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A River of Doubt

By Jason Z. Guest

What: The Rio Roosevelt
Where: Estado de Rondônia, Brazil

It was an idea first proposed in 1908 by Father Zahm—a priest known to President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt—which years later would lead the president into one of the most remote corners of the world. Having just returned from the Amazon, Zahm suggested the ever-adventurous Roosevelt follow up his presidency by traversing the Paraguay River into the interior of South America, and so were planted the seeds which would blossom five years later into the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition. As a joint venture under the leaderships of Brazilian military officer Marechal Rondon and the U.S. president, these two brave men and their teams would chart the Rio da Dúvida.

The headwaters of this 400-mile-long river source from within northwestern Brazil. Winding throughout the Amazon, the Dúvida ultimately merges into the even grander Madeira. Translated as the “River of Doubt,” its name clearly forecasts danger and in this case, foreshadowed the outcome of those pushing upon its frontier in the name of discovery.

The expedition was immediately confronted with hardships, dangers and risk. Intolerable heat accompanied starvation, disease and death. Malignant fevers threatened the physical and mental strength of men. Even plagues of insects tormented them, while jaguars, lethal vipers and crocodiles shadowed their every step. Laced with waterfalls and rapids, portions of the Dúvida were impassable, only exacerbating the difficulty of transit in dug-out canoes. Additionally, local Indians were considered a very real threat to these men, for this was the first-ever non-Amazonian crew to attempt the doubtful course.

In the end, the president narrowly escaped death, credit seringueiros (rubber gatherers), who at one point rendered vital aid to many of the men. Roosevelt lived five more years following this journey, long enough to recount the arduous conditions in his book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness. The river was renamed in his honor, Rio Roosevelt.