Paddling the Amazon's “River of Doubt” 100 Years After Roosevelt
Husband and Wife Adventurers take on this epic South American Adventure.
Dave Freeman and his wife Amy are two of our Adventurers of the Year. Read their profile here.
A hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt, America’s “Rough Rider” president, descended an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. He almost lost his life in the process and the legendary “River of Doubt” was renamed the Rio Roosevelt. It remains a remote and relatively untraveled tributary of the mighty Amazon.
Sheets of rain pelted the rain fly of my jungle hammock, making sleep impossible. Nestled in the hammock slung between trees in the Amazon’s flooded forest, I cracked open a book my wife had brought along to pass the time. I was still reading when the low, booming voices of howler monkeys signaled the imminent start of the next day and the return of the scorching sun. Even after the cracks of thunder and bouts of rain were long gone I could not put down this epic tale. It was May of 2007 and I had devoured most of Candice Millard’s book, River of Doubt in a single stormy night. We were a few weeks into a 3,000-mile paddle across the Amazon, leaving plenty of time to think about Roosevelt’s journey. But the adventure was already etched in my mind and I knew someday I had to dip my paddle in the River of Doubt and follow in Roosevelt’s footsteps.
During his seven years in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt created 150 National Forests, five National Parks, and protected approximately 230 million acres of public land, more than any other president before or since. His far-flung treks and a fascination with nature that began as a child fueled his conservation ethic. He considered the Rio Roosevelt Scientific Expedition in 1914 to be his greatest adventure. One hundred years after his first descent of the Rio Roosevelt, in June 2014, my paddling partner, Paul Schurke, and I were finally camped on the edge of the river where Roosevelt’s party had lowered their two-ton dugout canoes into the swollen river and began their epic descent.
On February 27, 1914, shortly after midday, we started down the River of Doubt into the unknown. We were quite uncertain whether after a week we should find ourselves in the Gy-Parana, or after six weeks in the Madeira, or after three months we knew not where. That was why the river was rightly christened the Duvida. – Theodore Roosevelt
My own journey on the Rio Roosevelt began in the late spring of 2014. The stars of the Southern Cross leapt out of the inky black, moonless sky and I could feel the stress subside and excitement build. Tomorrow we would load our canoe and disappear around the first bend in the river just like Roosevelt. Standing alone in the darkness I suddenly felt vulnerable and flipped on my headlamp. Two round yellow eyes shown back and I could make out the cat’s long tail as it disappeared into the thick vegetation 30 yards away, our eyes locked the whole time. I slowly backed away, my spine tingling from the experience of seeing my first jaguar.
Like sharks, bears, wolves, and other large carnivores, jaguars rarely mess with humans. But there is something about being alone in the dark with a large predator that makes you feel like prey. In the morning Paul and I returned to the clearing and followed the cat’s prints, which overlapped my footprints, in the soft sand back to the edge of our campsite.
From Roosevelt’s journals we knew that the first 45 miles of river were narrow, winding, and fast flowing, but contained no rapids or major obstacles. A steady 3 mile-per-hour current shuttled us downstream and made paddling optional. The forest bustled with life. Giant river otters bobbed up and down like jack-in-the-boxes, snorting and hissing as we paddled. Macaws cried from the treetops and the thick stench of hundreds of white-lipped peccaries rooting through the forest permeated the air.
Silently rounding a bend we startled a capybara—it sprinted across the beach and dove into the water. I grabbed my camera, expecting this 100-pound guinea pig to quickly pop to the surface, but it never appeared. We watched this act unfold countless times and it always made us smile and wonder where they go.
We were paddling through an area controlled by the Cinta Larga, an indigenous group that remained uncontacted until the late 1960s. They control a swath of virgin rainforest as large as the state of Maryland. Their oral history suggests that they followed Roosevelt’s party for several hundred miles down the river. But in the end decided not to kill the strange intruders with poison tipped arrows because their leaders could not come to a consensus on whether to attack.
The Cinta Larga have had almost constant conflict with the outside world ever since they were first contacted 45 years ago. South America’s largest diamond deposit was discovered in the middle of their territory, which has brought decades of conflict and violence.
We had been communicating with one of their chiefs, who now lives in a nearby city. Through a phone message, we had been given permission to travel through the Cinta Larga’s land. But we were uneasy as we approached the first village, as we had heard nothing but stories of violence and distrust. We experienced the opposite. The Cinta Larga greeted us with kindness and generosity and it all started with Oita Mina.
We set up camp across the river from his community, hoping someone would notice us and come over to say hello. It was getting dark when a small man in his 50’s with a little potbelly wandered over. Paul and I smiled and tried to explain in very broken Portuguese that we were paddling down the river and had been given permission by Chief Marcello. After a few minutes we figured out that Oita Mina had been one of two Cinta Larga guides on a complete descent of the river using whitewater rafts in the early 90’s. There had only been three descents since Roosevelt’s in 1914, so Oita Mina was excited to meet us.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
In the morning he returned to our camp and we were able to enter the community and visit with Oita Mina in his home. As we walked down the dusty road towards a cluster of 20 small homes, we passed several men carrying long bows and arrows taller than they were heading into the jungle to hunt.
Visiting with Oita Mina in his home we learned that he was a young boy when with the Cinta Larga made their first contact with the outside world in the 1970. A few tribe members had traded for pots, sugar, and other staples with some “blancos” and then everyone had gotten sick. Most of the adults died, including Oita Mina’s parents, and very quickly their nomadic, hunter gather life in the forest disappeared.
As we talked, Oita Mina held his one-year-old grandson and our conversation shifted to opportunities his grandchildren now have. Oita Mina’s story paralleled National Geographic’s article about the Cinta Larga’s first contact in the September 1971 issue. As we got up to leave, Oita Mina pulled two giant arrows from the quiver in the corner. He handed Paul and me each an arrow and told us to tell the chief in the next village that we had his blessing to paddle the river.
We walked back to the beach and began loading our canoe. As we rounded the next bend, the dull roar of rapids appeared and our focus shifted to the obstacles ahead. The river’s character quickly changed, rapids that pummeled Roosevelt’s canoes and pushed his team to the brink of starvation tested our skills and endurance.
Overcoming the challenges of navigating rapids and hacking portage trails through the dense jungle kept me wondering what lay around the next bend. But many of my fondest memories are of the people, like Oita Mina, who open up their homes and share their stories with us during adventures. We can be inspired by stories we read or videos we watch. But they are no substitute to stepping out into the world, getting our hands dirty and having an authentic adventure.