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Wilderness Classroom canoe the Rio Roosevelt

Canoeing the Rio Roosevelt in the footsteps or paddle strokes of President Theodore Roosevelt
Canoeing the Rio Roosevelt in the footsteps or paddle strokes of President Theodore RooseveltPhoto courtesy of Dave Freeman of the Wilderness Classroom

Last we heard from the Wilderness Classroom, they had finished an epic 11,000 mile circumference of North America by kayak, dog-sled, and by foot. After a nearly 3 year trip, you think they might rest on their laurels and watch some TV and eat some potato chips in their Chicago area base of Western Springs, Illinois.

Not the Freemans though. They followed up the North Amerian Odyssey with an impressive canoe trip down the Rio Roosevelt in South America. Having spent time in Guyana, South America, I know how formidable this environment can be. It is also beautiful and the animals that inhabit these rainforests are abundant and incredible.

The Wilderness Classroom is on a mission to preserve our wild places and raise awareness to keeping our waterways clean. They do this by educating elementary school children through a virtual classroom and by visiting them in person through school assemblies when they are not out on an adventure. Every journey they do has this added dimension, which turns every trip into a learning experience for thousands of grade school children.

This recent trip added a different aspect as it has historical significance. The Rio Roosevelt River in Brazil is named after President Theodore Roosevelt who successfully completed the 400 mile “River of Doubt” in 1914. The river now bears his name although it almost cost him his life.

100 years later, Dave Freeman paddled the river successfully with Paul Schurke and 6 Brazilian teammates.

In a press release about the completion, the document notes:

Despite the challenges that plagued the 1914 trek, Roosevelt commented repeatedly in his diary about the stunning beauty of the jungle. Dave and Paul were pleased to find that although some areas near the river have been cleared for pasture, most of the Rio Roosevelt remains as pristine as it was in 1914. "We saw the same wildlife Roosevelt did – monkeys, caiman alligators, electric eels, cobras, peccaries, tapirs, capybaras, giant otters and even a jaguar. And the jungle supplemented our trail rations as it did his with piranha, catfish, heart of palm and Brazil nuts." said Dave.

"Roosevelt was our greatest conservation president," said Paul. "During his terms in office, nearly 250 national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and national monuments were established. It's a tribute to his incredible public lands legacy that the Rio Roosevelt remains a realm of natural beauty.

Dave and Paul arrived in the south central Amazon one month ago with 6 Brazilian teammates and plans to begin their journey near the river's headwaters just as Roosevelt did. But their arrival coincided with a violent outbreak of tensions between the Cinta Larga (the native people who control access to the upper Rio Roosevelt) and the Brazilian government. Therefore the team opted to paddle the lower section first. They launched from a downstream access point on May 30.

On the initial 18-day, 300-mile segment they ran many long stretches of rapids and endured a 2-mile portage through the jungle around dangerous water. But they avoided the numerous illnesses and mishaps in the rapids that befell Roosevelt's team and nearly cost our 26th president his life.

The expedition team camped at four of the same sites that the president did and they found that life along the river among native homesteaders, who tap the wild rubber trees and gather Brazil nuts from the forests, remains almost exactly as described in Roosevelt's journal. This lower stretch of the river took Dave' and Paul's team through the domain of the Zorro native people and they saw signs of their thatched-hut settlements along the shore. They actually paddled through a new reserve now being established on the lower Roosevelt to protect a primitive tribe that has only recently been sighted by aircraft but has had no contact with the outside world.

On Monday, June 16, the team reached the mouth of the Rio Roosevelt and the place where Roosevelt with his Brazilian colleague Colonel Rondon and their team completed their canoe journey 100 years before. Dave and Paul then renewed their contact with Cinta Larga and were granted access approval by a tribal chief. Dave and Paul paddled an additional 100 miles, beginning at the river's headwaters near the approximate place where Roosevelt began his journey 100 years ago. After negotiating several challenging portages, including one in which this sizable river is funneled through a 5'-wide rock chasm, they recently arrived at the main Cinta Larga village, completing their journey.

Dave and his wife Amy are 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. School children from around the world followed this expedition via Dave and Amy’s website, http://www.WildernessClassroom.org. Paul, who is known for Arctic exploration including the 1986 North Pole expedition with Will Steger, operates Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, MN with his wife Susan.

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