Last month, adventurers David Freeman and Paul A. Schurke wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s trip down the famous River of Doubt in Brazil.
Their plan was to duplicate Roosevelt’s adventure in a canoe. The problem: they couldn’t get permission from the indigenous people, who controlled the rainforest.
Those of you who have heard my audiobook “Through The Brazilian Wilderness,” written by President Theodore Roosevelt, know that Roosevelt’s party was very aware of Indians, unseen, but very much felt.
“Rondon fired his rifle in the air, to warn off the Indian or Indians who in all probability had never seen a civilized man,”…Theodore Roosevelt wrote.
Those indigenous people were the Cinta Larga people, today a band of about 1300 persons.
They are still living in the Brazilian Rainforest and they are rightfully touchy about people entering their territory.
Outsiders have not been kind to them. Settlers and rubber planters have tried to steal Cinta Larga land and even exterminate them. Someone once tried to kill them off by throwing sticks of dynamite at them from low flying helicopters. Someone tried to feed them arsenic.
As luck would have it, while relegated to a narrow area by the Brazilian government, the Cinta Larga have discovered on their smaller and smaller portion of the rainforest granted to them, a diamond mine.
Brazilian and foreign diamond miners moved in. A number of people just started mining and removing the diamonds without permission. The Cinta Larga decided to handle this trespassing themselves and on April 7, 2004, warriors of the tribe killed 29 miners. Very quickly, a group of interested persons arrived from the Brazilian Government to “protect” the Indians.
So, when Freeman and Schurke sought permission to canoe down the Rio Roosevelt, which the River of Doubt has been renamed, the Cinta Larga were understandably suspicious. And that was the problem the Minnesota adventurers had to solve. If they were going to achieve their goal of canoeing down the River of Doubt, they would have to convince the Cinta Larga that they were trustworthy people.
The River of Doubt (or Rio Roosevelt) is 400 miles in length. In Roosevelt’s time the location of the headwaters was known, but no one knew where the river ended– it was unknown and therefore in Doubt.
It was strongly felt that the river eventually emptied into the Amazon River, but no one knew for sure. Someone had to travel the entire length of the river to find out. Roosevelt’s party did it the hard way. To create boats, they felled trees and scooped them out to form heavy dugouts.
Every time the river was clogged with rocks that blocked the way of boats and created dangerous water rapids, the heavy ponderous dugouts would have to be lifted out of the water, brought to a shore where there was no trail, portaged around the clogged river and then placed back in the water again.
Portaging was exhausting and dangerous work, which increased the possibility of accidents and injury. Roosevelt’s leg was hurt. He caught malaria and nearly died in the jungle.
Freeman and Schurke knew that carrying lightweight canoes would be a lot easier….not easy, but easier. The real obstacle to the journey was gaining the trust of the Cinta Larga people.
An interesting strategy was devised. Rather than beginning the adventure at the highest point of the river, where Roosevelt first pushed off, they began their adventure after the river passed the dangerous rapids, close to the Cinta Larga villages. In this way, the indigenous people could see for themselves that the intruders were friendly, harmless adventurers.
According to a press release by Amy Freeman, Dave’s wife, “We’d contacted tribal chiefs months ago seeking access permission and finally received phone message indicating tacit approval.” “But we didn’t know what to expect as we approached their villages by canoe, “ said, Dave, “however, they treated us like family. The kids and elders alike were keen to show us their community and share native gifts and meals with us.””
The team was then granted permission to paddle the headwaters through the rapids, including a 5-foot chasm through which the entire river is channeled.
The expedition team camped at four of the same places that the Roosevelt expedition did and found Roosevelt’s descriptions of the area, written 100 years ago, are accurate.
So, Freeman and Schurke accomplished their goal of following Roosevelt’s path down the river – they just reversed the order of their route a little.
One hundred years after the Roosevelt party explored the River of Doubt and turned it into the mapped Rio Roosevelt, another party of Americans completed their own adventure to commemorate President Theodore Roosevelt’s last great adventure.
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