Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2009)
The most infamous of the poisonous snakes in the Amazon are the ringed coral snake and the pit viper (a relative of the North American rattlesnake). A coral snake isn't as aggressive, nor does it have the large fangs as a pit viper, but its venom is just as lethal, causing excruciating/irreversible paralysis leading to a total collapse of the respiratory system. The victim of a coral snake bite slowly, knowingly, suffocates to death. In 1914, those bitten by the coral snake were simply given up for dead.
A camarada finally noticed the agitated coral snake, and swung an ax to kill it, but TR was in the way of the ax. TR nimbly jumped up-and-out of the way, but landed on the body of the coral snake. The coral snake dug its fangs into TR's tough leather boot . . . a quarter-inch of leather spared TR from a horrible death.
During the rainy season, the River of Doubt is nearly as black as the Rio Negro AND as murky as the Amazon. The River of Doubt mixes with blackwater and murky tributaries, which literally clouds the picture. An additional problem was that the River of Doubt flowed over various types of soil and rock formations which led to a perfect breeding ground for waterfalls/rapids. TR and the others heard the roar of waterfalls/rapids in the distance, a sound that would be the most alarming thing they would hear in the coming weeks.
A long portage would have to be made, and it lasted two-and-a-half days. Block and tackle allowed the camaradas to get the dugouts out of the river. A corduroy road had to be built from the trees for the dugouts to be moved overland. Hundreds of thick six foot long poles were created, placed at two yard intervals in order to act as rollers for the dugouts . . . the physical labor was beyond-arduous. Also, there simply wasn't any game, and the expedition had rolled snake-eyes fishing. But, there were plenty of insects to torment the men, and they became more bold and aggressive the deeper the men plunged into the rainforest. Virtually every animal hid from the men as they moved through, and the only wildlife the men would usually see were the dangerous/lethal ones.
As Rondon well knew, the real threat was from insects, both physically and psychologically. Ants make up 10% of the biomass in the Amazon Rainforest, and the coordinated actions of colony/hive insects could be deadly. A single tree in the Amazon can be home to 40+ different species of ants. Virtually every growing thing teemed with insects; termites were especially active during the Rainy Season. "Fly Dope", the first insect repellant, helped quite a bit, but TR had only brought a small amount. All of the men on the expedition were clumsy, easy prey for countless animals/insects in the Amazon region.
During the portage, Kermit killed a large bird that resembled a turkey, and his companion had a large monkey, which was great news. Then Kermit delivered the bad news: there was another series of nasty waterfalls/rapids ahead of the already-scouted rapids. On 10 March 1914, the expedition relaunched their dugouts, and just a mile later, they reached the waterfalls/rapids described by Kermit. The idea of another nightmarish portage was rejected, so all agreed to go over the rapids in the dugouts. Camaradas were assigned to haul supplies on land so the dugouts were empty. The dugouts were paddled through by brave, intrepid men, and were undamaged; however, the smaller of the two balsas didn't make it through. After twelve days on the River of Doubt, the expedition had only traveled 75 miles downriver.
Creating new dugouts would take time, time the expedition didn't have. It was quickly determined that the men would run out of food long before they finished their expedition. Also, the men knew they were being watched by unseen Indians. Rondon, after some discussion, decided that one dugout would be built to replace the two that were lost, so it had to be large. After measuring 26 feet from a suitable tree, the backbreaking work of hewing-out a log started, with only four days budgeted to finish the dugout. The camaradas worked around the clock under Rondon's direction. Only one camarada was worthless, lazy, and untrustworthy: Julio de Lima. If Rondon could have sent him back, he would have long ago done so.
On 14 March 1914, the dugout was finished. It took all 22 men to drag the 26 foot dugout to the river. Once back in their dugouts, the further the men traveled down the river, the faster the current became, with shifting whirlpools trailing them like sharks. As a sign of their desperation, it had been decided that they would go through all the rapids they encountered; the threat of starving to death in the rainforest outweighed the dangers of the rapids. Also, to speed up the pace of the expedition, Rondon resorted to faster-but-less-accurate mapping techniques.
In just four hours, the men ran six rapids. TR's large dugout came close to being swamped after being sucked into a vortex (whirlpool) . . . it was a very close call, for both men and cargo. In half a day, they had traveled ten miles; little did they know that the next day would end in tragedy.