T.r.’s Last Adventure

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Shortly after noon on February 27 the Gy-Paraná group gathered on the fragile wooden bridge that had been flung across the Rio da Dúvida at the telegraph-line crossing to wave goodbye and call out “Good Luck” to the Roosevelt-Rondon party. In addition to the two colonels the exploring team included Kermit, Cherrie, a Lieutenant Lyra, Doctor Cajazeira, and sixteen camaradas , the expert rivermen of the tropical forest. The paddlers, T.R. wrote, were “a strapping set. … lithe as panthers and brawny as bears.” They swam like water dogs, he reported, and “were equally at home with pole and paddle, with axe and machete.” The camaradas looked like pirates out of a storybook, he further noted; indeed, “one or two of them were pirates, and one worse than a pirate.” They were white, black, copper-colored, “and of all intermediate shades”; of Portuguese, Neero, and Indian blood. As a group they were “hard-working, willing, and cheerful.”

The twenty-two-man party would travel in seven dugout canoes—one small, one “cranky,” two “old, water-logged, and leaky,” three good. Personal baggage had been cut down to the “limit necessary for health and efficiency”; yet in such a voyage it was impossible not to take a large amount of equipment, and the canoes, Roosevelt later wrote, were too heavily laden.

The Colonel, Cherrie, and Kermit would share a light tent; the three Brazilian officers would have another tent; and there would be a third for anyone who felt sick. The camaradas would sleep in hammocks slung between trees. All would be armed, but shooting would only be permitted for collecting species, procuring food, and warning off or repelling Indian attacks. The food and arms taken “represented all reasonable precautions against suffering and starvation”; there were provisions for fifty days but “not full rations, for we hoped in part to live on the country—on fish, game, nuts, and palm tops.” Yet, the Colonel conceded, anything might happen: “We were about to go into the unknown, and no one could say what it held.”

 
 
 
 

The surveying was to be done by Colonel Rondon and Lieutenant Lyra, assisted by Kermit. The younger Roosevelt would go ahead in a light canoe with a sighting rod; finding a point with a good vista upstream and down, he would land and set up the rod. Upstream, Lyra would estimate the distance as Rondon took directions with a compass and recorded the figures. While they moved on to where Kermit had been standing he would continue downstream to establish a new point. During that first half-day Kermit landed nearly a hundred times, and the surveyors made but nine and a third kilometers.

T.R. ran ahead in his canoe, through “a lofty and matted forest [that] rose like a green wall on either hand.” The trees were “stately and beautiful. … looped and twisted vines hung from them like great ropes.” Fragrant scents blew from flowers on the banks, and apart from an occasional bird call out of the depths of the forest, all was silent. The Colonel only travelled a few hours on February 27, then pulled ashore to make camp and wait for the surveyors. It had rained at intervals during the day—this was toward the end of the rainy season—but after sunset the sky cleared. “The stars were brilliant overhead,” Roosevelt wrote, “and the new moon hung in the west. It was a pleasant night, the air almost cool, and we slept soundly.” The following morning T. R. stayed on in camp after the surveyors started downstream to wait for Cherrie, who was gathering specimens in the nearby forests. It was almost noon before the two embarked again on the Dúvida’s “swirling brown current. ” It seemed as if it was going to be a leisurely and relaxing journey for Roosevelt.

The second day on the river the party registered an advance of sixteen and a half kilometers, and the third day—in rain that went from showers to “vertical sheets of water”—they travelled and recorded twenty and a half kilometers. For the first time they detected signs of Indian habitation: abandoned palm-leaf shelters, overgrown planting fields, the vine handrail of a washed-away pole bridge. Cherrie shot a large monkey, which proved “very good eating.” Sunday, March 2, their fourth day, was again almost without rain, and T.R. found it “delightful to drift and paddle slowly downthebeautiful tropical river.” The current was slow, and “the broad, deep, placid stream bent and curved in every direction, although the general course was northwest.” The country through which they were travelling was flat, noted the Colonel, “and more of the land was under than above water. Continually we found ourselves travelling between stretches of marshy forest where for miles the water stood or ran among the trees.” In midafternoon the current quickened, became faster and faster “until it began to run like a mill-race, and we heard the roar of rapids ahead.” The dugouts were pulled ashore so that a survey could be made.