Creepy Creeks #2: Roosevelt’s Descent of the Rio da Dúvida

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Need a good spooky read tonight?  A perfectly creekfreaky nominee for you is Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt.  This Halloween’s edition of Creepy Creeks abandons LA for the Rio da Dúvida/Rio Teodoro in Brazil.  Author Millard recounts Theodore Roosevelt’s risky descent of this previously unmapped tributary to the Amazon.  This is a highly entertaining and informative read.

The year, 1913.  Roosevelt had just lost an election and survived a gunshot wound to the chest.  Where I might curl up in a ball in self pity and whine for a few months, Roosevelt barreled ahead.  He put together a team and headed south.  His expedition co-leader was a mixed-race Brazilian engineer and explorer sympathetic to the native peoples inhabiting the jungle; their team, comprised of Americans and Brazilians, simmered at times with racial, class and cultural tension.

Everyone completely miscalculated what they would need.  Loaded up with luxury items, they left a trail of abandoned goods behind them before they even made it to the river, while they lacked essential provisions.  They didn’t know how long the journey would be.  They didn’t even know exactly where the river would connect to the Amazon.  Their rough dugouts were unreliable on the river’s rapids.

And then there were the wild things.  

“From their rough, wet seats just above the waterline, Roosevelt and his men could see many of the predators that surrounded them in the river, and could only imagine those that waited below the inky surface…what appeared to be partially submerged logs suddenly blinked and slid beneath the surface, revealing themselves as caimans…(r)hytmic eddies in the water betrayed the passage of anacondas.  The men were by now well acquainted with the razor-toothed piranha…”

While mosquitoes brought life-threatening illnesses like malaria and yellow fever,

“perhaps the worst torment came from piums.  These miniscule black flies gorge themselves on blood like mosquitoes but descend by the hundreds”

But Millard doesn’t want to just play on our squeamishness, she also informs:

“So important and ubiquitous are insects in the ecology of the Amazon that…ants alone make up more than 10 percent of the biomass of all the animals of the rain forest.  From tiny parasitic red mites to cyanide-squirting millipedes to giant six-inch beetles with legs so powerful that they require two men to pry them off if they grip a human arm, the insects of the rain forest have achieved an unparalleled degree of specialization.”

If that wasn’t enough, termites ate the President’s underwear.

Beating through the jungle while portaging brought other unnerving feelings,

“a long deep shriek suddenly ripped through the jungle.  It was the roar of a howler monkey, one of the loudest cries of any animal on earth…(it) can be heard from three miles away…a deep resonating howl that vibrates through the forest with strange, inhuman intensity… Worse even than the noises they could recognize were those that none of them could explain.  These strange sounds…had made a strong impression on the British naturalist Henry Walter Bates fifty years earlier. “Often, even in the still hours of midday, a sudden crash will be heard resounding afar through the wilderness…there are besides, many sounds which it is impossible to account for…like the clang of an iron bar against a hard, hollow tree, or a piercing cry rends the air…and the succeeding silence tends to heighten the unpleasant impressions which they make on the mind”

Perhaps these fears paled next to the sound of approaching rapids.  At one point, Roosevelt’s son Kermit and two Brazilian boatmen, João and Simplicio, were pulled into the current:

“(t)he current was too strong for (João).  It quickly ripped the hawser out of his hands, flipped the canoe over, and hurled it downstream.  The last thing that João saw as the dugout swirled out of sight was Simplicio and Kermit clinging to its splintered, capsized hull.  From their canoe above the rapids, Roosevelt and Cherrie had watched in horror as Kermit, João, and Simplicio…disappeared over the waterfall…they…raced along the uneven bank until they reached the bottom of the second waterfall.  What they saw there would have stopped any father’s heart.  Kermit’s dugout lay among the rocks, as Cherrie would later write, “crushed to splinters.”

Hooked yet?  You’ll have to pick up a copy to hear how it ends.

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