Book Review: The River of Doubt – Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

The River of Doubt – Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, historian and former writer and editor for National Geographic, was originally published in hardcover by Doubleday in 2005.  The paperback edition shown in the photo above was published by Broadway Books, an imprint of The Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

101 years ago today, on February 27, 1914, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt stepped into one of 7 heavy dugout canoes in the jungles of Brazil and set out to explore a river known only to native tribes, the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt).  It was a little over a year since his stinging election defeat seeking a 3rd term as U.S. President in the fall of 1912, this time as the candidate of the newly formed Bull Moose (Progressive) Party.

The great Age of Exploration was virtually over.  In 1909, American Robert Perry had reached the North Pole.  In late December, 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten the ill-fated British explorer and hero Robert Scott to the South Pole.  Yet Roosevelt, famous for his daring, energy, and vitality, still dreamed of completing a journey of scientific and geographic importance.

Accompanying Roosevelt were 3 Brazilians, 2 Americans, and a workforce of 16 Brazilian camaradas.  The Brazilian explorers included co-commander Colonel Candido Mareno da Silva Rondon, heroic commander of Brazil’s Strategic Telegraph Commission; military engineer and surveyor Lieutenant Joao Salustiano Lyra; and Dr. Jose Cajazeira.  The Americans included naturalist George Cherrie and Roosevelt’s own son, Kermit Roosevelt.

Colonel Rondon had discovered and named the Rio da Duvida 5 years earlier, when he had stumbled onto its source while on a telegraph line expedition in the Brazilian highlands.  Even he had no clear idea where the river went.  He suspected it might flow into the Madeira, the principal tributary of the Amazon.  The Madeira itself is 2,000 miles long and has a flow equal to that of the Congo, the 2nd largest river in the world by volume.  If Rondon was right, Roosevelt’s expedition would place on the Brazilian map a river nearly 1,000 miles long through a huge mysterious and hitherto uncharted region.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to envision any modern high-ranking American official, much less a President, having the desire or will to undertake such an arduous and perilous journey.  Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition faced rapids, waterfalls, wild animals, tropical diseases, potentially hostile natives, deadly in-fighting, exhaustion and starvation.  All these dangers were personally braved by each and every member of the expedition for 2 entire months while completely cut off from any contact with, or hope of assistance from, the outside world.

Candice Millard’s book is an exciting, fast-paced read.  The River of Doubt is also well-documented, beautifully written, and full of surprising information.  I had never heard anything about this expedition before.  The most disappointing thing about The River of Doubt was how quickly it was over.  In the end, it was a bold, adventurous, but also sad tale that left me wanting more.  Five stars and two thumbs up!  – SPHP

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Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 118 – Redfern Mountain & Signal Knob (2-7-15)

February 7, 2015 was the second day in a row of record high temperatures in the Black Hills region.  Lupe couldn’t miss an opportunity like that in what is normally winter, so she and SPHP headed out into the central Black Hills for a little peakbagging.  Redfern Mountain (6,075 ft.) and Signal Knob (6,200 ft.) were the goals for Expedition No. 118.

It was already 55 degrees at 9:55 AM when SPHP parked the G6 just off Mystic Road only 0.33 mile E of Redfern Mountain.  Lupe headed W straight up the mountain.  There was almost no snow around, so Lupe and SPHP had an easy climb up through the forest.

Conditions were very pleasant at the top of Redfern Mountain – sunny, calm and, of course, unseasonably warm.  Surprisingly, the summit area was level, mostly open ground.  Consequently there were nice views of the central Black Hills region in almost every direction.  For some reason there were 3 US Geological survey benchmarks in close proximity to one another all marked “Redfern” and “1950”, plus a sign on a post.

Looking SSE from Redfern Mountain. Harney Peak is the highest point towards the left.
Looking SSE from Redfern Mountain. Harney Peak is the highest point towards the left.

Lupe’s second objective of the day, Signal Knob, was visible over 4 miles off to the WNW. It looked like a fairly low pine-covered hill rising above some immediately surrounding open prairie ground, although most of the intervening terrain from Redfern Mountain was pine forest. Quite a bit of snow was visible on the slopes of Signal Knob.

Lupe on Redfern Mountain. Signal Knob is low snowy hill surrounded by prairie visible in the distance.
Lupe on Redfern Mountain. Signal Knob is low snowy hill surrounded by prairie visible in the distance.

After enjoying the views on Redfern Mountain, Lupe headed down the NW slope to start the trek to Signal Knob.  On the way to Signal Knob, Lupe had to cross Slate Creek.  Slate Creek is a small stream, only a few feet wide in most places, but had pretty good flow in it.  Fortunately, the creek was still frozen over in places, and Lupe easily crossed the creek via the ice.

Looking back at Redfern Mountain after Lupe crossed Slate Creek.
Looking back at Redfern Mountain after Lupe crossed Slate Creek.

Beyond Slate Creek, Lupe climbed through the forest all the way up to a high point shown on SPHP’s topo map as Peak 6099, less than 2 miles E of Signal Knob.

Lupe on Peak 6099.
Lupe on Peak 6099.

From Peak 6099, Lupe had to lose a fair amount elevation again as she continued on heading generally W or NW.  She regained most of it by the time she reached the high prairie surrounding Signal Knob.

Getting close to Signal Knob.
Getting close to Signal Knob.

The summit area on Signal Knob was clogged with  deadfall timber.  A short distance to the N, there was some private property where a couple of 5th wheel trailers were parked.  Fortunately, the true summit was on USFS land.

Lupe on Signal Knob.
Lupe on Signal Knob.

Lupe took a Taste of the Wild break on Signal Knob.  She used her nose to bury a couple of pieces of a granola bar SPHP offered her, apparently planning a return  expedition in the not too distant future.  Despite all the deadfall timber, enough pine trees were still standing to prevent there from being any really decent views.  At least the pines helped to block the wind which was by now starting to pick up out of the NW.

Lupe takes a break on Signal Knob.
Lupe takes a break on Signal Knob.

After a brief rest break at the summit, it was time to start heading back to the G6. However, being the intrepid dingo that she is, Lupe naturally wanted to explore more new ground along the way.  So instead of heading E, she headed W into a rather stiff NW breeze on Slate Prairie Road to USFS Road No. 187.

The sky was now rather dark and even threatening looking off to the W.  As Lupe headed N along No. 187 towards Deerfield Trail No. 40, a light rain started.  Lupe turned E on Deerfield Trail No. 40 and followed it for at least a couple of miles. The rain continued intermittently for a while, but it never became heavy and eventually just quit.

Lupe had explored the entire Deerfield Trail No. 40 back in 2012.  So at the 2nd of two rock quarries that she came to along the N side of the Deerfield Trail, she left it to take USFS Road No. 241.1B (unmarked) heading S up a low ridge.  By the time the top of the ridge was gained, however, there was so much deadfall timber everywhere, that No. 241.1B was completely lost in the debris.  Lupe stayed fairly high up on the ridge and worked her way S through the deadfall timber.  For SPHP it was dreadfully slow going.

Fortunately, before too long Lupe came to another road, which was marked No. 241.1C.  No. 241.1C very quickly met up with No. 241 (unmarked at this point), which was free of deadfall timber, but covered with snow and ice for quite a distance as it wound down a narrow little valley.

Lupe on USFS Road No. 241.
Lupe on USFS Road No. 241.

Lupe followed No. 241 a good mile and a half, all the way down through Dougherty Gulch back to Mystic Road.  The valley was beautiful even in February.  After passing a junction with No. 241.1A, there was even a small creek.

SPHP really enjoyed the hike along No. 241. Daugherty Gulch seemed quite remote. The valley was beautiful even in February.  The valley became broader and more open as Lupe continued heading downstream.

Lupe at the E (lower) end of scenic Daugherty Gulch.
Lupe at the E (lower) end of scenic Daugherty Gulch.

When Lupe reached Mystic Road at the E end of Daugherty Gulch, she was still about 3 miles N of where the G6 was parked.  Lupe crossed Mystic Road to the E and got on the Mickelson Trail.  Lupe followed the Mickelson Trail S for a bit over a mile to USFS Road No. 530.  There she left the Mickelson Trail and completed a somewhat dull hike along the wide gravel Mystic Road the rest of the way back to the G6.

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Sunset from the Mickelson Trail.

It was 5:48 PM, but still 52 degrees out, by the time Lupe reached the G6.  It was getting dark, but not quite dark enough yet to see any stars.  Lupe had a big drink of water before hopping in the G6 for the ride home.  Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 118 was over.

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Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 119 – Meade County High Point & Custer Peak (2-13-15)

After a couple of weeks of very warm weather (including two straight record setting days), colder weather was on its way to the Black Hills.  So Friday, February 13, 2015 was Lupe’s last chance for a while to get out for an expedition on an unseasonably warm day.

SPHP decided on the Meade County, SD High Point (5,460 ft.) as the main objective for Lupe on Expedition No. 119.  Although the roads remained quite muddy, much of the snow had melted so that only scattered large patches were still around.  SPHP parked the G6 at the intersection of USFS Roads No. 151 (Old Ridge Road) and No. 151.2G .  This point is at least a couple miles SW of the Meade County HP.  (There are much closer and better access points, but SPHP often parks miles from the intended destination so Lupe can enjoy the fun of exploring the region.)  It was 48 degrees when Lupe set out from the G6 at 10:34 AM under mostly clear skies.

Lupe followed No. 151 heading N for about 1.5 miles.  Here she left the road and went ENE through a still snowy forest (northern exposure) down towards the saddle at the W end of Virkula Gulch, which was snow-free.

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Lupe near the saddle at the W (upper) end of Virkula Gulch.

After crossing the saddle, Lupe started the climb up the hill shown in the above photo.  Close to the first high point, she came to some rocks where there was a view back to the WNW towards Terry Peak (7,064 ft.).

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The snow on the ski runs at Terry Peak to the WNW can be seen beyond Lupe in the distance.

Near the rocks, a jeep trail headed E.  It made a short climb up to a big nearly level area above 5,400 feet which was heavily forested.

SPHP hadn’t checked the maps and initially thought the Meade County HP was somewhere around here, not realizing Lupe was still in Lawrence County.  Consequently Lupe explored the thick forest looking for the highest point.  Towards the E side of this area Lupe found a rocky jeep trail.  She followed it N to where there was a cliff with a very nice unobstructed view of the big valley Elk Creek runs through.

Still in Lawrence County, Lupe stands near the edge of the N cliff. Elk Creek flows through the valley below.
Still in Lawrence County, Lupe stands near the edge of the N cliff. Elk Creek flows through the valley below.

A NW wind made it quite breezy here, although back in the forest the breeze had been barely noticeable.  Even though the view was better here, SPHP led Lupe back S to a point along the S edge of the high ground with a sunny and less windy view of Virkula Gulch.  While SPHP chomped an apple and surveyed the view of Virkula Gulch, Lupe took a little Taste of the Wild break.

Finally consulting the maps, SPHP suddenly realized the Meade County HP was still close to 0.75 mile farther E.  So once the break was over, Lupe headed E back to the rocky jeep trail.  She followed it SE down off the high ground.  Before Lupe had lost much elevation, the big limestone rock outcropping at High Point 5401 came into view.  Lupe left the jeep trail and made the easy climb up HP 5401 from the W.  The views from HP 5401 are the best available in the general vicinity of the Meade County HP.

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The rock at the left is the summit of High Point 5401. The W end of Virkula Gulch is beyond Lupe. Custer Peak (6,804 ft.) is the sharp peak on the far horizon near the center of the photo.

From HP 5401 it was also easy to see the heavily forested hill close at hand to the E which is the site of the Meade County HP.  (Due to thick forest, this hill had NOT been visible from the hill W of HP 5401.)  Lupe left HP 5401 and headed E to climb this hill.  Although the hilltop seemed fairly level, it had been easy to see from HP 5401 that the highest point on this hill was towards the N.  This also agreed with the topo map SPHP had printed out from Peakbagger.com showing the Meade County HP near the NNW end of the hill.

Towards the far N end of the hill was a small area noticeably 2 or 3 feet higher than the rest of the ground around it.  On this high ground stood two large pine trees about 10 or 12 feet apart.  The bases of their trunks seemed to be on the very highest ground.  Just a few feet NW from the easternmost tree was a very small whitish limestone cairn.  Lupe posed for a photo next to the cairn, which as near as SPHP could tell, appeared to mark the Meade County HP.  (This is the photo featured at the start of this trip report.)  Before leaving, SPHP lifted up and then carefully replaced several of the larger rocks forming the cairn hoping to find a survey marker, but there was nothing.

There were no views from the cairn in any direction other than the thick forest. Lupe did scout around a short distance to the N, but it was soon clear there wasn’t any higher ground on this hill anywhere farther N.  Before heading S to see what could be seen from the S end of the hill, Lupe returned briefly once more to the Meade County HP cairn so SPHP could retrieve the backpack.  Soon Lupe was at the S end of the hill, which presented a pretty view of the E end of Virkula Gulch.

Lupe above the E end of Virkula Gulch at the S (opposite) end of the hill the Meade County HP is located on.
Lupe above the E end of Virkula Gulch at the S (opposite) end of the hill the Meade County HP is located on.

Having achieved her main objective by reaching the Meade County High Point, it was time for the return trip to the G6.  Lupe returned by nearly the exact same route.  She didn’t climb HP 5401 again, but did go to the N end of the hill to the W where the cliffs with the view of Elk Creek valley were for one more look.

It was 50 degrees and only 3:36 PM when Lupe arrived back at the G6.  There were still a couple of hours of daylight left.  Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 119 was not over!  SPHP thought it might be interesting to explore USFS Road No. 151.2G to the W, but just before setting out on it, Lupe heard a gunshot from that direction.  Lupe hates gunfire and immediately hopped into the G6.

SPHP knew Lupe wasn’t about to hop back out of the G6 again here with gunfire around.  So the idea of heading NW towards the Strawberry Hill area on Hwy 385 came to mind.  From there Lupe might find a way to Anchor Hill (5,800 ft.) which she has never climbed before.  Lupe got to have a nice long ride in the G6 while hanging her head out the window, which is great good fun!

Upon reaching Strawberry Hill, SPHP turned onto Gilt Edge Road.  It was only a couple of miles to Anchor Hill, but the area was full of homes and private property.  Gilt Edge Road ended down in a deep valley at what appeared to be an EPA superfund site connected with the old Gilt Edge gold mine.  It was clear Lupe wasn’t going to find easy access to Anchor Hill from anywhere along Gilt Edge Road.  SPHP turned the G6 around, drove back to Hwy 385, and headed S.

SPHP had one more idea for Expedition No. 119.  Lupe could climb Custer Peak (6,804 ft.) which she had seen from HP 5401 earlier in the day.  At 4:42 PM, SPHP parked the G6 at the sharp turn in USFS Road No. 216 about 0.5 mile SE of Custer Peak.  No. 216 to the NW was closed to vehicles from here for the season by a gate across the road.  It was 44 degrees out when Lupe hopped out of the G6.  The sun was still shining up on Custer Peak.

Lupe headed NW on No. 216 up the E side of a scenic valley that is one of SPHP’s favorites.  About a mile from the G6, she left No. 216 and crossed over a saddle beyond which she turned E.  A spur road heads toward Custer Peak and eventually winds clock-wise around the mountain on up to the summit.  However, the spur was covered with so much snow it made the hike difficult for SPHP.  It was actually easier going directly up the W slope of Custer Peak, even though it meant working through a considerable amount of deadfall timber.  (Pine bark beetles killed the trees a few years back.)

Lupe actually got up into the sunlight while on the upper slopes of Custer Peak, but by the time she reached the old abandoned lookout tower at the summit, the sun had set.  A steady breeze was blowing out of the NW.  SPHP had hoped for a dramatic sunset, but the sky was almost totally clear.   Everything just faded unspectacularly into twilight.  Lupe posed for a few photos to document her ascent, but they didn’t turn out that great in the low light conditions.

Lupe on the rock wall around the old lookout tower on Custer Peak shortly after sunset.
Lupe on the rock wall around the old lookout tower on Custer Peak shortly after sunset.

On the way back, SPHP didn’t want to have to try to scramble down through the deadfall timber in the dark, so Lupe took the spiral road from the summit back down the mountain.  There were feet of snow on much of the road and it was slow going for SPHP, although Lupe could mostly trot along on top of the snow without breaking through.

The stars were out and the Milky Way was on brilliant display by the time Lupe reached the G6 again at 6:55 PM.  It was 39 degrees and calm.  Lupe stood sniffing the air for a few extra minutes and then hopped into the G6 for the ride home.

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Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 120 – Pillar Peak (2-20-15)

Lupe’s first peakbagging objective for Expedition No. 120 (2-20-15) was to climb Pillar Peak (5,469 ft.) located in the NE Black Hills between Sturgis and Deadwood, SD.  Despite the fact that Pillar Peak was only 1.5 miles S from where SPHP parked the G6, it took a long time to get there.  Several inches of pristine new snow on the N slopes made the hillsides slick and in places there was a substantial tangle of undergrowth for SPHP to force a way through.

Lupe and objective Pillar Peak on 2-20-15
Lupe and objective Pillar Peak on 2-20-15

The main problem though, was that upon reaching the valley Two Bit Creek flows through, SPHP led Lupe on a futile exploration upstream without finding any place to cross the stream.  Retracing the route all the way back to head downstream, Lupe soon found an easy place to cross, but by then 1.5 hours had already been lost on the upstream trek.

Lupe just before reaching the easy ford over Two Bit Creek.
Lupe just before reaching the easy ford over Two Bit Creek.

Once across Two Bit Creek, the rest of the way up Pillar Peak from the N was just a steady climb.  The day was mostly overcast, but the weather was unsettled.  Sometimes the sun came out, and at other times squall lines passed which dumped snow showers.  Near the summit, there was a large rock outcropping.  Years ago a fire had burned the forest away on the upper slopes of Pillar Peak.  This was also the steepest part of the climb.  Lupe didn’t much enjoy being completely exposed to the W wind while waiting for SPHP to struggle the rest of the way up the hill.

However, fortune soon smiled on Lupe again.  By the time SPHP joined her at the summit, the wind had died down and the sun came out for a little while.  Without any trees in the summit area, the views were great in all directions.

Success! Lupe sits next to the highest rock on Pillar Peak.
Success! Lupe sits next to the highest rock on Pillar Peak.
Lupe sniffing around on Pillar Peak. Bear Den Mountain is visible beyond her.
Lupe sniffing around on Pillar Peak. Bear Den Mountain (5642 ft.) on the other side of Lost Gulch is visible to the SSE beyond her.
Bear Butte near Sturgis, SD is visible out on the plains NE of Pillar Peak.
Bear Butte (4,422 ft.) near Sturgis, SD is visible out on the plains NE of Pillar Peak.

 

Lupe surveys the situation. Terry Peak to the WSW is lost in the clouds.
Lupe surveys the situation. Terry Peak to the WSW is lost in the clouds bringing the next snow shower.

The original plan for Expedition No. 120 was to continue on to the SW to reach Dome Mountain (5512 ft.).  There was plenty of daylight left to have reached it, but SPHP had cost Lupe so much time wandering upstream on the wrong side of Two Bit Creek earlier, night would have fallen before Lupe would have been able to get anywhere close to being back to the G6.  With no trails or roads to follow over most of the route, that made the decision to skip Dome Mountain this day a foregone conclusion.  Lupe barked enthusiastically when SPHP proposed heading back to the G6.  She had lots of fun barking at a squirrel on the way back down Pillar Peak and before reaching the G6 endured the longest and strongest snow shower of the day.

View to the N from Pillar Peak. SPHP liked the yellow green lichens on the rocks in the foreground.
View to the N from Pillar Peak. SPHP liked the yellow green lichens on the rocks in the foreground.

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