Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2009)
The Madeira River is so large that its basin is twice the size of France. The Madeira winds for 2000 miles through Brazil, and has over a dozen tributaries. Rondon's men would wait for them on the Aripuana, a large tributary of the Madeira, and they positioned themselves where the Aripuana forked. Based on Rondon's educated guess, the River of Doubt would be approximately 1000 miles long, similar to the Ohio River or the Rhine (The Madeira is also equal in volume to the world's second-largest river, the Congo).
The tributaries of the Amazon are studded with waterfalls and rapids, which makes those rivers impossible to completely navigate. The Madeira has at least 30 waterfalls/rapids, with 16 in just 225 miles. The Brazilians on the expedition knew that the River of Doubt would be choked with waterfalls/rapids as well. Rondon had already determined to name the River of Doubt after TR; the question was when would he tell TR that he had renamed it Rio Roosevelt in honor of the former President.
TR had come face-to-face with life-or-death situations before, including a near-fatal car/trolley accident in 1902, the safari in Africa in 1909, and an assassin's bullet in 1912. However, TR was about to become an explorer in the truest, most unforgiving, sense of the word . . . and TR would find himself woefully unprepared for what was ahead. Incredibly, TR had arrived at the River of Doubt without any boats at all - 22 men, hundreds of pounds of supplies . . . and zero boats.
Rondon arranged for 7 dugout canoes from the Nambiquara tribe that were "recently built". They were nothing more than hollowed-out tree trunks, and would be impossible to maneuver around/through rapids. The canoes had minimal flotation and steering, and the fully-loaded dugouts left the men with only inches of boat above the water . . . any rough water at all would swamp the dugouts. And the dugouts were very heavy, weighing around 2500 pounds each, which would prove to be an excruciating burden when it came time to portage around waterfalls/rapids. And when in the river, there were caimans (South American alligators), as well as anacondas . . . and piranhas.
But for Rondon, the expedition wasn't an isolated event in which to brag afterwards, but an integral part of his 25+ years of service/sacrifice for his nation. Rondon hoped that by guiding TR through the River of Doubt that he would receive additional funding for this telegraph missions as well as providing an accurate map of the river for the people of his nation. Therefore, Rondon was not going to be in a rush to move down the River of Doubt as TR or Kermit wanted.
Finally, when the supplies were divided up for the descent on the River of Doubt, Anthony Fiala's incompetence was there to be seen by all. So much of the food was useless - Fiala simply assumed that hunting game would automatically supplement what he had supplied. Fiala (and the other Americans, including TR) had no clue about hunting in the Amazon Rainforest, in that game would be incredibly scarce for outsiders to hunt and kill. With advance warning, such as hearing the outsiders making noise in the rainforest, animals would simply hide where they couldn't be seen. On 27 February 1914, TR climbed into his narrow dugout, and was swept into the River of Doubt's swift current. TR heard Miller, the naturalist that was not allowed to continue (since the other naturalist, Cherrie, was going), shout a hearty "Good Luck" as TR headed down the river.
The camaradas pulled the dugouts through the water with long wooden paddles, all the while looking for ripples, the only advanced warning that a tree lay just below the surface. The rains had caused the River of Doubt to swell to such a level that most of the dangers to the dugouts were now below the surface. The camaradas outnumbered the rest of the expedition by 3:1, and TR and the others didn't yet know which camaradas they could trust . . . and which they should never turn their backs. One of the camaradas in TR's dugout, Julio de Lima, nearly killed another camarada with a knife during the long overland trek in the Brazilian Highlands over a perceived insult. Even though Rondon didn't know about de Lima's volatile nature, he made de Lima TR's bowman.
Rondon was interested in geographical and scientific precision, not adventure, and he was determined to carefully and completely survey the river. And since the rainforest didn't provide any usable reference points, Rondon would have to use celestial navigation to survey the River of Doubt.
TR's dugout actually moved ahead of Rondon and Kermit, and the expedition reunited and made camp after clearing out an area of vegetation. On 28 February 1914, TR emerged from his balloon silk tent, and before him down the cleared path was the dark/swollen River of Doubt. The 7 dugouts rocked uneasily in their moorings, still looking unworthy to be on the river. TR had never seen the enormity of nature that was around him that morning. The Amazon Rainforest was not a garden of easy abundance - it was in fact the exact opposite. The Amazon Rainforest was (and is) the greatest natural battlefield on Earth, occupying all of its inhabitants every minute of every day; every inch of space was alive, and everything was connected.
TR was more a figurehead as a co-commander, deferring to Rondon on all matters of importance. TR was basically the expedition's raconteur (a.k.a. the "Life of the Party"), especially in camp. Rondon couldn't believe that TR could talk so much for so long, speaking endlessly on all subjects. While everyone had risen early, it wasn't until noon on 28 February 1914 that Day Two started on the River of Doubt. TR's dugout had to work to catch up to Rondon and Kermit since TR had granted Cherrie (the naturalist) permission to collect birds.
Despite the beauty, constant rain and insects made the men miserable. The Amazon Basin gets over 100 inches of rain a year (3 times that of New York City), with 60% of the rain due to transpiration. Most of the rain that fell in the Amazon Basin occurred during the months of March and April. And then there were the unexplained sounds during the day, and the constant hum of life at night. But the most terrifying thing that occurred at night when the men were in camp was the occasional total absence of sound.