The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
In 1913 former US president Theodore Roosevelt,54, accepted a speaking engagement in South America. While there he planned to visit with his son Kermit and travel throughout the continent. Known for his love of adventure, physical prowess, and knowledge of plants and animals, Roosevelt began delegating the arrangements for a trip to people supposedly familiar with the terrain.
But when Roosevelt arrived, a Brazilian official suggested he scrap his planned tour. Roosevelt agreed to explore and chart an unknown river deep in the Amazon rain-forest known as Rio du Duvida, the River of Doubt. Despite the unsuitability of the boats and provisions, he forged ahead with his son Kermit; Colonel Candido Mariana de Silvo Rondon, a Brazilian explorer; and ornithologist George Cherrie.
The difficulties with the journey become apparent during the 100-mile overland trek to the mouth of the river. Much of the staff was sent on its way and provisions abandoned. But the real problems began on the river. Every time the group hit strong rapids, they needed to carry all of the heavy boats and provisions along the banks. The source of the river was high in the mountains, so they often traveled only a few miles a day.
Occasionally they sent boats over the rapids. But if one crashed they spent a day or two making a new one, if they could find suitable wood.
Conflicts arose frequently between Roosevelt and Rondon. Rondon was reluctant to use faster, less effective methods of charting the river even once it became clear that the rations would not hold. When one rower killed another and hid, Rondon wanted to take time to search for him so he could be tried. He was never found, and was later stabbed by an Indian. But a few days later, Roosevelt insisted on spending a day searching for Kermit’s dog. Funnily enough, Rondon’s diary shows more sympathy and affection for his dogs than the three rowers killed during the journey.
Candace Millard, a former writer for National Geographic magazine, quotes frequently from Roosevelt, Cherrie and Rondon’s daily accounts. Her descriptions of the snakes, insects, piranhas, plants, and Indians are equally fascinating.
The Cinta Larga Indians, who lived on the River of Doubt, had never encountered modern man. They had never even seen a boat. Millard analyzes the tribe’s social structure and how they could not come to a consensus about whether or not to attack the invaders. So while the Indians tracked the explorers, they left them alone. Gifts Rondon left along the trail also helped.
Roosevelt contracted malaria and barely survived the journey. He never fully recovered and died several years later. The river was renamed the Roosevelt River in his honor.
When you read The River of Doubt, you feel like you are exploring the Amazon along with Roosevelt. Only you are an expert, thanks to Millard.
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