T.r.’s Last Adventure
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Stretching for nearly a mile, with many curls and several drops of at least six feet, the rapids proved to be a serious obstacle. At one point the river narrowed to less than two yards between ledges of naked rock. “It seemed extraordinary, almost impossible,” the Colonel marvelled, “that so broad a river could in so short a space of time contract its dimensions to the width of the strangled channel through which it now poured its entire volume.” Kneeling at the narrowest point and leaning out over the water, Cherrie found that he could touch the opposite shore with the muzzle of his rifle. No canoe could get through the channel’s whirlpools. It took the expedition two and a half days to make a portage of these first rapids. They camped above the rapids on March 2, the next day moved their baggage to the foot of the rapids, and on March 4 and the morning of the fifth dragged the dugouts across a road chopped through the forests. The heavy, cumbersome boats were moved with the aid of several hundred small logs cut to serve as rollers and placed about two yards apart. Two men harnessed to a dragrope pulled, while a third pried with a lever behind; and thus each canoe, “bumping and sliding, was twitched through the woods.”
Not only did the portage cost the party two and half days of “severe and incessant labor”; it also resulted in some damage to the dugouts. When the canoes were launched again below the rapids, one of the boats filled with water and went to the bottom, and more hard work was needed to raise it. For the first time, perhaps, the vastness of their undertaking struck the members of the expedition. Gathered around the campfire after dinner, the men discussed what might lie ahead. They realized that they did not know whether they had one hundred or eight hundred kilometers to go; whether the stream would continue smooth and calm or be broken by innumerable rapids, such as the ones just encountered; whether hostile Indians lurked in the surrounding darkness. “We had no idea how much time the trip would take,” Roosevelt reflected. “We had entered a land of unknown possibilities.”
On March 5 the explorers made twelve kilometers, and by three o’clock the following day they had made nineteen. In the lead, T.R. once more noted the quickening of the current that indicated rapids ahead and signalled the party ashore. It took three days to make a second portage, and on a foraging journey downstream Kermit discovered a third set of rapids only five or six kilometers below the second. On the tenth they unloaded the canoes a third time, carried the burdens down, and lowered the boats through the swirling waters of the lesser rapids. Even though it was dangerous to work nearly naked in the river and they were constantly plagued by biting and stinging insects, this was preferable to manhandling the dugouts overland. T.R. found that termites had eaten holes in his sun helmet and in the cover of his cot. During the night the two older canoes filled with water in the rising river, sank, and were broken apart on boulders along the river bottom. Wryly naming the place Broken Canoe Rapids, the expedition halted for four days to make a new dugout.
Resuming their journey on March 15, the party made six kilometers before rising ground and “the roar of broken water announced that once more our course was checked by dangerous rapids.” Rounding a bend, they saw the new obstacle, “a wide descent of white water, with an island in the middle, at the upper edge.” This time Kermit was in the lead canoe, along with two camaradas , a pet dog, and a week’s supply of boxed provisions. Reconnoitering the island to see if a descent could be made on the far side, Kermit suddenly found his canoe caught in a shifting whirlpool and carried broadside into the rapids.
The paddlers were unable to head into the current—the only possible way to navigate the rapids—and the boat took wave after wave of water, quickly filled, and overturned in the frothy current. One of the camaradas reached shore, but the other disappeared beneath the waters—his body was never recovered. The current beat Kermit’s helmet down over his face, and his Winchester was torn from his grasp. In swift but quieter water he swam toward shore. Although his jacket hindered his strokes, he knew that he did not have the strength to take if off. An overhanging branch appeared on the shore, and “with the curious calm one feels when death is but a moment away,” his father later wrote, “he realized that the utmost his failing strength could do was to reach the branch.” Desperately clutching at the branch, Kermit was then barely able to pull himself ashore with his last reserve of energy. Swimming alongside Kermit, the dog also clambered onto dry land.
T.R. was naturally distraught. The fear of some such accident befalling his second son had been a nightmare all along; “it did not seem to me that I could bear to bring bad tidings … to his mother.” A sign was erected: “In These Rapids Died Poor Simplicio.” Looking for his lost canoe, Kermit discovered even worse rapids a couple of kilometers downstream.