“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Teddy Roosevelt
March 29, 1914 – Amazon Rain Forest – Brazil: The 54-year-old former U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt, lay on a cot suffering from malaria and dysentery. Delirious and with a raging fever and chills, he was in and out of consciousness. His son, Kermit, feared his father would not make it through the night.
“I will die here. You go on without me,” Roosevelt had instructed Kermit earlier. However, for the first time in his life, Kermit disobeyed his father. Although sick himself with malaria, he decided to stay with his father regardless of the outcome.
Theodore Roosevelt was all grit. While campaigning for president in Milwaukee in October 1912, he was shot in the chest during a speech. He insisted on finishing the speech in his blood-stained shirt before receiving treatment.
Two years after losing the vote for a third presidential term, Roosevelt had needed a challenge. He took three men, including Kermit, to the rugged Amazon rainforest to explore the River of Doubt, an unknown and unexplored tributary of the Amazon River. It was a river no white man had seen before.
Many thought a former president going on such a dangerous expedition was insane, but the former commander-in-chief was determined. Since his days as a ‘rough rider’ in Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt had loved the challenge of extreme physical endurance.
He and his men arrived in Manaus, Brazil, in late 1913. The excursion was comprised of 19 men, including 16 Brazilian porters. They were led by the famous Brazilian explorer Colonel Candido Rondon. The overland journey to the River of Doubt headwaters took two long and difficult months. They arrived at the river without boats. They were too heavy to carry. Instead, seven dugout canoes were crafted by hollowing out logs.
The expedition left the river’s headwaters on February 27, 1914. The first 50 miles went smoothly before encountering a series of unanticipated rapids. The heavy canoes were unsuitable for the rapids, and three canoes were lost, resulting in a week’s delay in constructing new ones.
With new boat construction completed, the exploration shoved off, only to hear the thundering of more rapids 10 miles later. Rather than negotiate the treacherous rapids, the porters lugged the heavy canoes around them. The expedition was painfully unprepared for what lay ahead, but they could not turn back. The river was the only way out of the jungle and the River of Doubt would either carry them home or kill them.
A month later, Roosevelt wondered if they would survive. A gash on his leg was seriously infected. His clothes were always wet, and his shoes rotted. His face was raw and inflamed due to mosquitoes and ferocious biting flies. More concerning, the food supply was almost gone because of the delays caused by the rapids. The porters were exhausted from carrying canoes around the impassable waterfalls, and most had contracted malaria.
On March 27, Roosevelt came down with malaria and dysentery. Two days later, Colonel Rondon called Kermit aside, “Your father won’t survive through the night.” This conversation continued for a week as Roosevelt fought for his life. He was so sick that he had to lie down in the canoe, as the expedition pushed on. Ten days later, the former president’s fever finally broke.
On April 26, 1914, Rondon’s expedition rendezvoused with a relief party which the colonel had arranged. After almost two months and 470 river miles, they had reached the River of Doubt’s finish line. Still sick, Roosevelt was taken to Manaus to be treated by a doctor.
Three weeks later, Roosevelt received a hero’s welcome upon his arrival in New York City. He had lost 55 pounds off his robust 5’ 8” 220-pound frame. The expedition had tested Teddy Roosevelt’s strength & determination like nothing before.
During his seven years in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt created 150 National Forests and five National Parks. He protected approximately 230 million acres of public land, more than any other president before or since. Today, the River of Doubt is known as the Rio Teodoro, the Roosevelt River after the American hero and adventurer who almost lost his life charting its course.