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The Glen Canyon Country

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Normally I don’t review books written by good friends and ordinarily ‘Bookin’ with Sunny’ doesn’t include books with footnotes, but we’re making an exception for Don D. Fowler’s The Glen Canyon Country. For anyone who loves the desert southwest as much as I do, Don’s book is essential to read. It tells of the landscape and the stories submerged beneath Lake Powell—the geology, the mapmakers, the Native American presence, the first explorers, the early settlers, the intrepid river runners, and finally the archaeologists who surveyed and studied Glen Canyon while the dam that would bury it all was being built. Don was part of that last scientific endeavor, so his book also tells the eyewitness account of his own experiences in what is now totally inaccessible terrain. Part memoir and part an erudite examination of “the place no one knew,” The Glen Canyon Country is an outstanding example of what some of us call “narrative scholarship.” The warp of book-learning woven together with the woof of personal reminiscences to create a canyon tapestry that is delightful as well as instructive.

Photographer Eliot Porter and the Sierra Club published The Place No One Knew in 1963, the same year that the Glen Canyon dam was finished and Lake Powell began to fill behind it. Don Fowler’s contribution is not to refute that visual and verbal paean to the towering sandstone pillars and red rock walls but to contest its title. Many many people, for generations and even centuries, knew the canyon very well indeed. They all come to life on the pages of Glen Canyon Country, where Don describes their backgrounds and explains how they interacted with each other and with this special place. Some of the stories, like John Wesley Powell’s explorations or Doris and Norm Nevills’ river running enterprise, are well-known, but others were totally new to me. For example, I knew nothing about the failed mineral explorations of Robert Brewster Stanton and the Hoskininni Company, which held mineral rights along 165 miles of river channel and found enough gold to yield a total return of $66.95. Nor did I realize how many different entities and people and professional territorialities were involved in the early archaeological studies of the area.

There is such a wealth of information (and gossip) about the archaeologists that it’s hard for me to condense Don’s pages into a single paragraph. But Don himself is an intriguing part of the history. As an undergraduate student and then a Masters’ candidate at the University of Utah, he worked in the field for the Glen Canyon Project. Dr. Jesse D. Jennings, who oversaw their activities from afar, made one thing very clear—the young men were not to have ‘adventures’. Don swears they didn’t, and he reports no life-threatening escapades during the six years he was in the field, but the book includes a telling photo of a jeep awash in a flash flood. ‘Fowler’s Folly’ is its title. I smile because, for me, this picture speaks louder than words, exemplifying the brash, boyish enthusiasm of those young college students tasting the pleasures of real science and horrible camp food simultaneously. Not to mention thunder clouds, torrential downpours, biting gnats, and month-long periods of complete isolation. Plus, of course, the incredible cliff and canyon views.

I have read literally dozens of books about Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, for its existence is a seminal part of western history and western American literature. Even so, I found Don’s book fresh, innovative, and a real contribution to our knowledge of this important place. With a charming narrative voice, he recounts a living history everyone can enjoy, breathing new life into those now submerged cliffs and canyons on every page.                    -A.R.


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