Synopses & Reviews
“Commit yourself to the Virgin Mary, for in her hands is the way into the Darién—and in God’s is the way out.”
The Darkest Jungle tells the harrowing story of America’s first ship canal exploration across a narrow piece of land in Central America called the Darién, a place that loomed large in the minds of the world’s most courageous adventurers in the nineteenth century. With rival warships and explorers from England and France days behind, the 27-member U.S. Darién 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 Darién 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 Strain’s 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. Darién Exploring Expedition’s 97-day ordeal of starvation, exhaustion, and madness—a tragedy turned “triumph of the soul” due to the courage and self-sacrifice of their leader and the seamen who devotedly followed him—is 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 Balf’s own treks in the Darién Gap, this is a rich and utterly compelling historical narrative that will thrill readers who enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, Isaac’s Storm, and other sagas of adventure at the limits of human endurance.
"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...the channel was 'built on the bones of dead men.'" Publishers Weekly
"Balf pours on the historic doom and misery with...practiced ease....Crack contemporary place writing, related in wrenching, enchanting detail." Kirkus Reviews
"[E]ngaging....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." Library Journal
In the 1850s, the whole world eagerly looked to the Darién Gap in eastern Panama as the natural spot to build a great canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ships from around the world sailed to this largely unexplored region, but the U.S. Darién Exploring Expedition, led by Navy lieutenant Isaac G. Strain, arrived first, with 29 men ready to survey the gap. Misled by the fraudulent maps of a supposed earlier explorer and faced with two closely spaced mountain ranges, cascading rivers, damp and brutal heat, swarming mosquitoes and flies, a hostile native population, and a catalog of other hardships, the expedition was soon at the brink of disaster. Their ordeal of starvation, exhaustion, disease, madness, and ultimate despair as they succumbed to the brutal jungle is one of the great untold tales in the annals of exploration. Based on the vividly detailed log entries of Strain and his junior officers, other period sources, and Balf's own trek in the Darién Gap, this is a rich, utterly compelling historical narrative that will thrill readers who enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, Isaac's Storm, the accounts of the Shackleton expedition, and all similar sagas of adventure at the limits of endurance.
Based on the vividly detailed log entries of the U.S. Darién Exploring Expedition, this is a rich, utterly compelling historical narrative that will thrill readers who enjoyed Isaac's Storm, the accounts of the Shackleton expedition, and all similar sagas of adventure at the limits of endurance.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 315-320) and index.
About the Author
TODD BALF, the author of The Last River and a former senior editor for Outside, is a contributing editor to Men’s Journal. He first traveled to Panama’s Darién in 1991—a memorably flawed crossing in which he and his companions traveled by foot, burro, and dugout canoe yet managed to see neither the Pacific nor the Atlantic.
Table of Contents
Dramatis Personae ix
1 Gales of December 3
2 The Sea and the Jungle 23
3 Torrid Zone 49
4 Darien's Gap 72
5 Door of the Seas 95
6 Divide 109
7 Devil's Own 129
8 Chucunaque River 145
9 Life and Death 165
10 Pacific 187
11 Battle Road 205
12 Crossing Lines 227
13 Home 241
14 Away 267
Selected Bibliography 315