The world has lost one of its great adventurers in Canada’s Don Starkell, a canoeing legend who claimed to have paddled 75,000 miles since he first fell in love with the pastime in 1948.
Starkell, who died Saturday at 79 after a struggle with cancer, was as famous for his stubborn demeanor and frankness as he was for his many remarkable exploits.
“I’ve paddled three times around the world. If someone wants to beat that, I don’t give a damn,” he told Canoe & Kayak magazine in a 2010 interview.
Starkell is most renowned for having paddled nearly 12,000 miles in a 21-foot canoe with his son, Dana, from the Red River near his home in Winnipeg, Canada, to the Amazon River in South America.
During that two-year odyssey, which began in 1980, they “were arrested, shot at, kidnapped by pirates and nearly starved,” Canoe & Kayak reported. The epic journey placed the pair in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest canoe voyage. (Starkell’s other son Jeff was along for part of the way.)
Doug Gibson, who published a book on the adventure, “Paddle to the Amazon,” described Starkell to the Winnipeg Free Press as “super-human” and explained, “Even the concept — paddling an open canoe from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon — is beyond ordinary mortals.” (Video posted below is a visual introduction to the book.)
Gibson added, “Yet Don, very strong in body and immensely strong in determination, not only planned it, he pulled it off, despite all the obstacles that high seas, drug-runners, alligators, piranhas and ill health could throw at him and Dana.”
Paddling was tantamount to freedom for Starkell, who was orphaned as a child and raised in foster homes. At one of the homes was a canoe, and Starkell recalled that his first paddling excursion was on a creek that flooded in the spring.
“I was just like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer,” he told Canoe & Kayak.
In 1992 Starkell attempted to navigate the treacherous Northwest Passage in a kayak, but became mired in ice and was rescued by a helicopter crew 36 miles short of completion. He was suffering from severe frostbite, which resulted in the loss of a few fingers.
“I got stuck in my kayak for 26 hours in sush ice,” he recalled. “I couldn’t get to shore. I fell through the ice three times up to my armpits trying. Then I sat in and out of consciousness. I was going to die, but I would not let my mind accept it.”
In his later years Starkell could be found almost every day paddling a canoe on the Red River, a waterway made lonely by his passing.
The Starkell family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the YMCA Strong Kids Campaign.
– Images of Don Starkell, in 2010, are courtesy of Ian McCausland / Canoe & Kayak