Return to the River of Doubt

In 1914 Teddy Roosevelt embarked on an epic expedition down a branch of the Amazon. Seventy-eight years later his great-grandson, Tweed, retraced the trip.

Tweed Roosevelt in his backyard in Tisbury, wearing a hunting jacket from his annual "Hunt with a Roosevelt" fundraiser in North Dakota. — Sam Moore

Updated Sept. 2, 10:22 am

In 1991 Tweed Roosevelt of Vineyard Haven got a phone call from a man he didn’t know — a certain Charlie Haskell, who wanted to know if Tweed would be interested in taking a trip down the Amazon. He wanted to retrace the famous expedition that Teddy Roosevelt, Tweed’s great-grandfather, had taken in 1914.

Over the years, Tweed had reenacted several of TR’s adventures, including seeking out mountain goats in Idaho and going on safaris in Africa, but generally speaking, the trips weren’t all that arduous; Tweed would admit that he’s more comfortable puttering around Lake Tashmoo, where he’s lived for decades, than wandering through a steamy rainforest. But nonetheless, he was intrigued.

“I made some quick decisions,” said Tweed. “It seemed way off in the future, plus he didn’t sound like he could pull it off, so I figured I could say I’ll go but I’d never have to do it.”

But as luck would have it, by 1992, it looked like Haskell was indeed going to pull it off, and Tweed started to wonder what he’d gotten himself into. Since TR’s historic trip, three other attempts had been made to retrace the route: One had succeeded, one was forced back, and one was never heard from again. So yes, Tweed had every right to be apprehensive.

In 1913 Colonel Cândido Rondon of the Brazilian Army had approached Theodore Roosevelt about exploring Rio da Duvida — the River of Doubt, as it was known, because it was in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest and no one knew how long it was or exactly where it went. Rondon was looking to map the river and establish Brazil’s right to the territory by exploring it. Roosevelt, still stinging from his defeat in the “Bull Moose” presidential campaign, was just looking for a good adventure to divert himself.

The Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition spent 60 days on the river. They encountered countless hardships, including hostile Indian tribes and disease — TR nearly died of malaria — and in the course of the trip, three men died.

Ultimately, Tweed and Haskell’s expedition would spend 30 days on the river and successfully retrace the route of the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition. There were hardships, and danger was a constant companion, but nothing compared with TR’s trip.

I recently sat down with Tweed at the West Tisbury library, and we compared and contrasted the two expeditions. Tweed is in his seventies, jocular, self-effacing, and articulate on a myriad of subjects, and if you squint, you get a glimpse of the old Rough Rider. We began by looking at the two expedition leaders: Rondon and Haskell.

By all accounts, Colonel Cândido Rondon was an extraordinary man. He was half-Indian, and became the equivalent of a five-star general in a country that didn’t take that kindly to Indians. And then you have Charles Haskell.

“Haskell was a rich guy with serious problems, a complete fraud,” said Tweed, “much like Trump. He said he was a Green Beret — he wasn’t. It became clear he was incompetent, and he became despondent, nearly had a breakdown.”

One thing the two expeditions did have in common was the river itself. The Rio da Duvida, now called the Rio Roosevelt, is largely unchanged. “If TR had been in the front boat of our expedition, he wouldn’t have been able to see much different,” said Tweed. “There are fewer animals, but you don’t see them anyway.”

There are three kinds of rivers in the jungle: white, green, and black, depending on the amount of plant life in the river. Rio da Duvida was black (the least amount of plant life) — an inky ribbon that wound nearly 400 miles through the emerald-green forest.

Both parties had to deal with the presence of the indigenous people of the rainforest, but the two groups had entirely different interactions. The Roosevelt-Rondon expedition was under constant threat from Indians, and was ultimately at their mercy. There were night attacks, and ominous signs such as severed monkey heads left in the explorers’ path, and their dog was shot full of arrows. But Rondon insisted that no harm be done to the native people, and his restraint ultimately won the Indians over and resulted in the party’s safe passage.

Tweed’s party experienced a much different interaction. They came across a camp comprised of about 30 huts. Meat was still cooking on the fire, but no one was in sight. The camp clearly had been abandoned. Except, upon further investigation, it was discovered that the tribe’s inhabitants were all gathered in a large hut — watching “Star Trek” on a TV set that was hooked up to a satellite dish. What makes the scene even more surreal was that many of these people had likely never had human contact with outsiders before. What they must have made of Kirk and Spock is anybody’s guess.

While medicine has made great strides since 1914, for practical purposes Tweed’s expedition was only marginally better medically prepared. TR’s expedition had a qualified Brazilian doctor with them, but the only medical equipment he had was a stethoscope.

“TR had been in a carriage accident and had an anaerobic infection in the bone, which even today is hard to treat,” Tweed said. “Then he crushed his leg on the river and reactivated it. The Brazilian doctor had to cut him open with no antiseptic … scrape the bone and sew him up — and all he had was a jackknife. TR was a tough guy; I don’t even like to go to the dentist.”

Poisonous snakes were a problem for both parties. Tweed once had a fer-de-lance, one of the most deadly snakes in the world, in his raft for a day without noticing it. He asked the doctor if he had any anti–snake venom, just in case. The doctor informed Tweed that no, he didn’t, because the venom had to be specific to the snakebite, and not only that, it had to be refrigerated. But he did have a cattle prod. When Tweed asked the doctor what good that would do, the doctor replied, “Not much … but it will take your mind off the snakebite.”

For the most part there was no serious illness on Tweed’s expedition. They had all taken antimalarial drugs prior to leaving, but as Tweed noted, the drug just suppressed the symptoms until you could get home and get it fixed. TR, on the other hand, contracted malaria, spiked a 105° temperature, and was very lucky to have survived.

And then there was that incident with the “electric caterpillar.” Early on in Tweed’s trip, one of the scientists went for a swim to cool off in the 100° temperature, came out of the water and threw himself on the ground, writhing in pain. The doctor gave him Demerol, but it didn’t help. One of the Indians in the party said not to worry, he’d be all right, an “electric caterpillar” had dropped on him and the pain would go away — in four weeks. Actually it was more like six weeks, but he survived.

Both expeditions were also plagued with insects. To give you some idea of the magnitude of the insect population in the Amazon, Tweed said that scientists had once fogged a tree and placed tarps on the ground around the trunk, and 10,000 different species were found. One tree.

Fortunately for Tweed, his expedition had DEET, which helped with some insects but not all.

“The annoyances came in clouds,” Tweed said, “and anyone who was there will tell you that the stingless bees are worst … thousands of them … you breathe them, and they get in in your eyes … they drive you nuts.”

Tweed was collecting insects for the Museum of Natural History, and he did most of his collecting at night at the campsite. He had a little generator with a bright light to attract the insects, which Tweed confessed “didn’t make me very popular.”

Being able to follow in TR’s footsteps gave Tweed’s party a significant psychological advantage. The Haskell-Roosevelt expedition had the benefit of having extremely accurate maps that Rondon had created. They knew where they were going, and when the trip would end. Rondon and Roosevelt, on the other hand, never knew what lay ahead, or when or where the trip would end. Especially as members of the party became sicker, this proved to be a huge grind on their morale.

The other areas where the advantage went to Haskell-Roosevelt had to do with equipment and supplies. “TR made the trip in dugout canoes,” said Tweed. “They were heavy [around 2,500 pounds], hard to maneuver, and hard to get through the rapids.”

TR had eight or nine of these canoes, and had to replace them all several times. “To make a new canoe,” said Tweed, “they had to stop, cut down a tree, burn and chisel out the inside; it took several days.”

Tweed’s party used inflatable rubber Avon rafts. They were light and durable, and able to hold up to all but the most severe rapids. All totalled, TR had to portage (carry his canoes overland) more than 30 times; Tweed had to do it only six times.

Tweed also benefited from having freeze-dried rations, and when they wanted to fill in with fresh food, ironically, the man-eating piranhas proved to be in abundant supply and good tasting.

TR had planned on hunting for provisions and using Brazil nuts to make flour, but it was rainy season, so both pursuits proved futile and they were often faced with hunger.

One other area where you would think that Tweed’s group would hold a distinct advantage would be in communication with the outside world. In theory, at least, this was true. The only problem was that their satellite phone and radio didn’t work. What did work was their EPIRB, which sends out a signal in case of an emergency. The reason they knew that it worked was that their intrepid leader, Charlie Haskell, inadvertently set it off. “Somehow the Canadian military picked up the signal,” Tweed said, “and wired it down to the Brazilians, and nine days later a plane flew overhead — no pontoons, mind you, and of course there was no runway for hundreds of miles, but the plane circled around a few times and then flew overhead and threw down a Coke bottle with a note inside that said, ‘Are you all right?’”

So what do we learn from all this? First of all, the Roosevelts are pretty hearty stock, and TR was in a league of his own. I asked Tweed what it was like to be a Roosevelt.

“It’s like asking what it’s like to breathe air,” he said, “It’s all I’ve known. It’s got a lot of benefits, but along with them come obligations. The obligations are trying to do some sort of community service and to perpetuate the memory of TR’s ideas and works, which are valuable for this country, certainly now. I came to terms with the fact I was nothing like TR, never would be, but his memory was worth preserving.”

Tweed is currently president of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, an organization dedicated to perpetuating the memory and ideals of Theodore Roosevelt. This year’s TRA annual meeting is a very special event that will take place in Oyster Bay at Sagamore Hill. It is a celebration of both Theodore Roosevelt and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The event will be held on Oct. 29 under the stars on the lawn of Sagamore Hill. It sounds like a beautiful evening — most civilized — but one has to wonder where old TR would have held it. One can only imagine.

For more information on TR’s original expedition, read “The River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” by Candice Millard.

For more information on the Theodore Roosevelt Association, go to theodoreroosevelt.org.

Tweed has indicated that plans are in the works for producing a video re-enacting his 1992 expedition on the occasion of its 25th anniversary.On Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 7 pm, Tweed will conduct his monthly book discussion group, “Tweed’s Reads,” at the West Tisbury library. This month’s book is “Riotous Assembly” by Tom Sharpe.