The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America’s Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas Americas Central America Panama Todd Balf Crown 1 editionApr 13
In 1854, Isaac Strain, an ambitious young U.S. Navy lieutenant, launched an expedition hoping to find a definitive route for a canal across the isthmus of Panama. For hundreds of years, the Darin isthmus had defied explorers; its unmapped wilderness contained some of the world’s most torturous jungle. Yet Strain was confident he could complete the crossing. He was wrong. He and his men quickly lost their way and stumbled into ruin. Balf (The Last River) vibrantly recounts their journey, a disaster on a par with the Donner party or the sinking of the whale ship Essex. Using logs kept by Strain and his lieutenants, as well as other period sources, Balf follows the party from their first missteps (their landing boat capsized in roiling surf) to their near-miraculous rescue two months later. Strain and his crew endured exhaustion, heat, starvation and infestations of botfly maggots, which grew under the skin and fattened on human tissue. The men were forced to make heartbreaking life-and-death decisions; e.g., voting to leave behind sick companions who couldn’t keep up with the rest (one shrieked after them as they trudged deeper into the jungle). Some men surrendered to despair; two of them quietly conspired to commit cannibalism. Balf has written a compelling, tragic story, reviving an adventure overshadowed, 60 years later, by the successful completion of the canal. Balf reminds readers that, like the transcontinental railroad farther to the north, the channel was “built on the bones of dead men.” Illus., maps not seen by PW.
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The 1854 U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, led by navy lieutenant Isaac Strain, was seeking a ship-canal route that would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The men suffered from disease, exhaustion, deadly insects, starvation, despair, and failure. Despite a two-year search by Balf, author of The Last River, he was never able to find the journals and notebooks kept by the group’s 29 members. The journal entries appeared in only one place, an account written by the then best-selling historian Joel Tyler Headley. His story appeared over three successive editions of the 1855 Harper’s New Monthly, the most thought-provoking periodical of the day. The men had overcome unimaginable obstacles when they emerged from the rain forest after five months; six members of the expedition had died. Balf’s colorful account of the venture is compelling reading. George Cohen
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Commit yourself to the Virgin Mary, for in her hands is the way into the Darinand in Gods is the way out.
The Darkest Jungle tells the harrowing story of Americas first ship canal exploration across a narrow piece of land in Central America called the Darin, a place that loomed large in the minds of the worlds most courageous adventurers in the nineteenth century. With rival warships and explorers from England and France days behind, the 27-member U.S. Darin Exploring Expedition landed on the Atlantic shore at Caledonia Bay in eastern Panama to begin their mad dash up the coast-hugging mountains of the Darin wilderness. The whole world watched as this party attempted to be the first to traverse the 40-mile isthmus, the narrowest spot between the Atlantic and Pacific in all the Americas.
Later, government investigators would say they were doomed before they started. Amid the speculative fever for an Atlantic and Pacific ship canal, the terrain to be crossed had been grossly misrepresented and fictitiously mapped. By January 27, 1854, the Americans had served out their last provisions and were severely footsore but believed the river they had arrived at was an artery to the Pacific, their destination. Leading them was the charismatic commander Isaac Strain, an adventuring 33-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant. The party could have turned back except, said Strain, they were to a man revolted at the idea of failing at a task they seemed destined to accomplish. Like the first men to try to scale Everest or reach the North Pole, they felt the eyes of their countrymen upon them.
Yet Strains party would wander lost in the jungle for another sixty nightmarish days, following a tortuously contorted and uncharted tropical river. Their guns rusted in the damp heat, expected settlements never materialized, and the lush terrain provided little to no sustenance. As the unending march dragged on, the party was beset by flesh-embedding parasites and a range of infectious tropical diseases they had no antidote for (or understanding of). In the desperate final days, in the throes of starvation, the survivors flirted with cannibalism and the sickest men had to be left behind so, as the journal keeper painfully recorded, the rest might have a chance to live.
The U.S. Darin Exploring Expeditions 97-day ordeal of starvation, exhaustion, and madnessa tragedy turned triumph of the soul due to the courage and self-sacrifice of their leader and the seamen who devotedly followed himis one of the great untold tales of human survival and exploration. Based on the vividly detailed log entries of Strain and his junior officers, other period sources, and Balfs own treks in the Darin Gap, this is a rich and utterly compelling historical narrative that will thrill readers who enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, Isaacs Storm, and other sagas of adventure at the limits of human endurance.
The Darien Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama
Martin Mitchinson has been a travel writer and photographer for the past ten years. He was born in Saskatoon and raised in northern Alberta, where he later worked in the oil fields to support his travels to Central and South America. He now lives outside Powell River, BC. The Darien Gap is his first book.
Finalist for the 2009 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
If you want to drive from North America to South America, you’ll have a hard time when you reach Panama’s southernmost province, Darien. The Pan-American Highway ends just sixty miles short of Colombia. It’s the only missing link in what would otherwise be uninterrupted highway from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
When Balboa marched through Darien’s jungles to cross the narrow isthmus in 1513, he was the first European to sight the Pacific from its eastern shores. For the next four centuries, pirates, gold miners, rebels, and political schemers all gravitated to Darien. Scotland failed miserably in its attempt to establish a colony. An American Navy expedition wandered lost in its jungle for two months with seven men dying, and countries fought to control the region’s traffic and trade. Yet today, Darien is best known as a roadless backwater, home to native communities, Colombian guerrillas, and the descendants of black slaves and Spanish colonists.
For twenty years, Martin Mitchinson has travelled in Central and South America. Fascinated by tales of Darien, he arrived aboard his 36-foot sailboat Ishmael, and spent the next 18 months navigating physical challenges, native politics and the constant risk of kidnapping. Mitchinson found temporary shelter in native communities while he followed footpaths through the rainforest, and paddled a dugout canoe along Darien’s rivers. With two Kuna guides, he set off to follow Balboa’s historic route across the continental divide to the Pacific.
Drawing on firsthand accounts and personal interviews to illuminate the history of the region, and recounting his travels with extraordinary honesty and grace, Mitchinson has produced the first of what we hope will be many fine travel narratives.