Return to the Rio Roosevelt
Two Americans retrace the Brazilian Amazon's storied "River of Doubt"
—Watch the Roosevelt River Centennial Canoe Expedition documentary above—
The World Cup may be over, but we’ve still got Brazil on the mind—especially after hearing back from Dave Freeman and fellow Minnesota adventurer Paul Schurke, who early this month completed a 400-mile canoe descent of the Brazilian Amazon’s storied Rio Roosevelt. The expedition marked the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing and life-threatening 1914 exploratory journey down the remote jungle tributary with Candido Rondon. “It’s a tribute to [President Roosevelt's] incredible public lands legacy that the Rio Roosevelt remains a realm of natural beauty,” says Schurke, noting the still-pristine nature of the river where their modern team, which included six other Brazilian paddlers, spotted plenty of monkeys, caiman, electric eels, cobras, peccaries, tapirs, capybaras, giant otters and even a jaguar.
“A lot of people think of snakes, bugs, and piranhas when they think of the Amazon, but during the dry season—June, July, and August—it rarely rains, and the insects are very manageable,” Freeman says. “The Amazon is really an untapped resource for wilderness canoeist. There are hundreds of wild rivers just waiting to be paddled and I can almost guarantee that you will be the only canoeists on the river unless you run into a local paddling a dugout canoe.”
Due to a violent outbreak of tensions between the native Cinta Larga people and the Brazilian government, however, Freeman and Schurke’s team opted to first run a lower, 300-mile section of river, over 18 days and through the native lands of the primitive Zorro people, before returning to the upper Roosevelt. There, a Cinta Larga chief granted them access to the top 100 miles from the river’s headwaters, where they completed their journey retracing one of canoeing’s great expeditions.
You might remember Dave Freeman, who with his wife Amy, earned National Geographic Adventurer of the Year honors in 2014 following the pair’s three-year, 11,700-mile North American Odyssey. We caught up with Dave before he and Amy depart later this month on a 2,000-mile, 100-day environmental advocacy expedition from Ely, Minn., to the White House by canoe and sailboat in order to deliver a petition-canoe signed by thousands of people concerned about the future of the Great Lakes watershed and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
CANOE & KAYAK: Where did the idea for the expedition come from?
DAVE FREEMAN: I devoured Candice Millard’s book River of Doubt, when we were paddling across South America in 2007. It was the height of the rainy season, we were sleeping in our hammocks in the flooded forest, the bugs were horrible, and paddling water-logged dugout canoes was fresh in my mind. I couldn’t believe that a former U.S. president had undertaken such an epic adventure. Paddling the river remained tucked in the back of my mind for many years, and since this is the 100th anniversary of Roosevelt’s first descent, it seemed like the timing was right to follow in his footsteps.
Who were you traveling with?
We have a very diverse group of folks with a wide range of interests, ages, and paddling experience. Paul Schurke, who’s a veteran polar explorer and expedition leader, and I were the only Americans. We were joined by six Brazilians who ranged in age from 32 to 74. I organized the trip with Tony Osse, who is a canoe builder and avid paddler. He read about our Trans-Amazon Expedition in a Wenonah catalog in 2007 and ended up paddling with us for the last two months of expedition. We became good friends and have been meaning to do another trip together ever since. Brazil is a huge country with an endless supply of wild rivers to paddle, but there are only a few hundred recreational canoeists there, so Tony recruited the other Brazilian team members from a paddling club.
Sounds like things got off to an auspicious start with riots and such. How did that change your logistics?
The headwaters of the Rio Roosevelt is on the Rio Roosevelt Indigenous Reserve, which is controlled by the Cinta Larga. The Cinta Larga remained uncontacted until the late 1960s and control swath of virgin rainforest slightly larger than the state of Minnesota. In fact, the Cinta Larga’s oral history suggests that they followed Roosevelt’s party for several hundred miles down the river, but in the end decided not to kill the strange intruders because their leaders could not come to a consensus on whether to attack. The Cinta Larga have had almost constant conflict with the outside world ever since they were first contacted 45 years ago. South America’s largest diamond deposit was discovered in the middle of their territory, which has brought several decades of conflict and violence.
Tony and I worked for months contacting the Cinta Larga and working to gain permission to access the first half of the Rio Roosevelt. In the end, the timing was not right and tensions were too high so we had to come up with a Plan B. We ended up driving over the roughest roads I have ever seen for eight hours to access the Rio Branco, which we paddled to the Rio Roosevelt. The Rio Branco turned out to be a very nice river with many small rapids, but only a couple of large drops that required portages. In a way we got lucky because we had no idea what we would encounter on the Rio Branco—much like Roosevelt when he dipped his paddle into the Rio Roosevelt. After paddling the lower half of the Rio Roosevelt, Paul Schurke and I secured permission to paddle the upper river. A four-day shuttle took us from the mouth of the Rio Roosevelt to the headwaters, and where our Brazilian teammates dropped us off where Roosevelt started his journey so that we could paddle the rapid-studded upper river through the heart of the Cinta Larga’s domain.
What was the river like?
The river had many faces, there were many wild sections along the length of the river with large cattle ranches scattered through out. The river changed dramatically from a 60-foot-wide, clear flowing stream where Paul and I launched our canoe near the headwaters, to a massive river which reminded me of the Mississippi. Most of the rapids are near the headwaters, but there were some very powerful rapids near the mouth, including a 12-mile section of large rapids near the end that act as a barricade and inhibit the development of the upper river. We were treated to beautiful sand beach campsites most nights and the forest was filled with macaws, tapirs, monkeys, and host of other interesting wildlife. Plus, the fishermen in our group were constantly frying up Piranaha and catfish. The forest and the river were so alive, we never knew what we would see next.
The mid-day sun was really strong, especially on the lower river where there was little shade. We usually woke up at dawn and were on the water by 7 or 8 a.m., we would usually paddle to 1 or 2 p.m., find a sand beach half the size of a football field and spend the afternoon swimming, resting in the shade, and preparing content for the Wilderness Classroom, where we post regular updates for classrooms, as well as content for a more general audience on FreemansExplore.com.
How did your experience shape your view of what Roosevelt would’ve encountered 100 years ago?
Much of the river was unchanged and many of the people that we met were living lifestyles very similar to the people that Roosevelt describes, tapping rubber, gathering Brazil nuts, hunting, fishing, and growing their food. The wildlife that Roosevelt describes and the rapids also remain unchanged. It was shocking to realize that many of the rapids on the upper river that Roosevelt’s party spent days struggling to portage around we were able to run, line, or portage very quickly. Paul and I portaged the Navaite Rapids, which is the first major rapids that Roosevelt encountered, in less than an hour; Roosevelt’s crew took three and a half days to haul their supplies and massive dugout canoes around the same mile long stretch of rapids. We realized what a risky and exhausting trek Roosevelt’s party undertook and how lucky we were to be using modern equipment.
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