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Gilbert: River Of Doubt

On April 4, 1914, a hundred years ago tomorrow, deep in the Amazon rain forest, former president Theodore Roosevelt lay delirious with a temperature of 105, too weak to lift his head. In just three months he had lost fifty-five pounds, a fourth of his original weight. His twenty-three-year-old son, Kermit, and the others didn’t think he’d survive the night.

Roosevelt had gone to Brazil for a lucrative speaking engagement; while there, he wanted to get out into the wilderness. A challenging but not life-threatening expedition was planned. Then, it was suggested to him that instead he descend a river that no Westerner had ever traveled, let alone mapped. With little consideration, Roosevelt agreed.

The river had a daunting name: the River of Doubt. Its rapids, whirlpools, and waterfalls were unknown to outsiders, as was the surrounding, virtually impenetrable jungle. The president of the American Museum of Natural History considered Roosevelt’s decision “insane if not suicidal.” He was right.

Candice Millard tells this remarkable story in her terrific book The River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. By far the most competent, if reluctant, member of the ill-conceived and ill-prepared expedition was the head naturalist, George Cherrie, a distinguished, forty-seven-year-old ornithologist from Newfane who had spent twenty-five years exploring and collecting birds in South America.

It took weeks just to get to the remote river. They were ill-equipped, with tons of the wrong gear, no boats, and not nearly enough food.

They faced countless rapids and portages that took days; their dugout canoes couldn’t be carried, but had to be dragged through the jungle on log rollers. The rapids and the terrain made turning back impossible.

They faced alligators, piranha, snakes, parasites, tiny black flies, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Roosevelt cut his leg, it became badly infected, and without proper treatment the wound become life-threatening. Late in the trip, when they reached a rapids that looked both impassable and impossible to portage around, Roosevelt, feverish and unable even to sit up, resolved to take his own life if need be lest he stop others from going on by foot. But they found a way through the rapids, and the expedition continued.

Mapping the twisting river required sightings and measurements at every turn. Even when their very survival depended on speed, that work continued because that was why they were there. Both Roosevelt and the cartographer considered mapping the river a cause worth dying for.

One expedition member drowned in rapids, one murdered another, and the murderer fled into the jungle, and was not seen again.

The river turned out to be nearly a thousand miles long. It took them two months. They succeeded only because the local, unseen Indians let them. Roosevelt’s achievement was so great that many in the US and Great Britain initially refused to believe it. He survived, but he was never again the energetic, vital figure he had been. He died less than five years later at the age of sixty.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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