River trips grab ahold of our imagination. They make us think about the fortitude of early explorers, and wonder if we, too, could thrive amid great unknowns. At first, it’s easy to get swept away with the romance of it. Charting the course, drawing the maps, naming the rapids, and writing a stoic narrative about overcoming hardships once you return. It sounds pretty good, but these explorers often traveled in miserable conditions, eating measly rations during immense physical exertion. All of their skill and endurance were equally subject to whimsy, luck, and chance. We can never truly repeat any of these early river expeditions, but here are few of the greatest trips to spark your imagination.
1. Lewis and Clark – The Northwest Passage
On May 14th, 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark began their epic journey across the West following President Thomas Jefferson’s desire to find a Northwest Passage. Their two-year expedition traveled up the Mississippi River in a 30-foot keelboat, up the Missouri River in pirogues (hybrid sail/rowboats), over Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean — and back again. Along the way, the 33 enlisted Privates and the two leaders encountered indigenous tribes, grizzly bears, near starvation, hundreds of plant and animal species new to science, and some of the wildest views of the American West ever seen. No trip has imprinted itself deeper upon the American psyche than the Corps of Discovery’s, and at its heart it was a river trip.
On May 24th, 1869, one-armed Civil War Major John Wesley Powell and his crew of nine men set out to become the first to explore the Colorado River’s course through the unknown depths of the Grand Canyon. Their three-month journey encountered rapids that test modern whitewater crafts today, but Powell and his men descended in four separate boats made of oak and pine. They replaced lost oars by fashioning new ones from driftwood. They lost provisions in boat flips, and subsisted on musty flour and spoiled bacon. Three men deserted the expedition and were never seen again. By the time they reached the Western end of the Grand Canyon, they had become the first known explorers to travel through one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
On February 27th, 1914, former President Theodore Roosevelt and Brazilian military officer Cândido Rondon embarked on the first exploration of The River of Doubt, a 400-mile tributary of the Amazon River. Their crew consisted of Roosevelt’s son, Kermit, and 15 Brazilian porters. They penetrated the Amazon jungle in dugout canoes on the roiling brown river that cascaded over impassable waterfalls, alligator-lined rapids, and through the most treacherous jungle in the world. They endured Indian attacks, malaria, near starvation, drowning, infections, poisonous animals of dizzying variety, and even a mutinous murder within their own crew. By the end of their trip Roosevelt was having malaria-induced hallucinations and the former President had barely survived the scientific expedition that first mapped this important tributary of the Amazon.