17. The River of Doubt
Rio da Duvida is “an unusually good name; and it is always well to keep a name of this character.” - Theodore Roosevelt
Because the Andes Mountains stretch along almost the entire West coast of South America, all South American rivers empty into the Atlantic. The Paraguay and the Amazon rivers have the most extensive tropical rain forests to be found anywhere. Torrential rain and thick, impenetrable vegetation are everywhere. The thick vegetation acts as a natural umbrella against the heavy rainfall. Flesh eating insects, blood-sucking vampire bats and man-eating fish are real dangers to human life. People exploring these areas needed to protect themselves from bugs, mosquitoes, fierce heat and humidity. They faced death from malarial fever and from heat exhaustion. Theodore almost died from heat exhaustion and fever while exploring there.

“Our purpose,” said Roosevelt, “was to ascend the Paraguay as nearly as possible to the head of navigation, thence cross to the sources of one of the affluents of the Amazon, and if possible descend it in canoes built on the spot.”1 The river they were to descend was called the River of Doubt because no one knew how long it was or where it came out. Roosevelt planned to map the river. He was to travel up the Paraguay and meet a Brazilian explorer, Colonel Rondon, at the Brazilian frontier. Then they would go down the River of Doubt to the Amazon.

At Corumba, T.R.’s entire party went on board a river boat. Brilliant red and blue flowers lined the banks of the river. Otters could be seen playing. Roosevelt described how “when they came to the surface, they opened their mouths like seals, and made a loud hissing noise.” He was always noting things like this for the magazine articles he was writing about the expedition.

They passed clearings where there were houses made of palm logs which had steep thatched roofs. The thermometer on the boat read 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity was 90 percent. Biting flies attacked them even in midstream.2

They stopped at a ranch house which had a huge American flag flying. There was a welcoming ceremony for Roosevelt who afterwards wandered around outside. The trees were full of tame parrots and parakeets. “Jacanas played in the wet ground just back of the garden; ibises and screamers called loudly in the swamps a little distance off.”3

Forty feet up in a big tree was a jabiru’s nest. Young jabiru’s walked solemnly around the nest opening and shutting their wings.4

Later they camped along the River of Tapirs and observed brightly colored macaws, parrots, “and big gregarious cuckoos,” and one of the smallest birds Roosevelt had ever seen - “a tiny orange and green manakin.”5

“The tropical forest came down almost like a wall, the tall trees laced together with vines, and the spaces between their trunks filled with a low, dense jungle,” he wrote.6

The Paraguay River flows through highlands which consist of both open prairie and forests. While camping here they discovered leaf carrying ants, called carregadores, or porters, because they constantly carried bits of leaves and grass to their underground nests. These ants didn’t bite the explorers, but did carry off pieces of any clothes or shoes that were left unguarded. There were also some huge black ants with a painful and poisonous bite.

Vampire bats lived in the highlands. The bats would cling to the shoulder of an animal or to the hand or foot of a sleeping human being and suck their blood. The blood would continue to flow long after the bats had finished their meal and flown off.7

Roosevelt described a “beautiful and majestic” waterfall where he spent some time resting, which had “hues of opaline and tints of topaz and amethyst.”8

The River of Doubt
“On February 27, 1914, shortly after midday, we started down the River of Doubt into the unknown,” he wrote.

“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.”9
Often they had to carry the canoes over land to avoid the rapids. Sometimes it took two or three days of work and when they got to the river again their hands and faces were swollen with insect bites. Once they were back on the river, the insects for the most part stayed away.10

The biting flies were becoming more troublesome now. Once when they camped termites ate holes in Theodore’s helmet and in the cover of his cot.11
Another time while they were sleeping in camp, the river rose and dragged down a canoe which sank and dragged down another which was tied to it. The canoes were found that morning, broken up by the boulders. They christened those rapids “Broken Canoe Rapids.”12

T.R. was constantly on edge about Kermit who was a reckless daredevil. “The fear,” T.R. wrote, “of some fatal accident befalling him was always a nightmare to me. He was to be married as soon as the trip was over; and it did not seem to me that I could bear to bring bad tidings to his betrothed and to his mother.”13

Death of Simplicio
Once Kermit’s canoe turned over, hurling one of the paddlers, Simplicio, to his death on the rocks beneath the boat. They never found his body. The following day they put up a marker which said, “In These Rapids Died Poor Simplicio.”14

When they came to another river, they christened it Rio Kermit and then Colonel Rondon surprised the Roosevelts by having a ceremony. “By direction of the Brazilian Government, and in as much as the unknown river is a great river and Theodore Roosevelt a very great man, I hearby christen it the Rio Roosevelt,” Rondon solemnly intoned.

This came as a shock to Theodore who felt the name should remain the River of Doubt, Rio da Duvida. It was, he said, “an unusually good name; and it is always well to keep a name of this character.” But he was touched by the gesture. Later the locals affectionately changed the name to Rio Teodoro.15
Roosevelt described the rain forests as “splendid”:

All around us, and across the bay, and on both sides of the long water-street made by the river, rose the splendid forest. There were flocks of parakeets colored green, blue, and red. Big toucans called overhead, lustrous green-black in color, with white throats, red gorgets, red-and-yellow tail coverts, and huge black-and-yellow bills. Here the soil was fertile; it will be a fine site for a coffee-plantation when this region is open to settlement.16

Night after night Roosevelt worked on his magazine articles for Scribners. He’d sit on a stool with his head and face covered with mosquito netting wearing gloves to protect him from insect bites. Even when he was at his sickest he worked, one time writing in the margin, “This is not written very clearly, my temperature is 105.” The articles were later published in a book called Through the Brazilian Wilderness.

The book is quite wonderful, probably the best of its’ genre. Roosevelt looked at the trees, birds and animals with the wonder of a child. He writes in a way that makes it easy to visualize the rain forest. It is truly Roosevelt’s voice you are reading, unhampered by any literary devices.

One review written at the time said:

The great charm of this book is that it is instinct with the personality of the author. Everywhere the reader has before him the man himself and his indomitable cheerfulness and courage; but the predominant note is his active interest in the myriad forms of plant or animal existence that are encountered....17

The party was down to half rations, but Julio, one of the men, was stealing other people’s food. One of them, Paishon, scolded him and then walked down the trail to get a load from the boats. Julio, muttering to himself, picked up a gun, and followed. Before a minute had passed, a shot was heard. Some men came running into the camp shouting that Julio had shot and killed Paishon. They had tried to capture him but he had run into the woods and could not be found. A couple of hours later they saw him on the shore begging to be taken aboard.

Roosevelt did not stop. He didn’t want to jeopardize the safety of the other men by taking him aboard. But at the next camp, Colonel Rondon, against Roosevelt’s wishes, sent out a party to find Julio. This wasted precious hours and they failed to find him.18

They were growing weaker from the reduced rations. Roosevelt hit his bad leg that had been injured years before on the side of a rock while trying to right a canoe. This new injury stirred up the old infection. “The resulting inflammation was somewhat bothersome,” he said. It was more than bothersome. It had to be operated on without anesthesia in order to drain the infection. Then he came down with malaria and was so weak he had to be carried.

He always took a bottle of morphine with him on expeditions. “I always meant that, if at any time death became inevitable, I would have it over with at once, without going through a long-drawn-out agony from which death was the only relief.”19

He asked the others to leave him behind. The morphine would put an end to his suffering. But then the thought came to him that if he died “that would only make it more sure that Kermit would not get out. For I knew he would not abandon me, but would insist on bringing my body out too. That, of course, would have been impossible. I knew his determination so there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to come out myself. It was a hard fight, but I made it.”20

When they saw a post with initials on it and then, an hour later, a new house in a little clearing, they cheered.21 They had made it back to civilization. Roosevelt had lost 57 pounds. He soon regained his health and bought fifty books at Bridgetown to read on the way home.22

Need for Nature Writers
While on the expedition Roosevelt came to see the need for more nature observers, rather than the hunters and collectors who killed and stuffed the animals and sent them to museums:

There is still need for the work of the collector in South America. But I believe that already, so far as birds are concerned, there is infinitely more need for the work of the careful observer, who to the power of appreciation and observation adds the power of vivid, truthful, and interesting narration--which means, as scientists no less than historians should note, that training in the writing of good English is indispensable to any learned man who expects to make his learning count for what it ought to count in the effect on his fellow men. The outdoor naturalist, the faunal naturalist, who devotes himself primarily to a study of the habits and of the life-histories of birds, beasts, fish, and reptiles, and who can portray truthfully and vividly what he has seen, could do the work of more usefulness than any mere collector, in this upper Paraguay country. The work of the collector is indispensable; but it is only a small part of the work that ought to be done; and after collecting has reached a certain point the work of the field observer with the gift for recording what he has seen becomes of far more importance.23

Exhaustive observation in the field is what is now most needed. Most of this wonderful and harmless bird life should be protected by law; and the mammals should receive reasonable protection. The books now most needed are those dealing with the life-histories of wild creatures.24