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Ely, Minn., adventurers to paddle 400 miles through Brazilian rainforest

DULUTH -- Following in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, two Ely paddlers plan to paddle the famed "River of Doubt" -- or Rio Roosevelt -- for 400 miles through the Brazilian rainforest this summer.

Dave Freeman and Paul Schurke
Dave Freeman (left) and Paul Schurke, both of Ely, Minn., paddled on White Iron Lake near Ely shortly after ice-out in preparation for their 400-mile descent of the Rio Roosevelt in Brazil starting late this month. (Wilderness Classroom photo)

DULUTH - Following in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, two Ely paddlers plan to paddle the famed “River of Doubt” - or Rio Roosevelt - for 400 miles through the Brazilian rainforest this summer.

Polar explorer Paul Schurke and adventurer Dave Freeman leave today to join five Brazilian paddlers in a descent of the river that nearly cost Roosevelt his life. Three of Roosevelt’s 19-person party did not return from that storied expedition 100 years ago in 1913-14. One drowned. One was murdered and a third, the murderer, was left behind and presumably died in the jungle.

The river has been paddled just three times since 1914, Freeman said. The Rio Roosevelt Centennial Expedition has secured the blessing of the Cinta Larga, the indigenous people who live and farm along the river.

Freeman, who with his wife, Amy, made a 3,000-mile expedition across Peru, Colombia and Brazil by bike and canoe in 2007 and 2008, said he and Schurke decided 2014 was the year to paddle the Rio Roosevelt.

“It’s the 100th anniversary of Roosevelt’s trip and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act,” said Freeman, 37.


Schurke, 58, co-led the 1986 Steger International Polar Expedition with then-Ely resident Will Steger and has traveled thousands of miles by dog team. He and his wife, Susan, own Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge near Ely.

“I’ve had a huge fascination with Roosevelt for a long time,” Schurke said. “He was so much bigger than life, a wild and zany character with a robust personality who consumed every setting he was in.”

Besides his extensive Arctic experience, Schurke in 2012 retraced a portion of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-16 Antarctic expedition. That trip included a ski-mountaineering trek up and over the spine of South Georgia Island to the whaling station where Shackleton and his men were eventually rescued.

Dave and Amy Freeman recently finished an 11,700-mile kayak, canoe and dogsledding expedition across North America. Wilderness educators, they were followed on the Wilderness Classroom website by 85,000 students as they traveled. The two were named among National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year for 2014.

Freeman and Schurke’s party will encounter many of the formidable challenges that Roosevelt’s party faced - dangerous rapids, poisonous snakes and a generally inhospitable environment.

“There are all kinds of bugs, lots of spines on the plants,” Freeman said. “It’s not an easy place to move through the forest.”

Knee-high rubber boots and vigilance will help minimize snake problems, he said.

“We’ll work very hard to be mindful of the snakes,” Freeman said.


Both Freeman and Schurke mentioned the swarms of leaf-eating ants that chewed through the mosquito netting and tent flies of a previous expedition on the Rio Roosevelt. To reduce ant issues, they’ll sleep off the ground in hammocks covered by mosquito netting and rain flies.

But the greatest challenge, Freeman said, will be the unknown.

“There’s very little known about the river,” he said. “We don’t have detailed information about the rapids. We’re using satellite imagery. And it’s going to be difficult just having this team of Brazilians and Americans. Many of them are quite fluent in English, but there will be some language barriers and cultural differences.”

Dave and Amy Freeman met Antonio Carlos Osse on their 2007-08 expedition in South America. Osse is a canoe builder and, along with four other Brazilians, will make up the South American contingent on this trip.

Schurke and Freeman will paddle a pack canoe, which has a strong aluminum frame that snaps together inside a waterproof vinyl skin. The Americans will carry a satellite phone to communicate with the outside world during the trip.

But they will rely mostly on their own skills and spirit and resilience, just like Roosevelt, to make their way down the river that now bears his name.

“The more I’ve learned about him, the more amazed I’ve been,” Freeman said. “Two hundred and thirty million acres (of parks and wilderness) he set aside. The vigorous life he was a proponent of. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from him.

“Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It should be even more of a reason to do it.”


The Rio Roosevelt Centennial Expedition

What: A 400-mile canoe expedition down the remote Rio Roosevelt in Brazil’s rainforest

Who: Ely’s Dave Freeman, Paul Schurke and five Brazilian paddlers

When: Starting May 27, finishing about July 1, about 35 days

Where: From the headwaters of the Rio Roosevelt, once called the “River of Doubt,” to a tributary that leads to the Amazon River in Brazil

Why: Freeman and Schurke want to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Teddy Roosevelt’s first descent of the river in 1914 and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

More info: For more information and to follow the progress of the Rio Roosevelt Centennial Expedition, go to wildernessclassroom.com or freemansexplore.com .



Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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