The Jordan is one of the most recognized geographical names in the Western world. Nevertheless, little of scientific value was known about this river until the middle of the 19th century.

The first recorded attempt to descend the Jordan by boat was made in 1835 by 25-year-old Christopher Costigan of Dublin. Costigan’s studies as a candidate for the priesthood led him to an intense interest in the Jordan River and Dead Sea. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of starting out on his adventure in July, when the heat was most intense and when the Jordan River was at its shallowest. For three days he struggled to get his boat through rapids, around landslides, over falls and out of shallows. When his servant would go no farther, Costigan abandoned his attempt to navigate the river. He had his boat transported by camel to Jericho, where he arrived in tatters. Still undaunted, he and his servant took a scientific voyage around the Dead Sea in the August heat. Fatigue and lack of sufficient fresh water debilitated them Costigan contracted a severe fever and later died in Jerusalem. However, his voyage was reconstructed and reproduced as a map in John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in…the Holy Land (1837, reissued in 1970 by University of Oklahoma Press).

Twelve years later a British lieutenant, Thomas Molyneux, made the second attempt at navigating the Jordan. To protect his boat from attack by Arabs, Molyneux divided his crew. Some traveled beside the river on foot, while others rode in the boat. On the sixth day, Molyneux had to follow a path through the thicket that diverged from the river. He lost contact with the three sailors in the boat. The boat was found later that day bobbing around in the river, empty. Although only 30 miles from Jericho, Molyneux had to give up his attempt to descend the Jordan. The sailors turned up later, robbed but safe.

The following year, 1848, Lieutenant W. F. Lynch of the U.S. Navy began his descent of the Jordan.a Lynch commenced in April when the waters had passed flood stage but were still high. For the trip, the U.S Navy provided Lynch and his crew with 14 carbines and 14 pistols. Eight days after leaving the Sea of Galilee, Lynch reached the Dead Sea. He records having passed 27 rapids without major mishap. His maps of the Jordan retain their scientific value to this day.

Twenty years after Lynch’s expedition, Scotsman John MacGregor, called “the father of canoeing as a modern sport,” took his canoe Rob Roy (named after the Scottish hero immortalized in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy) and went to explore the Upper Jordan. His many adventures included capture by Arabs, who seized him in his canoe and carried him, still inside the canoe, to their sheikh. His book, The Rob Roy on the Jordan, and his lectures are reported to have earned him almost a half million dollars, all of which he gave away for religious and philanthropic work.b