3/6/13 - the amazon was a vast inland sea

In today's selection -- in 1913, Theodore Roosevelt traveled by steamer to South America to explore the mightiest and most powerful river on earth -- the Amazon. It is a river so vast that by itself it accounts for 15 percent of all fresh water carried to sea by all of the planet's rivers put together, and so long that it travels a distance equivalent to that from Bangor, Maine, to San Francisco, California:

"Three days before reaching Bahia [Brazil], [Theodore Roosevelt's] steamer crossed the equator, an event that the crew and passengers celebrated with prac­tical jokes and deck games, in keeping with nautical tradition. But for Roosevelt and his men, crossing from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere was especially significant, because it meant that they were passing the natural wonder that was to be the ultimate object of their journey: the Amazon River.

"From the deck of [their ship], out of sight of shore as they steamed along the Brazilian coast, Roosevelt and his men could not see the Amazon. But even at sea there was no escaping the sheer size and power of the giant river, a nonstop deluge that by itself accounts for approximately 15 percent of all fresh water carried to sea by all of the planet's rivers put together. The river's mouth is so vast that the is­land that rests in the middle of it, Marajo, is nearly the size of Switzerland, and the muddy plume that spills into the Atlantic reaches some hundred miles out into the open sea. ...

"For millions of years, the Amazon River was a vast inland sea that covered the central part of the continent. Finally, during the Pleistocene epoch, which began approximately 1.6 million years ago, the rising waters broke through the continent's eastern escarpment and poured into the Atlantic Ocean. In their wake, they left behind the world's greatest river system and the former inland seabed -- a vast basin of rich sediments and fertile lowlands perfectly suited to sup­port an array of plant and animal life almost without parallel on the face of the earth.

"For all its exotic allure and potential riches, the great Amazon River Basin in 1913 remained a vast and remarkably mysterious place, untouched by modernity and repelling all but the most determined at­tempts to explore its hidden secrets. Although more than two-thirds of the Amazon Basin rests within Brazilian borders, the vast majority of Brazilians in the early twentieth century, crowded along the sun-soaked eastern coast, had little interest in knowing what lay within the basin and no way to find out even if they had.

"Communication between the coastal cities and the country's largely unexplored interior was difficult, and travel was nearly impos­sible for the average person. The country's sheer size was one impediment; its dense forests and rapids-choked rivers were another. The world's fifth-largest nation, Brazil encompasses 3.3 million square miles, making it more than two hundred and fifty thousand square miles larger than the contiguous United States. The approximately four-thousand-mile-long Amazon River slices through the northern section of the country and is navigable for almost three-quarters of its length -- roughly the distance from Bangor, Maine, to San Francisco, California -- but its thousands of tributaries, which reach like tenta­cles into every corner of Brazil, are fast, twisting, and wild. Until very late in the nineteenth century, the only alternative for entering the in­terior was by mule, over rutted dirt roads and through heavy jungle and wide, barren highlands."



Candice Millard


The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey


Broadway Books


Copyright 2005 by Candice Millard


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