The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas

The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas

by Todd Balf

In the 1850s, the world's foremost scientists, capitalists, and statesmen saw the Darien wilderness in eastern Panama as the perfect spot to build a great canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ships from three continents raced to this largely unexplored region, but the twenty-seven-man U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, led by an ambitious, adventure-driven… See more details below


In the 1850s, the world's foremost scientists, capitalists, and statesmen saw the Darien wilderness in eastern Panama as the perfect spot to build a great canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ships from three continents raced to this largely unexplored region, but the twenty-seven-man U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, led by an ambitious, adventure-driven navy lieutenant named Isaac G. Strain, made sure it got there first. Misled by fraudulent maps and unable to find any "gap" amid the mass of precipitous peaks, the expedition marched the untracked course of the isthmus's longest and most contorted river, enduring oppressive equatorial heat and a terrifying catalogue of often bewildering tropical maladies. Their ninety-seven-day ordeal of starvation, exhaustion, and madness -- a tragedy turned largely to triumph due to the courage and self-sacrifice of their leader and the seamen who followed him devotedly is one of the great untold tales of human survival and exploration in the tropics. Based on the vividly detailed log entries of Strain and his junior officers, other newly discovered period sources, and Balf's own multiple treks through the dangerous (and still roadless) Darien Gap, The Darkest Jungle is a rich and utterly compelling historical narrative that will thrill readers who enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, Isaac's Storm, The Endurance, and other sagas of adventure at the limits of human tolerance.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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 Dari n 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. (Jan.) Forecast: Ads in Harper's and the New Yorker, along with author interviews and a national radio campaign, will help illuminate The Darkest Jungle for readers. Balf writes for Men's Journal and is a former Outside editor, which could help him get coverage. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Balf has followed up his previous book, The Last River, with another engaging narrative. This one is about a little-known expedition into Central America in 1854 in search of a suitable spot to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Several countries bet on the Darien gap in eastern Panama, but little was truly known of the topography. Balf gives an excellent recounting of the expedition itself and of many attempts to settle this part of the world, dating back to the Spanish in the 1500s. Led by navy lieutenant Isaac G. Strain and guided by faulty maps, the expedition was indeed risky, coming close to claiming the lives of the entire party. This "travel" book goes the extra mile, giving the reader a look at the lives of the survivors and the experience of the author covering the same ground today. Recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/03.]-David Lee Poremba, Detroit P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of The Last River (2000) anatomizes another disastrous adventure in the unwelcoming outdoors: the1853�54 effort to discover a potential waterway through the isthmus of Panama. It was the height of the canal era, and the canal that would cut through Panama would be the grandest yet: the rude weather of Cape Horn could be avoided, travel time to the gold fields of California cut in half, the whole world of shipping turned on its head. At the eastern end of Panama, in Dari�n, rumor of a gap through the mountains had hardened into belief. Here the land was only 40 miles wide, and 19th-century mapmakers avowed that "the mountains parted and the oceans all but kissed." The US government sent the Dari�n Exploring Expedition, headed by Lieutenant Isaac Strain, to "lead a �speedy� overland crossing of the isthmus in an attempt to map and survey the route." It was anything but quick. The local Kuna population were evasive, worried about occupation of their land and reprisals for their ill treatment of an earlier expedition. But Strain thought he detected in their reticence a desire to hide the supposed gap�s location. Bad maps slowed the expedition�s progress, jungle damp fouled its scientific instruments, bloody flux and malaria felled its members. Strain was in way over his head even before he sailed into Caledonia Bay near Dari�n to find "mountains rising above mountains, a sea of dark peaks clothed in dark forests"—and no gap in sight. Balf pours on the historic doom and misery with such practiced ease that readers will not be surprised when a rescue party finally discovers Strain, weighing no more than 75 pounds, sporting a Panama hat, a tattered blue flannel shirt, one boot,and sores inflicted by burrowing insects. An epilogue recounts Balf�s own 2001 excursion to Dari�n and attests to the region�s utter wildness. Crack contemporary place writing, related in wrenching, enchanting detail. (4 maps)

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Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.13(d)

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And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people. . . . God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience our wisdom . . . And let us always remember, that with ourselves--almost for the first time in the history of the Earth--national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world.

Herman Melville, White-Jacket (1850)

December 19, 1853

  • 56' N, 75
  • 8' W Philadelphia

    The ships rounding cape henlopen at the mouth of the Delaware River were rushing home to port. A blockade of frost had fastened upon Delaware Bay and was spreading up the river's winding, 100-mile course to Philadelphia. Already two merchant ships, the bark Louisa and the brig Loretto, were bound up near the breakwater. Another few days of single-digit cold and even the port's steam tugs might not make it out. The river would be corked until March. Along the bitterly cold Southwark waterfront, where the long wood-planked wharves and the brick-walled Navy yard thronged with officers and merchantmen safely back, the talk wasn't of Christmas or the New Year but the coming ice. Few could recall it fixing so early.

    At dockside the sloop-of-war Cyane's preparations drew curious onlookers. She wasn't one of the American Navy's powerful new steamships, but an old square-rigged man-of-war whose heyday was the Mexican War, almost a decade before. There wasn't a graceful line in her 132 feet of running length, critics said, and the secretary of the Navy seemed to agree; her active duty in recent years had been confined to quiet coastal cruises. Of late the vessel had gone nowhere. A year earlier, at port in Hampton Roads, Virginia, a near mutiny had erupted, and the subsequent trial had kept the ship in limbo for months. Only in recent weeks had the Cyane received the okay to return to duty and with the order a different, more restorative kind of attention. Her hull was newly coppered and her decks and hold meticulously disinfected with a purging vinegar wash.

    She was crammed with personnel. In addition the standard two-hundred-man complement for a vessel her size, she carried an unusual number of supernumeraries--a party that included three additional naval officers, a trio of engineers, and two civilian volunteers, one of those a surgeon. The extra outfit was evidently getting a lift somewhere. The Cyane was said to be headed south on Home Squadron business, but where exactly, nobody knew. The hustle and bustle suggested she had little time to lose.

    In fact, throughout the frigid winter day the activity intensified. The ship's carpenters banged together chicken coops and pigpens, and the boatswain's mate's silver whistle pealed insistently. A "high die" or "heave hard" command boomed from the deck officer's speaking trumpet with enough venom to awaken the dear departed souls on Chestnut Street. Man-hauled sail bundles rose up the fore, main, and mizzen masts, and late-arriving stores, livestock, and sea trunks coursed across the gangway. By the locals' rough estimate there were well over 15,000 pounds of sea biscuit and salted meat bound for the hold--sufficient provisions for a three-month cruise, maybe more. Barrels of fresh water and spirits went down the hatchways with a number of less recognizable containers. Theodolites, sextants, spyglasses, mountain...

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