Exploring the uncharted Amazon

Theodore Roosevelt was known to most as the 26th president, he was also an avid naturalist, who traveled the world pursuing the unfamiliar and the unexplored. In The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey author Candice Millard describes Roosevelt’s trip down an unmapped part of the Amazon River. She joins Hari Sreenivasan via Google Hangout.


Theodore Roosevelt was known to most as the 26th president.

He was also an avid naturalist who traveled the world pursuing the unfamiliar and the unexplored.

In 'The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's darkest journey,' author Candice Millard describes Roosevelt's trip down an unmapped part of the Amazon River.

She joins us now via Google Hangout.

I'm kind of curious.

What was the Amazon like when he went versus what we know about it today?

So happily, there's not a lot of change in this part of the Amazon, at least.

When I went there, you know, you can see scars.

You can see largely soy field plantations, but it's so deep and so remote still today that it's largely unchanged, and it was just miraculous to see it essentially as Roosevelt and his men saw it, you know, only a little more than 100 years ago.

He bit off more than he could chew.

This was not a trip that he planned the way that it turned out.

That's right.

So he was in a very difficult time in his life.

He had just lost the election of 1912.

He was the pariah for the first time.

He wasn't used to losing.

And so he had this opportunity to go on a speaking tour.

He was a naturalist, had written books largely about birds, but loved natural history, loved expeditions, and so this was just an opportunity to get away.

But he wasn't paying attention, and he let an old friend of his plan this, what he thought was going to be just a collecting trip.

But, when they got there, he met with the foreign minister of Brazil who said, 'Yeah. You can go on a regular collecting trip, or you could do something more interesting.

We've just found the headwaters of this river, and we have no idea where it goes.'

And, of course, being Theodore Roosevelt, he couldn't resist.

So this is somebody who had a pattern there of, when things get tough in his life, he heads for the hills, so to speak.

Yeah, in a way.

It's just a pattern again and again in his life.

When he faced heartbreak or sorrow or disappointment or frustration, he would throw himself into very difficult, very dangerous, physically demanding situations.

So when his father died when he was at Harvard, he went to the backwoods of Maine.

When his mother and his first wife died on the same night, that's when he went to the Badlands.

When his presidency ended and he really wasn't ready for it to be over, he went to Africa.

So again and again, he would throw himself into these difficult situations so to sort of prove something to everybody else and to himself.

He goes out to the uncharted territory of the headwaters of the Amazon.

What's the ecosystem there like?

What's he describe?

So, as you know, it's the richest ecosystem on Earth.

It's incredibly beautiful, incredibly complex.

And what's stunning about it and what I found difficult to understand until I went there myself is that you think, 'Okay.

Here's the richest ecosystem on Earth.

Here's this sort of vaunted hunter.

He's been hunting his whole life, and he has with him this man, Candido Rondon, who had spent most of his life -- he's a Brazilian -- had spent most of his life charting the Amazon, and they're starving to death.

They're literally starving, and how is that possible?'

And, when you go there, you understand right away.

It is absolutely silent.

I mean, you don't see anything you can eat.

I mean, you yourself are being eaten alive constantly by everything crawling, every kind of insect.

But anything you can eat -- There are a few monkeys high in the canopy.

A few came and sort of disappearing.

But it's absolutely silent, and it's evolution.

You know, everything is incredibly good.

For millions of years, they've been working on being incredibly good at either being a predator or not being prey, and so they can hide.

So, when you went there, what were the things that caught your eye or your ear or what surprised you?

I knew that I would be sort of eaten alive by insects, but I didn't really understand how relentless it was, and there's absolutely nothing you can do.

I mean, today, obviously, we have all kinds of bug spray.

Roosevelt and his men had something called fly dough that wasn't very effective.

But the beauty, the intricate beauty, of the plants and the trees themselves are incredible, and you think, 'Oh, you know, it's a rainforest, but it's going to be unbelievably thick and impossible to get through,' and that's true only along the river's edge because obviously everything is competing for sunlight.

And so you've got the canopy obviously way up, and those trees have grown to reach that light, but underneath, it's very dark and very open, and there's very little leaf litter.

And, you know, I think a lot of people think, 'Oh, it must have a very, very rich soil to have so much plant life,' but it's actually incredibly thin.

It just has this unbelievably fast recycle rate.

Everything that's possible and any type of use, it's sucked up immediately.

You know, you think about, in his day, he didn't have an REI to go to.

There's so many technological toys, even the type of clothes that have insect repellent built into them, all the different, you know, gadgets that we have today, and he didn't have any of those.

No, he didn't.

In fact, part of what we were talking about earlier, how he wasn't really paying attention in this incredibly difficult and dangerous expedition was just dropped in his lap.

By the time they get to the river, they don't even have boats, so they have to buy boats from the Namaqua tribesmen who are nearby.

And so they're going down what are essentially class-four rapids again and again and again in hollowed-out tree trunks.

And so what I was able to do when I was on this river is not only be on the river but fly over it.

And Roosevelt and Rondon, his cocommander, carefully charted it, so I had all the coordinates.

So I today, which they don't have, I had a GPS, and I could just dial it in, and I could see where everything happened, where Paishon was murdered, where Simplicio drowned, and you can see also how they got in trouble right away.

Right at the headwaters, it's so tightly twisting that it almost doubles back on itself, and then there's just rapids after rapids after rapids.

It's really astonishing any of them survived.

Why do you think -- Your book has been translated into multiple languages around the world.

But why do you think there is such an international appeal to this?

Well, I think it's this incredible sense of adventure and that idea that a former president would go out -- I mean, it's really kind of hard to imagine a former president today just disappearing into the Amazon, and he literally did just disappear.

It would almost be impossible with today's technology to just go away, and nobody knows what's happening.

And Roosevelt very easily could have died on this expedition in a number of different ways, and it's incredible, and we would have never known.

It would have been this great mystery.

And it's incredible to think that Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most famous men, not only in our country but in the world, would have disappeared and no one would have known what have happened to him.

So it's this great story of adventure and courage and survival.

All right.

Candice Millard, author of 'The River of Doubt,' thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me.