A 1950s Grumman canoe built in Marathon, NY
Alan Seaver's Smith-Corona Skyriter
Henry Whiting Ferris Jr
Almost four years ago I posted about George Ely Russell, who in May 1919 set off from Seattle in an 18-foot long, canvas-covered Peterborough canoe to paddle 1000 miles to Juneau, Alaska. Russell took with him a Corona 3 folding portable typewriter (serial number 84165) he had used on the battlefronts of France in World War I. About one third of the way into his epic voyage, while approaching the Heiltsuk First Nation Reserve village of Bella Bella on the east coast of Campbell Island in British Columbia, 98 nautical miles north of Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, Russell dropped his typewriter into seven feet of water. Unable to fetch the Corona 3 off the bay floor with a salmon hook, Russell stripped off, dived in and rescued the portable from a salty grave. He wiped it off with an old rag, dried it in front of his night fire ... and went on to write one quarter of a million words with it! These were incorporated into a book called Eighty Days in the Wilderness: Seattle to Alaska by Canoe.
Russell's great and justified faith in his Corona 3 was replicated 36 years later, when two young American ex-servicemen, the 5ft 8in, 10st 5lb Henry Whiting Ferris Jr (1931-) and John Alexander Thomson (1928-, not Thompson or Thomason, as often reported) took a 9lb Smith-Corona Skyriter with them on a trailblazing, year-long 7000-mile journey canoeing from Venezuela through Brazil and Paraguay to Uruguay and Argentina via those three mighty South American river systems, the Orinoco, the Amazon and the Plate. Later hailed by his local newspaper, the Ithaca Journal, as a modern-day Ulysses,"Whitey" Ferris was a 1952 Yale graduate in psychology and sociology and Thomson a 1954 UCLA arts (geography) graduate, although Thomson gave his home town as Portsmouth, Ohio. The pair bought the $69.50 portable typewriter, the sturdiest lightweight machine they could find, at Rudolph's in Ithaca just before departing for Philadelphia and on to Venezuela. Ferris and Thomson had a similar experience to Russell's, in that they lost one of two 16mm movie cameras and both of their 35mm still cameras when tides swamped their canoes in the early part of the adventure. The cameras were sent back to Caracas for repair. But, as with Russell, the Corona portable survived unscathed - only to be left behind in Buenos Aires in late October 1956.
The Orinoco is the fourth largest river in the world by discharge volume of water. and the river and its tributaries are the major transportation system for eastern and interior Venezuela and the llanos of Colombia. Its source, 3455 feet above sea level near the Venezuelan–Brazilian border, at the Cerro Delgado-Chalbaud in the Parima Range, was not explored until 1951. Three hundred and fifty-six years earlier, Sir Walter Raleigh had sailed down part of the river in search of the fabled city of El Dorado.
Ferris was the grandson of Dr Harry Burr Ferris (1865-1940), professor of anatomy at Yale from 1895-1933 and a pioneer in the study of cancer, and the son of New York pathologist and director of the Tompkins County laboratory Henry Whiting Ferris Sr (1895-1985), a US Navy captain in World War II. Henry Jr served as a field medical aid with the Second Infantry Division and as a psychologist with the Eight Army Psychiatric Department in the Korean War. Thomson served in Japan and Korea in a fleet squadron and on escort carriers as a US Navy pilot after World War II.
Ferris and Thomson had been tutored at the American Institute for Foreign Trade (now the Thunderbird School of Global Management) in Phoenix, Arizona, by economic historian Professor William Lytle Schurz (right, 1886-1962), the institute's president from 1950 and its director of Latin American studies. The two young men, attending AIFT on the GI Bill, were fascinated by Schurz's assertion that the Orinoco journey was feasible. Schulz, in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Everest, called the South American canoe venture, "One of the few feats requiring comparable courage and stamina remaining on the globe". Schurz had spent many years in Central and South America with the US Department of State, and he helped Ferris and Thomson plan their trip. Schurz taught at a number of academic institutions, including the University of California, of Wyoming and of Michigan and was US commercial attaché to Brazil during the Hoover administration. In 1922 he coined the phrase "The Spanish Lake" and his The Manila Gallion (1939) was a landmark study on the Spanish empire’s trans-Pacific commerce between 1561 and 1815.
Ferris and Thomson began preparations in June 1955, including making a sail out of an old army parachute, and left on a Swedish oil carrier from Morrisville, Pennsylvania, on October 1. Twenty-five days later, at 2am, their joined 59lb, 17-foot Marathon NY-made Grumman aluminium canoes were lowered into the waters at the mouth of the Orinoco in Venezuela. One year and one day later they arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After some weeks of paddling, they branched off on to the Casiquiare, a distributary of the upper Orinoco flowing southward into the Rio Negro, in Venezuela. This forms a unique natural canal between the Orinoco and Amazon river systems. It is the world's largest river of the kind that links two major river systems, a so-called bifurcation. The area forms a water divide, more dramatically at regional flood stage. From the Casiquiare the pair traversed the Negro, Amazon, Tapajós and Juruena rivers, followed by 20 miles by truck and a final 2000-mile stretch of canoeing down the Cuiabá, San Lorenzo and Paraguay rivers to the Plate.
Having achieved the longest inland water journey on record, at least from north to south in South America, Ferris and Thomson crossed the Plate to Montevideo and made their way back to Florida by train to Brazil (where they had their canoes sent from Buenos Aires to be swapped for parcels of land) and plane to Bolivia, Peru and the US. There had been a contract with New York publishers E.P. Dutton for an illustrated book but, perhaps because of the damage to the cameras, it does not appear to have seen the light of day. Instead, Ferris and Thomson gave talks about the trip to various groups back in the US, as well as in Paraguay.