploration.

I thought this was a little slow (lots of rapids, lots of portaging, little food - repeat).

Then there was an interruption of a detailed account of the gruesome events of the Civil War. I skimmed some of it because it was so disturbing. It was a welcome relief from the river stories.

I really enjoyed the last chapter about what happened afte
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Joshua
Interesting adventure/survival non-fiction about a group of non-river types jazzed by the idea of discovery or doing something first. The ten men attempt to raft the Grand Canyon in 1869 and all the rivers that lead to the canyon--takes over 3 months and they suffer many hardships over the 1,000+ mile journey.

The one thing about this that started to get old is there's only so many times you can read about rapids before they all just blur together. Rapid, rapid, rapid, rapid and more rapids.

It
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Jeffrey
outrageously good. If you have an unhealthy obsession with the Grand Canyon, and your early years were spent devouring Gary Paulsen books about cantankerous mountain men, it doesn't get much better than a crew of cantankerous mountain men led by a one-armed civil war veteran floating through the Grand Canyon in wooden row-boats. This is the kind of history that would seem over-the-top and contrived if it were fiction.
Devastating flash floods, moldy flour, near-mutiny, deceitful Mormons -- it's
...more
Andrew Walls
Excellent history of exploration down the canyon!
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Edward Dolnick is an American writer, formerly a science writer at the Boston Globe. He has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post, among other publications. His books include Madness on the Couch : Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (1998) and Down the Great Unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy T ...more
More about Edward Dolnick...
The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853 Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis

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