When Don Starkell was six years old, a judge gave him a choice: return to his abusive home, or go to live in an orphanage. Starkell chose the orphanage.
He vowed to do better by his own two sons. That’s how the idea for the trip came about. In 1970, not long after his wife walked out on him, Starkell took his oldest boy Dana aside.
“How would you like to get in a canoe right here in Winnipeg and we’ll paddle so far south, we’ll paddle right out of winter—all the way to Brazil?” he asked.
They started the trip a decade later, when Dana was 19 and his brother Jeff was 18. Starkell was 48 at the time, and driven. “I did a good job on those guys. I was tough on them and made them struggle,” he said in a Canoe & Kayak profile. “And then the time came to do it and we took off.”
Starkell had discovered canoeing at age 10 when he moved to a new foster home and found a canoe sitting in the backyard next to a creek. “That canoe gave me the first freedom in my life,” he said.
From that day on, for as long as he had the strength to hold a paddle, Don Starkell was logging miles. Starting at the age of 15 he recorded every outing in spiral-bound notebooks. During the great Winnipeg flood of 1950, he paddled from house to house, delivering groceries. “I know what I was doing every year,” he said. “In 1951 I was in my first canoe race and we were going against the Manitoba champions. We ended up whumping them. I never thought anything of it and next year those same guys we beat went to the Olympics.” Starkell remained one of Canada’s foremost sprint and marathon canoe racers for more than two decades, though to hear him tell it, racers from other clubs shunned him.
In 1967 he was named to a team representing Manitoba in a 3,283-mile canoe race commemorating the Canadian centennial. Starkell’s invitation came on the strength of his racing results, but his new teammates hailed from a rival club and wanted nothing to do with the brash and impolitic Winnipegger. He came anyway, quitting the job he’d held for 17 years to take his shot at a three-and-a-half month race across the continent, from Alberta to Montreal.
“The captain did everything possible for 104 days to get me off that team and I wouldn’t break,” Starkell told an interviewer in 1996. “They used to spit tobacco juice in my boots and gum too, and the only time I was put in the bow was on stormy days” where he bore the brunt of breaking waves. But when the team reached Montreal in first place, Starkell was with them. He later competed in three similar races—each encompassing more than 1,000 miles of wilderness travel—and won them all.
“I have a thing where if people say, ‘You can’t do that,’ right away I respond, ‘How do you know without trying?’” he told C&K interviewer Conor Mihell.
In 1980, when he boarded a 21-foot canoe in Winnipeg with his two sons, then 18 and 19, even Starkell doubted they’d be able to paddle all the way to Belém, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon. The route Starkell had chosen was more than 12,000 miles and passed through 13 countries, each of which posed an array of challenges and natural hazards. Civil wars smoldered in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, while Honduras served as a base for U.S.-backed counterinsurgents. The Amazon, if they made it that far, was a mystery. The Starkells started south, flying a giant Maple Leaf flag from the stern of their red fiberglass canoe, and hoped for the best.
The Mississippi was a grand adventure, but when they reached the Gulf of Mexico they had to learn to paddle an open canoe in ocean conditions. Swamping was a constant concern, and they’d never landed in heavy surf before. In their first attempt, Starkell pointed the canoe toward the beach and told the boys to paddle like hell, planning to outrun the wave. Bad plan. The wave caught up and surfed them violently toward shore, until the bow buried in the trough and the stern lurched skyward like the fulcrum of a medieval catapult, launching Starkell through the air.
“It was easier to die than live, but my life is going to have to be taken. I’m not going to release it.” – Don Starkell
They eventually learned to handle the surf, but traversing open water was a constant danger. In Mexico, they ducked into the Laguna Madre, which parallels the coast for more than 100 miles. Nothing on their maps indicated that the lagoon would grow progressively shallower, until finally they were marooned amid miles of mud. Starkell and Jeff post-holed seven hours through the muck to fetch fresh water and supplies, then the trio spent days portaging the boat and gear to solid ground.
They decided the trip was done. They spent weeks, then months recuperating in Veracruz. Jeff decided he’d had enough and went back to Winnipeg, but when the weather improved in February 1981, Don and Dana started south again. “My dad always liked to have a goal,” Dana said.
One afternoon in Honduras they stopped at a coconut plantation. They chatted and laughed with a couple of local women, who agreed to prepare a meal of rice and beans for a few dollars. As the Starkells chopped coconuts on the beach, two men approached, warning them to move the canoe inland because it wasn’t safe there. They might get robbed.
Such warnings were commonplace, and the Starkells thought nothing of it. “We didn’t feel like pushing that canoe one more foot,” said Dana. But an hour or two later the men came back.
“One guy was on a horse and the other guy had a shotgun,” Dana said. “They just walked up within feet of us and blasted the shotgun over our heads and said, ‘Okay you guys, now you’re going to listen.’”
The men rummaged through their gear, and at some point seemed to decide they couldn’t steal so much stuff and leave anyone alive to tell. They first bound Don and Dana in rough ropes, then untied them and walked them down a path “waiting until the sun went down so they could do us in,” Dana said. As they walked, Don, who spoke passable Spanish, tried to convince the men they were involved with the U.S. military. It seemed to work. The captors, who turned out to be off-duty Honduran soldiers, marched the Starkells seven miles to a military base where they were interrogated and eventually released.
The Starkells later learned that it wasn’t the bluff that saved them, but the two women, who told the men they would report them to the authorities if they killed the canoeists. “They put their lives on the line for us,” Dana said, “and all we had done was spend 15 minutes being friendly to them.”
“The only real problems we ever had were with humans,” Dana later told National Public Radio, “but 99 percent of the people we met were so good to us, you know?”
Don Starkell was not naive. He knew the perils of the journey far better than his sons, and even today people ask Dana how his father rationalized taking his two sons on such a dangerous venture. He tells them his father had a greater fear of not living his life than of anything he might encounter in his adventures. “My dad didn’t believe in an afterlife. He believed we had this one moment in time, and that was it,” Dana said. “So each day really mattered to him.”
Dana judges that evening in Honduras was the closest he and his dad came to dying on the trip, though the most terrifying moments came off the north coast of Colombia, in rolling ocean swell in the dead of night.
“We’d been at sea for 18 hours,” Starkell wrote in his book about the expedition, Paddle to the Amazon. “The waves were up to 15 feet and we had no idea if we were going farther out to sea or back toward the rocky shore.” Suddenly, “the sea literally lifted up, and then there was this big blast of air. I thought it was a submarine, but a hiss and spray told us it was a whale.”
They finally left the ocean behind in Venezuela, where they turned inland up the Orinoco River to the Rio Negro and finally into the Amazon. They reached Belém on May 2, 1982, exactly 23 months after leaving Winnipeg.
Starkell recorded the 12,181 miles in his journals and kept right on paddling. Eventually he would log 75,000 miles, more distance—he says—than anyone in history. The claim puts him at odds with the late Verlen Kruger, a Michigan plumber who first sat in a canoe at age 41 and claimed to have paddled 100,000 miles in his lifetime. Kruger was a savvy self-promoter, and according to Starkell at least, an unreliable record keeper.
“I don’t like saying this because it’s not in my nature but he’s so full of bullshit it’s not even funny,” he told Mihell. “I’ve paddled three times around the world. If someone wants to beat that, I don’t give a damn.”
His next big objective was to kayak the Northwest Passage, a mythical 3,200-mile journey that no one had ever completed. He started in 1990 when he was 58 years old. Continuing the next year, in one 26-day stretch he dragged his loaded kayak overland for 525 miles, averaging almost 20 miles a day. That trip ended with Starkell trapped in sea ice just 36 miles from his objective. There’s little doubt he would have died there if rescuers hadn’t found him.
Though he fell tantalizingly short of the Northwest Passage, Starkell considered the expedition a success because after 49 years and 75,000 miles of paddling, he finally found his limit.
“I sat in that kayak for 25 hours,” he told The Journal of Canadian Wilderness Canoeing. “The only reason I didn’t die—and I could have died a hundred times that last night—it was easier to die than live. I said to myself that I don’t care how painful, my life is going to have to be taken. I’m not going to release it.”
The ice took toes and the tips of his fingers, but it couldn’t take him. A 2010 house fire failed to kill him too. The famously combative canoeist went toe-to-toe with the flames, receiving third-degree burns to his hands and legs. “God, I tell you, this burning has been like going to hell and back,” he told Mihell after a month-long hospital stay. “But I’m feeling better every day, and if I can get myself healed up, I’ll be back on the water.”
His hands were mutilated by fire and ice but soon enough they could grip a paddle, and Starkell kept his promise. Cancer, however, was a different kind of fight. The disease took him in 2012, at 79.