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Northland adventurers complete 400-mile journey along rarely traveled river in Brazil

Paul Schurke of Ely (left) and Dave Freeman of Grand Marais cook a meal of hearts of palm during their expedition along the remote Rio Roosevelt in Brazil during June and July. (Photo courtesy of Paul Schurke)1 / 3
Paul Schurke of Ely shows off a fish caught during an expedition along the remote Rio Roosevelt in Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Paul Schurke)2 / 3
Dave Freeman (left) and Paul Schurke stand in the waters of the Rio Roosevelt in Brazil during their expedition down the remote river. They completed the 400-mile journey in two stages. (Photo courtesy of Dave Freeman)3 / 3

Adventurers Paul Schurke of Ely and Dave Freeman of Grand Marais arrived home this past week after completing their 400-mile descent of the Rio Roosevelt in Brazil. But not the way they had planned it.

They made the trip through some of the most remote jungle of Brazil, where indigenous groups, including the Cinta Larga tribe, still live by hunting and gathering. The duo made the trip to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition down the same river, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of America’s Wilderness Act.

Schurke, 58, and Freeman, 37, arrived in the south-central Amazon with six Brazilian teammates and plans to begin their journey near the river’s headwaters, just as Roosevelt’s team had done.

But their arrival coincided with an outbreak of tensions between the Cinta Larga, the native people who control access to the upper Rio Roosevelt, and the Brazilian government.

The team opted to paddle the lower section of the river first, and they launched from a downstream access point on May 30. With their Brazilian teammates, they descended 300 miles of the river over 18 days, at one point making a 2-mile portage through the jungle around dangerous rapids.

They avoided the illnesses and mishaps in the rapids that had plagued the team led by Roosevelt and his Brazilian counterpart, Col. Candido Rondon. That trip nearly cost Roosevelt his life, and three of his 19 men were lost in the expedition.

But in many ways, the river was unchanged from when Roosevelt made his descent.

“We saw the same wildlife Roosevelt did — monkeys, caimans, electric eels, cobras, peccaries, tapirs, capybaras, giant otters and even a jaguar,” Freeman said. “And the jungle supplemented our trail rations as it did his with piranha, catfish, heart of palm and Brazil nuts.”

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, remains almost exactly as described in Roosevelt’s journal.

After completing the lower portion of the river, their Brazilian teammates had to return home. But Schurke and Freeman began making calls to see if they could secure permission to run the upper part of the river as they had planned. They received permission from the Cinta Larga leaders to paddle that section of the river, which passed through land controlled by the tribe.

Their Brazilian teammates delivered Schurke and Freeman to the put-in. The adventurers were about to embark on the upper reaches of the river — alone. That’s when they realized they might have a communication problem. They knew only elementary Portuguese, the language of the region, and would no longer have their Brazilian teammates to translate for them.

“We were scrambling,” Freeman said. “We didn’t even have an English-Portuguese dictionary. We were really going to be on our own. We were quizzing the (Brazilian) guys on words and phrases. Paul would write down the words. We made our own dictionary — 500 words we would need.”

And they shoved off into Cinta Larga territory.

“We didn’t know what to expect as we approached their villages by canoe,” Freeman said. “However, they treated us like family. The kids and elders alike were keen to show us their community and share native gifts and meals with us.”

It wasn’t until 40 years ago that Brazilian officials made their first contact with the Cinta Larga, Schurke said in an email. He and Freeman found that the tribe’s transition into the modern world has been abrupt.

“They still maintain their traditional hunting and fishing practices, but the chiefs now connect with the rest of the world through Facebook,” Schurke said. “Just as we neared the first village, we heard a roar of elation erupt. It turns out they were all gathered in the village square watching the community’s only TV as Brazil scored a goal in the World Cup soccer tournament.”

Other than an expedition in 1990 and a National Geographic trip in 2010, almost nobody has paddled the Rio Roosevelt — originally called the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt), Freeman said.

“They don’t get very many people coming through there,” Freeman said. “It’s not the kind of place you just want to show up. You want to get permission. It really is their territory.”

On their canoe trek, Freeman and Schurke passed through an area where an uncontacted tribe recently was sighted by aircraft and where land is now being set aside as a reserve, the two said in a news release.

Schurke and his wife, Susan, operate Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely. Schurke has made many Arctic trips, including a 1986 North Pole expedition with Will Steger. Freeman and his wife, Amy, are 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. Through the Freemans’ Wilderness Classroom — online at — schoolchildren from around the world followed the Rio Roosevelt expedition.

Although Freeman and Schurke were forced to make the expedition in two parts and reverse their plans, Freeman said that’s sometimes the nature of adventures.

“We had a very set plan to start at the beginning and go to the end,” he said. “It just didn’t work out that way. The thing it reminded me is, the reason we go on these adventures is because of the unknown things. It’s the journey, not the destination. You have to roll with it and take things as they come.”