T.r.’s Last Adventure


“The morning of the loth was dark and gloomy,” wrote the Colonel. “Through sheets of blinding rain we left our camp of misfortune for another camp where misfortune also awaited us.” While another portage was being made that day Colonel Rondon strolled with a dog into the forest. Running on ahead, the animal was suddenly felled by Indian arrows; although the natives were not seen, their hostile presence was cause for new alarm. And during the portage the new dugout was lost when the rope by which it was being lowered through the churning waters broke. With Indians undoubtedly lurking nearby, it was deemed unwise to tarry long enough to build new canoes. All the baggage, trimmed to the barest necessity, was loaded into the four remaining dugouts. Roosevelt, Dr. Cajazeira, and six camaradas —three with feet so swollen from insect bites that they could scarcely walk—embarked once more on the stream. Colonel Rondon, Lyra, Cherrie, Kermit, and the nine other camaradas marched in a single file along the bank. The boats had to be halted continually to allow the slower shore party to catch up. “It is doubtful if all our party ever reaches Manáos,” George Cherrie wrote in his diary.

The expedition camped that night at a point where a major stream joined the Dúvida; Colonel Rondon named it the Rio Kermit, and during a ceremony the next morning to erect a marker on the tributary he pulled from his pocket orders from the Brazilian government formally christening the Dúvida the Rio Roosevelt. T.R. protested; he preferred the name that seemed so appropriate, the River of Doubt, “but my kind friends insisted otherwise, and it would have been churlish of me to object longer. ” Three cheers were given for the United States, for T.R., and for Kermit. Roosevelt proposed three cheers for Brazil, for Colonel Rondon, for Lyra, for the doctor, and finally for all the camaradas . Only Cherrie had not been cheered, an omission soon taken care of, “and the meeting broke up in high good humor.”

Just above its juncture with the Dúvida, the tributary Rio Kermit plunged over a waterfall six to eight feet in height; in the pool below were a number of fish, two of which were caught and provided delicious eating. One of the camaradas , a Parecis Indian named Antonio, stated confidently that fish never came up rapids in which falls had to be jumped. The fish in the Rio Kermit indicated, therefore, that the party would find no more rapids steep enough to require overland portaging. “But the event showed that he was mistaken,” T.R. later noted sadly. “The worst rapids were ahead of us. ”

On March 19 the party halted for three days to make two new dugouts. An Indian fi shing village, from which the natives had obviously just fled, was discovered in the vicinity; and gifts—an axe, a knife, some strings of red beads—were left to show that the interlopers were friendly. During the pause the members of the expedition had plenty of time to speculate about the river they were following. There was no longer any doubt, Roosevelt concluded, that the Dúvida was a big river, one of major importance. It now seemed probable that either it must empty directly into the Madeira, near that river’s juncture with the Amazon, or it became the Aripuanã (as T.R. spelled it, “Aripuanan”), another affluent of the Madeira—although the Aripuanã had never been judged such a large river. In the three weeks since embarking on the River of Doubt the expedition had covered only about 140 kilometers, travelling two kilometers for every one made northward, with a descent of some 124 meters. A river normally describes a parabola in its course, Roosevelt thought, with the steepest descent in the upper reaches. This led him to hope that they would not have to encounter so many and such difficult rapids in the future—a hope, he wrote, “destined to failure. ”

On March 22, once more with six dugouts so that all could ride, the expedition again started down the Dúvida. Within twenty minutes out they struck rapids, a pattern that was to be monotonously repeated for the next three weeks, the men counting themselves fortunate when the rapids were gentle enough to allow them to lower the unloaded boats through the water so that they had only to carry the baggage overland. Roosevelt remained cheerful and optimistic: ”… while we were actually on the river, paddling and floating downstream along the reaches of swift, smooth water, it was very lovely.” The very rapids that were now making their navigation downstream so hazardous, he mused, one day “would drive electric trolleys up and down its whole length and far out on either side and run mills and factories, and lighten the labor on farms.” Such a rich and fertile land should not be permitted “to lie as a tenantless wilderness, while there are such teeming swarms of human beings in the overcrowded, overpeopled countries of the Old World.”