The River of Doubt

I had no doubt about which book to take on my camping trip this summer: The River of Doubt by Candice Millard. As I’d already read The Man in the Arena: Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt, I was familiar with the former president’s personal record of his trip down the uncharted river. Our camping trip would include river rafting and a canoe portage, so this book was a natural fit. Roosevelt’s daring expedition with his son Kermit was the perfect parallel for my much less dangerous and much more familiar (but still thrilling) trip with my oldest son.

Kayaking on Leigh Lake

We rented a canoe, a kayak, and a stand-up paddle board for a day of play in Grand Teton National Park. We put in at String Lake, then made a portage over to the more secluded Leigh Lake. The trail was groomed and not too strenuous, yet it was still a heavy burden to carry a canoe laden with our food and gear for a single afternoon. Packing a dugout loaded with enough provisions and equipment to survive untold months through a hostile jungle would be nearly impossible by comparison, yet Roosevelt and his band of explorers and camaradas did so repeatedly on their trek.

that's a bear

Part of the day was spent venturing out on Leigh Lake at the feet of the towering Tetons, and part of it was spent reading Millard’s thoroughly researched and well-written account of Roosevelt’s last grand adventure. He was a truly remarkable individual, as were the men who made his feat a reality. The former president barely survived the journey as infection raged through a wound in his leg; of the party who braved the river only three men were lost. We didn’t lose anyone from our traveling party (except for briefly when one man was tossed out of the raft in the rapids on the Snake River), but a passing encounter with a young black bear on the trail back to String Lake brought home the perilous threats Roosevelt and his men faced.

In some respects I felt that Millard overstated the potential dangers awaiting Roosevelt’s expedition; it had the feeling of a Dateline NBC teaser before a commercial break. Still, it shows that she did her homework on the region, something Roosevelt neglected to do prior to setting foot in it. Millard has a new book coming out next week called The Destiny of the Republic, and I look forward to learning more about President Garfield (although I may have a tough time matching it up with a trip like this!).


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