Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Animals/Nature

Bird Ballet Above Martin Acres

A crow (top) gets ready for another pass at the turkey vulture below.

A crow (top) gets ready for another pass at the turkey vulture below.

I was driving down Moorhead, waiting for the heat to come on in the Subaru, the sky flint gray with bursts of clouds running north to south, when I first saw the three black shapes.

Three birds. All pretty large. And it only took a couple of glances away from the wheel to notice that it was two crows dive-bombing a turkey vulture. I pulled over as soon as I could and jumped out of the car with my camera. They were high enough that I couldn’t hear any sounds. I’m not that great a photographer, but I managed a couple of shots, including his one, which shows the larger vulture at the bottom with its white underwing markings. The crow at the top is about half the size of the vulture, with a black undercarriage.

The birds must have found some wind thermal up there in the cold air, and the vulture was soaring in the way vultures do, flapping its wings only when necessary and sweeping across the sky on the rising current. The two crows were flying recklessly around it, coming in from different directions, their wings fluttering as they tried to swoop in close without actually hitting the much larger vulture. (Well. That’s the way it looked. There is documentation of crows attacking turkey vultures, but I’ve never been inside a bird’s brain, so perhaps they were all just enjoying themselves up in the rising air current.)

Their ever-widening circles took them away from me until they were almost out of sight in less than a minute. Jumping back into the car, just thinking about how much fun that (at least) the crows seemed to be having, and marking up my first turkey vulture sighting this early in the year made an otherwise cold, miserable day lighten up considerably.

January 9, 2010   No Comments

Turkey Vultures and Buzzard Hank


I was on my way to meet friends for breakfast Saturday morning, riding the path that bisects CU’s east campus approaching the location called the Confluence, when something caught my eye across the lake to the west.

It was this group of turkey vultures perched high in the trees letting the morning sun warm their wings. I count 13-14 of these wonderful, huge birds. When I first saw them, at least four were opening their wings to the sun’s warmth.

I was reminded that a large group of vultures used to roost in an old cottonwood on the other side of the bike path until it fell in a storm several years ago and is now a pile of old wood.

I am always watching for turkey vultures , and I have seen a lot of them high in the air, especially on the trails near the East Boulder Rec Center, but this is my first good group sighting this year. I was late and didn’t get to spend enough time with this bunch, but what a sight. Vulture wingspans range from four to six feet, and even from this distance, you can see how enormous “buzzards” really are.

Vultures are common migratory visitors in the spring and fall along the Front Range, and provide a valuable recycling function by cleaning up carrion and carcasses otherwise left to the elements. The bald head which many consider “ugly,” is actually an adaptation to its diet, since it has to put its head inside rotting meat and feathers are bacteria-prone.

When I was a student at St. Paul’s College in Concordia, Mo. I was skinny (!), and somehow I got the nickname Henry Hawk, after a comic-book character at the time, and then Buzzard, and finally Buzzard Hank. I found this photo, circa 1966, of Buzzard Hank trying his best to look like one. Do you notice the resemblance?

buzzard hank 2 copy

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

Your Dog is More Dangerous Than a Coyote

A coyote heads off near the Boulder Reservoir last month.

A coyote heads off near the Boulder Reservoir last month.

A columnist in the Denver Post today talks with some common-sense Greenwood Village residents circulating petitions to stop the killing of coyotes in their city.

After a spike in dog/human/coyote incidents, the city hired sharpshooters to kill “aggressive” coyotes with high-powered rifles within the city’s park system.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has killed several coyotes in the city of Broomfield in response to a couple of well-publicized dog/human/coyote interactions in that city earlier this year. The DOW, which knows that killing the animals doesn’t address the problem – its spokesperson recently said that if the entire United States were paved with asphalt, we would still be living with coyotes — is instead overreacting to mostly misguided public fears that somehow “more aggressive” coyotes have become a threat to our well-being and our way of life.

These knee-jerk, appease-the-populace reactions will almost certainly guarantee that the cities will continue to experience dog/human/coyote interactions. Greenwood Village says its main goal is to educate, and to its credit has generally good advice about coyotes on its website.

But instead of vigorously enforcing current leash laws (which is the underlying reason for almost every one of these so-called “attacks”), the city has decided to blame the wild animals. It’s so much easier than actually dealing with the problem.

I think most people who have been around animals understand that most animal-behavior problems are really human-behavior problems. Even people who experience the harshest of wild-animal interactions – being mauled by a grizzly – generally understand their own culpability in an “attack.”

The word “attack” has all sorts of negative connotations. This YouTube video, for instance, is labeled as an “attack” by a polar bear. My immediate reaction to the video is that there was no attack, except perhaps that the woman could be seen as attacking the bears by jumping into their enclosure. But had the bear chosen to “attack,” the woman would certainly not be alive to tell her story. The bear, though it appears to bite her on the ass, seems more curious about the intruder than anything else.

Despite the biblical injunction about dominion over animals, humans have never been good stewards of wildlife; indeed we seem incapable of “managing” wild animals beyond exterminating them when they become nuisances.

Think of the consequences of the United States’ decision, for instance, to eliminate the top predators, wolves and grizzly bears from the entire Western ecosystem to accommodate ranchers with cattle and sheep, The consequences of that decision still reverberate across the Western landscape, with no end in sight.

One of the effects is that about half a million coyotes, along with hundreds of thousands of other animals, under the guise of “wildlife management,” are killed every year under the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division. Despite the annual slaughter, which in 2008 was almost five MILLION animals, coyote numbers are increasing around the country, even in places that have never seen coyotes before. (For more on coyote behavior, here’s an excellent report from Marc Bekoff in Canid News.

In Colorado, the DOW and Greenwood Village council members over-reacted mostly to appease the fears of a small percentage of citizens. And instead of concentrating on human behavior (“my dog is under control, even without the leash,” “I left my leash at home,” “My dog wouldn’t hurt a fly,” “Why aren’t you out catching real criminals?”), we seem to easily defer to expecting the animals to change theirs. And if the animals, in this case coyotes, don’t comply: Bang, you’re dead.

There’s one constant in the spike in dog/human/coyote interactions in the Denver area: Off-leash dogs were involved and often initiated contact with the coyotes. The inference is, of course, that coyotes, because they’re wild, “attack” dogs, which are “tame.”

If you’ve been around animals, you know that’s not a given. The coyotes might have attacked the dogs, but it’s equally probable that the dogs, off-leash and curious as all dogs are, approached the coyotes, who, perceiving them as attackers, responded accordingly. We won’t know exactly what happened – eyewitness accounts are wildly inconclusive  — but what if the dogs were the aggressors and the coyotes just defending themselves or their territory? Would we shoot the dogs?

But it’s easy to make some sort of distinction between wild animals and pets, even if domestic animals are just wild animals bred to be tame. (Consider, for instance, that if your housecat weighed 105 pounds, she might consider you a snack instead of a food provider and a lap to sit in.)

Our general fears in this regard are completely out of balance with reality. Domestic dogs are inherently more dangerous to humans than coyotes ever will be. Domestic dogs actually do kill people — and many dogs that kill were trained to do so by humans.

Only one or two human deaths in history have ever been attributed to a coyote. More than FOUR MILLION Americans are treated for domestic dog bites EACH YEAR, and 10-15 people annually are fatally attacked by domestic dogs.

But hey, it’s easier to blame the coyotes than change our behavior, right?

June 17, 2009   No Comments

They Found Everett Ruess’s Body …

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934.

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

Amazing news today that CU scientist Dennis Van Gerven has identified the remains of Everett Ruess, the eccentric young vagabond who, with his two burros, disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934, leaving behind a short life, a few snapshots and a sheaf of letters and paintings that have inspired naturalists, environmentalists, wilderness lovers and one of my favorite songwriters.

I’m happy for Ruess’s family, which finally learns the answer to a mystery that must have vexed its members over the decades. And the discovery is an astonishing story that will no doubt show up as a future episode of CSI. The mystery was solved through a captivating combination of ancient oral Indian family history and modern-day forensics technology and Photoshop.

But I feel a twinge of sadness about the discovery, too.

I came across Dave Alvin’s song “Everett Ruess” while working at KCUV (remember Colorado’s Underground Voice?) in 2004 when Ashgrove, the album it first appeared on, was released. Ashgrove was, to these ears, a concept album, a group of songs loosely arranged around the concept of growing older and learning to accept that fate. The title track was an unabashed look back at the former Blasters’ guitarist/songwriter’s days at the storied Los Angeles folk club where, as an underage teenager, Alvin was schooled in the ways of the great blues and folk musicians who inspired him. “Nine-Volt Heart” is a nostalgic memory of an older man’s youth, and “Man in the Bed” a penetrating snapshot of an aging man in whose dreams he is a young man again.

But “Everett Ruess” sealed the deal for the concept. Alvin had obviously read Ruess’ letters, and his song, written in Ruess’s own voice, tells the young man’s story as he builds a case around a notion that nags us all as we age.

I was born Everett Ruess
I been dead for sixty years
I was just a young boy in my twenties
The day I disappeared.

Into the Grand Escalante Badlands
Near the Utah and Arizona line
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess was twenty when he disappeared after leaving Escalante, Utah, in late 1934. But Alvin notes that among the many mysteries about Ruess is that there was no particular rebellion involved in his journeys. He wasn’t leaving because he wanted to get away from his family but because he found something particularly fascinating and illuminating about the wilderness.

I grew up in California
And I loved my family and my home
But I ran away to the High Sierra
Where I could live free and alone.

And folks said “He’s just another wild kid
And he’ll grow out of it in time,”
But they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess traded prints with Ansel Adams, studied with Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange and sent letters, drawings and poems of his travels to his friends and family beginning with his first Southwestern pilgrimage in June 1930. Though his 1934 journal wasn’t found, he never stopped writing. Were it not for those letters, nobody would have known or cared, and today’s newspaper headline would never been written.

I broke broncos with the cowboys
I sang healing songs with the Navajo
I did the snake dance with the Hopi
And I drew pictures everywhere I go.

Then I swapped all my drawings for provisions
To get what I needed to get by
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Alvin speculates convincingly upon Ruess’ continuing detachment from civilization.

Well I hate your crowded cities
With your sad and hopeless mobs
And I hate your grand cathedrals
Where you try to trap God.

‘Cause I know God is here in the canyons
With the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Ruess left Escalante, New Mexico, on November 11, 1934, and was last seen by two sheepherders near the Kaiparowits Plateau several days later, who reported that he said he was heading for the Hole-in-the Rock area, a Mormon landmark where the Colorado River could be crossed.

Ruess’s burros were found in Davis Gulch, and the search for his remains was centered in that remote area of the Escalante. Most theories were that he was killed by cattle wranglers, fell to his death, took his own life in that same area or on Kaiparowits Plateau or disappeared and is living in Mexico. One major problem with any benign death theory is that his paintings, paint kit, journal, cook kit, food and money were never found.

This lends further credence to the Ute Indian murder story. His body was buried about thirty miles east of the area where the burros were found and the search for Ruess took place, so he must have crossed the Colorado and headed toward Monument Valley, which he had visited before. Without his burros, food or supplies, it would be difficult but not impossible to reach the Bluff area where his body was finally found.

Alvin weaves in several theories about Ruess’ death before putting everything into context in his last eight lines.

They say I was killed by a drifter
Or I froze to death in the snow
Maybe mauled by a wildcat
Or I’m livin’ down in Mexico.

But my end, it doesn’t really matter
All that counts is how you live your life
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

Billie and I visited Escalante, Utah, in 2005, where we first came into contact with the Ruess saga. There we bought Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the W.L. Rusho biography that included his writings. At times we felt we were following him around the wild areas in Escalante where he went missing, all the while staring in majesty and wonder at the same mind-boggling vistas that captured his imagination.

Reading Ruess’s words, and Alvin’s poetry, especially the lines “all that counts is how you live your life,” “you give your dreams away as you get older” and “they’ll never find my body, boys, or understand my mind” put a spin on his story that I still find deeply compelling. I really liked the idea of Ruess being lost, and staying lost. One part of me wished that he would remain unfound, a mystery – “they never find my body, boys.” Today’s news means that I will now only be able to take comfort in knowing that we will still never “understand his mind.”

April 30, 2009   2 Comments

Tangled Up in Bluebirds

Andy and his dogs and I were on the upper reaches of South Boulder Trail not far from where it hooks up with the Mesa Trail Tuesday morning. A light snow had settled on the pines along the Flatirons, and temps were crisp in the high teens.

We came to a meadow with several ponderosa pines on either side of the trail. The meadow grasses were still brown, but suddenly we could see little flecks of bright blue color all around the trail. Dozens of them leaping around in the grass.

They were mountain bluebirds.

A mountain bluebird perches Tuesday along the South Boulder Trail.

A mountain bluebird perches Tuesday along the South Boulder Trail.

As ace birder Joe Prentice wrote in the Camera today, mountain bluebirds can be found all year round in Colorado, but March is when many start returning from their southern roosts. The bright blue birds are males; females are a more grayish color.

No doubt hunting was good in this area on this morning. Mountain bluebirds love open spaces and sit on low perches looking for insects. They often hover over their prey.

And delight those of us who appreciate very cheap thrills.

March 12, 2009   No Comments

Living With Coyote Means Changing Our Own Behavior

I hadn’t really thought much about coyotes until a few years ago while attending a conference in Yellowstone on predators. Three different biologists, during their presentations, praised coyote as their favorite predator.

Coyote: Scourge of the West or best predator?

Coyote: Scourge of the West or most fascinating predator? (CDOW photo)

Since this was coming from people who also studied charismatic megafauna like wolves and grizzly bears, I began to learn more about coyote. Today, though I am still partial to bears and wolves, I have to agree that perhaps the most interesting predator is coyote.

I bring this up after reading of incidents in Denver of humans being “attacked” and bitten by coyotes within city limits. A woman in southeast Denver reported being attacked by three coyotes while walking her dog, and a man in Broomfield was bitten while walking his dog, as was another Broomfield woman in January.

Much as I appreciate canis latrans, I don’t like to hear about humans having contact with, let alone being bitten by wild animals. But given the information we have, I take issue with these incidents being characterized as attacks or somehow as proof that coyotes are becoming more aggressive toward humans.

Thanks to a diverse diet and plenty of food in urban areas, coyote is certainly comfortable in the city landscape. Difficult as it is to figure out what actually happened from the published accounts, two things come to mind in both Broomfield incidents. First, each took place near dawn or dusk in parks, times when coyote is known to be active, and in each case, off-leash dogs chased after the coyotes, the humans intervened and were bitten.

Coyotes can be aggressive around food, and it is certainly possible that the coyotes attacked the humans, but it is also just as easy to suggest that the coyotes were playing with or perhaps protecting themselves against attacks from the canines. Had the dogs been on-leash, as per Broomfield law, the incidents probably wouldn’t have happened.

Coyotes are among the most adaptive animals in evolution. Coyote biologist Robert Crabtree calls them “the ultimate icon of human defiance.” They are present in every state except Hawaii and can adapt to life in a New York City alleyway as easily as a Colorado arroyo. As a Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesperson said recently, if you completely covered the United States with concrete, coyotes would still live among us.

Judging from some of the comments posted to news stories about these events, you might believe that killing coyotes is actually a viable solution.

History and studies of coyote behavior and reproduction tell us otherwise. Beginning with the repeating rifle and continuing with poison and traps, we have been trying to exterminate coyote, which evolved in North America alongside the long-extinct dire wolf, since we arrived on these shores. We came damned close to annihilating the grizzly bear and the gray wolf in the lower 48, but our attempts to exterminate coyotes have been met with nothing but frustration and more and more coyotes. The government’s Wildlife Services program kills almost half a million coyotes a year in the guise of ranch-animal protection, with no negligible effect on the population. I can find no firm statistics, but there are almost certainly more coyotes in the United States today than there were two hundred and fifty years ago.

That’s one of the main reasons I admire coyote. How can you hate a species that has completely outsmarted humans and live in defiance of us? And we humans don’t seem to be getting it yet. We leave them food in unsecured garbage bins, compost bins and pet bowls.

And instead of a couple of unfortunate incidents that better human decisions might have avoided, there are people in Denver somehow convinced that coyotes are out there behind the back fence plotting to snatch their pets and terrorize their lives. In an extreme and unfortunate reaction, Greenwood Village is foolishly going to waste precious city funds to hire sharpshooters to kill coyotes within city limits and is petitioning the state to allow leg-traps. God only knows what they will catch in those things, and come next January, there will more coyotes there.

That’s old-fashioned thinking, and it is doomed to failure. Why not teach people, like the Division of Wildlife does, about coyote behavior? Why not secure your garbage and pet foods? Why not leash your dogs in areas where coyotes are known to be? Or let your neighbors know when coyotes have been spotted in your neighborhood? We are not going to kill off coyotes or change their behavior, and to live with them, we will have to change our own — or live in Hawaii.

March 1, 2009   1 Comment

Killing Coyotes Only Shows Our Stupidity

The Denver Post reports that Greenwood Village’s city council Friday approved “limited” shooting of coyotes in public areas of the city, including parks, greenbelts and watersheds.

Back to the Old West: leg traps. ©Life 1941

The city will pay a private contractor about $200 a day to kill coyotes – the story doesn’t say how many are slated for “elimination” — and it is also asking the Tri-County Health Department for permits to allow the setting of leg traps for coyotes. (Perhaps there are new leg traps that differentiate coyotes from German Shepherds or red foxes or house cats, but I doubt it.)

This is pathetic. What are the council members thinking? Sharpshooters on open space? Leg traps in a municipality in a state that overwhelmingly voted in 1996 to ban such cruel devices? Greenwood Village’s wildlife management plan forsakes all known science about coyotes to hold a media show – perhaps the contractor holding up dead coyotes by their legs like they used to in the Old West? – and demonstrate its commitment to public safety.

“The problem is the population is out of control, and it has created a public-safety issue for our community,” the Post quotes City Manager Jim Sanderson. “We are not trying to eliminate all coyotes.”

Sorry, Mr. Sanderson, but it doesn’t work that way. I’m guessing that somewhere in your packet of materials about “coyotes being more aggressive,” you missed the dirty secret about killing coyotes to “control” them. “Coyotes are ‘compensatory breeders,’ that’s what the research says,” the Post quotes Jennifer Churchill, a Colorado Division of Wildlife spokeswoman. “When the population gets knocked back they will indeed create more coyotes.”

What this means is that coyotes, when faced with a threat to their population, will compensate for their loss, in this case by producing more pups and litters. The federal government knows this, yet it financially supports Wildlife Services, a euphemistic name for an agency that uses tax dollars to kill hundreds of thousands of animals — coyotes, foxes, birds, you name it — in the guise of protecting “agriculture, health, property and health and safety,” continues its wasteful, destructive ways, shooting thousands of coyotes from airplanes. In the last twenty years nine shooters and pilots have died and 34 others injured doing this.

All this “management,” and yet coyotes are flourishing. This is dirty secret number two about coyotes. Fact is, humans have been trying to eradicate coyotes since Europeans first settled in the New World. Our species came close to eliminating wolves and grizzly bears from the lower 48 (along with collateral animals like lynx) by using guns, traps and finally poison. But after several centuries, the coyotes are clearly winning

That’s the other dirty secret about coyote: As an adaptable species, it is infinitely superior to humans. Ever wonder why the coyote in literature is known as the Trickster? Coyotes find plenty to eat and enough good habitat to live and breed alongside us, even because of us. They are an active, integral part of our eco-systems.

There are plenty of proactive ways to deal with coyotes. Teach citizens to secure trash and control companion animals, to chase off coyotes and other wildlife off when you see them, to not feed wild animals) But instead of teaching human responsibility, Greenwood Village, under the guise of protecting the children, embarks on a the Wild West management plan: Killing animals and using cruel methods to do so.

And next year at this time, there will be less money in the Greenwood Village coffers, continued, perhaps increasing incidental run-ins with humans — and, just as the DOW spokeswoman indicated, more coyotes!! Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Photo: Life magazine 1941

February 9, 2009   No Comments

Three Weeks Past the Olde Stage Fire 2009

I walked the North Foothills Trail on an organized hike Saturday with naturalist Dave Sutherland through an area heavily burned by the Olde Stage Fire 23 days earlier. Sutherland pointed out that the area north of town along the hogback is known for its occasionally swift, intense fires. Sutherland is a great guide, and I learned a lot even though I didn’t do the entire loop. The trail begins off U.S. 36 just north of the Broadway/36 intersection and crosses under the highway heading west.

Here are some photographs and comments from the hike. Click for larger versions of the photos.

We saw a lot of burned yucca plants. Some would break off while burning and become airborne, which is one way the fire jumped U.S. 36.

We saw a lot of burned yucca plants. Some would break off while burning and become airborne, which is one way the fire jumped U.S. 36.

Sutherland pointed out that the fire in this field just north of the subdivision, was set by firefighters to keep the main fire away from the homes.

Sutherland pointed out that the fire in this field just north of the subdivision was set by firefighters, called a backburn, to keep the main fire away from the homes.

This view from higher on the trail shows that backburned area and the erratic nature of the fire's destruction.

This view from higher on the trail shows that backburned area and the erratic nature of the fire's destruction.

This wooden post along the trail shows the intensity of the fire in some places.

This wooden post along the trail shows the intensity of the fire in some places.

A piece of firehose was burned by the fire. Next to the rock on the left, however, are plants that will bloom again in the spring.

A piece of firehose was burned by the fire. Next to the rock on the left, however, are plants that will bloom again in the spring.

Other posts on the fire here and here.

February 1, 2009   No Comments

Foxes Rule in Boulder

Fox Trot: A red fox in east Boulder.

Fox Trot: A red fox in east Boulder looks up at the snow Sunday afternoon.

It is not unusual to see a fox in Boulder, but lately I seem to be running into them everywhere I go. We dropped a friend off over on the Hill just south of Columbia Cemetery a couple weeks ago and watched one trot across the street and into a neighbor’s yard. Our friend said it was a regular in the neighborhood. We watched one cross Sunset Avenue in front of our car on its way the golf course after visiting friends in Longmont. Several people on the Martin Acres email list have written of foxes in the neighborhood.

Last week I was riding my bicycle when I surprised one in a front yard at the intersection of Osage and Pawnee drives. It spotted me and began to run ahead across front yards along Pawnee Drive. It turned east on Shawnee Place, and I followed and lost it – actually it lost me – as it raced behind a fence into a backyard on Ricara Drive.

Red Fox munching on a mouse.

I first found this one munching on a mouse.

I knew that foxes were fleet of foot, but I was really impressed by how fast this little critter was in short bursts. It was like it was playing with me. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get my camera out in time to even get close to a photograph.

Sunday afternoon I was on Walnut Avenue about four p.m. getting ready to pull into the KGNU studio parking lot when I spied this fox just below the Foothills Parkway bridge. I stopped the car and came out with my camera in hand to try and catch it before it ran away, but this one just looked lazily down at me while chewing on a mouse. It was about three feet in length, and its white tail and black legs and ears identify it as a red fox, one of four fox species in Colorado. Gray foxes are about the same size as red ones, and swift foxes and kit foxes are smaller.

Foxes were almost killed to extinction, civilian casualties in the war humans waged against the wolf and the coyote. Like coyotes, foxes have adapted to life with humans. Foxes live near riparian areas, and Boulder Creek is only a couple hundred yards from here. This fox is well-known to KGNU folks, who see it (or others) on the bike path that leads down to the station close to where I saw it. There is obviously plenty of food in the area, judging from the mouse it was eating when I first saw it and the rabbit I watched running outside the KGNU studios a few minutes later.

Looking for something.

The fox puts its nose into the snow before walking off.

As I shot pictures from about thirty feet, this one walked down the hill and seemed to be enjoying the snowflakes before it disappeared along the sidewalk under the bridge, its white tail sashaying behind.

January 26, 2009   No Comments

Teddy Roosevelt’s River of Doubt

I love books about people who do things that I wouldn’t. Whether it is Lynne Cox, who swam a mile in freezing Antarctic waters, the mountaineers who climb into air thin enough to stop bodily functions or the astronauts of Apollo 13 returning to earth in a crippled spacecraft, I am fascinated by these exploits.

Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey certainly fits into this category. I knew nothing of the former president’s trip down an uncharted Amazon tributary called, aptly, the River of Doubt, after his final political defeat in 1912. As Millard tells it, tribulation, poor planning and a hostile environment led the expedition to a place that killed expedition members and seriously taxed Roosevelt’s survival skills. He would never really recover, and the journey would contribute to his death six years later at age sixty.

Millard paints the story vividly, drawing on journals, accounts, books and photography. Here comes the famous American ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, and Col. Candido Rondon, Brazil’s most celebrated explorer and a national hero, to navigate and chart a river never before navigated.

Millard makes us feel what it would have been like to spend six weeks in an environment almost completely hostile to humans. Her descriptions of Amazonian ecology and evolution bring you into this colorful, alien world, which, at least in the first days, brought only awe and admiration from the travelers. “Far from its outward appearance, the rain forest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite,” Millard writes. “Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary but, rather, a the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.”

Without giving anything away, those inhabitants — flora, fauna, reptiles, insects, mammals, fish, and a formidable aboriginal tribe – and the weather gather in a kind of perfect storm of a story that I couldn’t put down until I finished. Billie said it right when she handed it to me after she had finished it, “It’s a page-turner.”

December 15, 2008   No Comments