(Reviews)

Explorer-in-Chief

Restless and in search of adventure after his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt headed down the uncharted Amazon River. He almost didn't make it back alive.

 

By Susan McGrath

 

The River of Doubt:Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
By Candice Millard
Doubleday, 416 pages, $26

"Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough," Theodore Roosevelt once observed. In 1912, humiliated by his failure to retake the presidency, the Bull Moose found himself sorely in need of a getaway horse. Escape appeared in the form of an invitation to lecture in South America, a "delightful holiday," T.R. wrote, onto which he proposed to tack "just the right amount of adventure."

Such was the original plan, Candice Millard notes in The River of Doubt, her rewarding retelling of that adventure. But Theodore Roosevelt was never a man to settle for just the right amount of anything. Before the year was out, that delightful holiday had become a punishing first descent of a nearly thousand-mile Amazonian tributary from which Roosevelt only narrowly escaped.

In 1913 the Amazon Basin still figured on maps as a blank spot the size of Germany, Millard tells us, and "for Roosevelt, the prospect of exploring such a magnificent, unfamiliar phenomenon of nature was irresistible." The Brazilian government offered as a guide Colonel Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, a man of iron whose Brazilian Telegraphic Commission did the dangerous work of charting much of the Brazilian interior. Rondon spelled out five possible trips. One, a river whose trajectory was so perplexing he had named it the Rio DA Dúvida, the River of Doubt, posed "the greatest unforeseen difficulties," requiring a grueling, monthlong trek to even reach the put-in. Roosevelt chose that one. Once his speaking tour was over, the 1913–1914 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition would make a first descent of a river "so remote and mysterious," says Millard, "that its very name was a warning to would-be explorers."

It was a harrowing journey. The men endured near starvation, disabling fever, the backbreaking labor of dragging 2,500-pound dugouts around impassable rapids, and the terror of knowing unseen Indians with poison-tipped arrows stalked them along the way. All seven of the dugouts they started with were lost. Three men died.

Roosevelt kept a log of the trip while sweating inside gauntlets and head netting, ineffective protection from the diabolical insects whose torment, he reports, "can hardly be exaggerated." Published serially in Scribner's magazine, this log eventually became Roosevelt's book Through the Brazilian Wilderness. The account brims with vivid descriptions ("Ahead of us the shrouded river stretched between dim walls of forest, half-seen in the mist") and Shackletonian stoicism ("No one was in really buoyant health"). 

Millard triangulates between Roosevelt's private letters and the writings of the naturalist George Cherrie and other companions to fill in much of what Roosevelt's book left unsaid. Roosevelt delegated provisioning to a friend, we learn, the self-professed South America expert the Rev. John Zahm, who, in turn, assigned the job to Anthony Fiala, a failed Arctic explorer whose name was synonymous with incompetence—though apparently not to Zahm. Fiala, who had never been within 5,000 miles of the Amazon, loaded up on olive zest, malted milk, and Tabasco sauce but judged—wrongly—that meat would best be provided by rifle and fishhook. Zahm himself turned out to be a racist blowhard. On the approach to the river he insisted that he be provided with a divan chair, saying, "Indians are meant to carry priests."

Millard, a former editor at National Geographic, also draws on modern understanding of tropical ecosystems to illuminate the wilderness the men traversed. She explains why, for instance, in the famously lush rainforest, fish and game eluded fishhook and rifle, and why fruit and nuts seemed barely to figure at all. Fish are widely dispersed through the flooded forest at that season, we learn. Many fruits grow only high in the canopy, reserving themselves for birds and other preferred dispersers.

Roosevelt and Rondon's relationship was cordial despite the hardship. But as the expedition's members weakened from hunger and disease, their leaders found themselves at odds. "The Brazilian colonel was interested not in adventure but in geographical precision, and he was determined to survey the river carefully and completely," Millard writes. Roosevelt, on the other hand, pushed for "recording the most basic information about the river . . . and then simply surviving the journey so that they could share with the world what they had found."

Roosevelt did survive the journey, if only narrowly. But to his shock and outrage, his extraordinary achievement was met "not with praise but with skepticism and disbelief," Millard tells us. "I feel somewhat incredulous as to Col. Roosevelt having actually discovered a new river nearly a thousand miles long," sniffed a former president of the Royal Geographical Society. Roosevelt overcame that skepticism, delivering addresses to rapt audiences in London and Washington, D.C. The skepticism is understandable even today, however. Modern readers have to thank Millard for bringing this remarkable episode to light, a first descent of an Amazonian tributary—undertaken by our 26th president, in a dugout canoe.

Susan McGrath is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

 

Being Caribou
By Karsten Heuer
The Mountaineers Books, 237 pages, $24.95

Many honeymooners opt for a cruise or a beach resort. Not wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer and his new bride, filmmaker Leanne Allison. In April 2003 they set out to trace the Porcupine caribou herd as it migrated from its winter range in the Yukon Territory to its fragile calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and back. The 1,000-mile, five-month-long journey traversed four mountain ranges and dozens of rivers, and included several wicked Arctic storms. Alarmed at the prospect of oil drilling in the Arctic refuge, which President Bush and congressional Republicans continue to push for, the couple wanted to see and feel the caribou up close. "Our task would be to follow them, move like them, act like them, perhaps even think like them, and see what we learned along the way," writes Heuer, who has worked in Canada's Banff and Jasper national parks as a wildlife biologist and park warden. The journey proved to be a life-altering experience for the newlyweds as they witnessed several births and deaths among the 125,000-strong herd. Wolf howls greeted them in the morning, and caribou, in full view near their tents, charged into a river to swim across. "Buoyed by hollow fur and propelled by paddlelike hooves, they looked as unstoppable as when we'd seen them dashing across the same frozen, snowy river five months before," Heuer writes. "There was no transition when their hooves touched bottom. Swimming flowed into walking, and the shuddering caribou came ashore beside us, showering the muddy bank with diamonds of water and light." Filled with such wonderful moments, Being Caribou is a journey well worth taking for readers who want to viscerally understand what's at stake in the battle over drilling in the Arctic.

—Kristine Hansen

 

The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise
By Michael Grunwald
Simon & Schuster, 464 pages, $27

People have not treated the Everglades well. The first government report on the River of Grass, in 1848, declared it "suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles." Floridians spent the next hundred or so years killing Native Americans, shooting millions of wading birds for their feathers, and draining the marsh to build houses and malls. In The Swamp, an exhaustive behind-the-scenes history of what's possibly the world's most unique biological landscape, Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald describes the Everglades' destruction while also bringing to life the myriad quirky characters who have worked for either its development or preservation. Today, more than five years removed from the passing of a $7.8 billion restoration plan, things are looking up slightly for the first time since the mid-1900s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ended any semblance of natural water flow with a series of dikes, levees, and canals. But as Grunwald points out in his final chapter, the Everglades are still dying, just a little more slowly. "If man can't save the Everglades," he writes, "what would he be able to save?"

—Jesse Greenspan

 

The Last Season
By Eric Blehm
HarperCollins Publishers, 352 pages, $24.95

Randy Morgenson grew up in the shadows of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. He was "baptized into the world of camping in Yosemite by being bathed in a campfire-warmed bucket of water dipped from the Merced River," writes freelance journalist Eric Blehm in The Last Season. These mountains never loosened their grip on Morgenson, who, in 28 summers as a backcountry ranger in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, spent more time roaming the Sierras than the famed environmentalist John Muir. The ranger's 1996 disappearance in Kings Canyon set off a massive search-and-rescue operation. Some of Morgenson's closest friends suspected suicide. The legendary ranger had been struggling to sort out his life following the death of his father and an extramarital affair that cost him his marriage. The search drives the engrossing narrative forward at the speed of a best-selling thriller. Spun throughout are details of Morgenson's life that Blehm gleaned from eight years of interviews, research, and visits to the mountains that claimed the 54-year-old outdoorsman. To this day mystery shrouds Morgenson's fate, but as he once told a friend, "The least I owe these mountains is a body."

—Todd Neale

 

 

Art of the Wild

Yosemite in Time, an exercise in rephotography by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, is an ode to the great Yosemite photographers who came before them. By photographing rivers, mountains, and valleys from the same points at the same times of year as Eadweard Muybridge and Ansel Adams, among others, Klett and Wolfe show how the park has changed during the past 150 years. One particularly interesting picture in Yosemite in Time (Trinity Press, 140 pages, $45) shows a riverbank that moved more than 100 yards, while another photograph portrays a once-healthy Jeffrey pine that later died. The book presents both an old and a new way of looking at one of the country's most beloved natural areas.

—Jesse Greenspan


© 2006 National Audubon Society

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