When Canadian filmmaker Chris Forde paddled the Mississippi River with Don and Dana Starkell a few summers ago, he couldn’t help but feel he was part of the original 1980 father and son journey from Winnipeg, Manitoba to the mouth of the Amazon River. “They were pretty much using the same equipment they had on the original trip,” says Forde. “They had wooden boxes and a jury rigged tarp system for their gear. The stuff was archaic even by 1980s standards.”
In the spring of 1980, Don Starkell and sons Dana and Jeff portaged their homemade 21-foot canoe down the street from their home in Winnipeg to the banks of the Red River, boxed and tarped their personal effects and set off for South America. Two years later, after suffering from starvation, towering surf, getting arrested, kidnapped by pirates and being shot at countless times, Don and Dana completed the 12,250-mile epic (Jeff bowed out after one too many near misses) and found their place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest canoe trip. Don Starkell’s 1986 account of the journey, Paddle to the Amazon, ranks among the best adventure stories of all time.
Now, Forde is nearing completion of the first documentary of the Starkells’ journey, which he hopes to release next spring. The Toronto-based filmmaker says part of the reason for producing the film was to make the Starkells’ story better known, especially among North American youths. The other driving force behind the documentary, says Forde, was to determine what inspired Don Starkell to embark on such an ambitious trip. After spending eight days canoeing with the Starkells on the Mississippi, completing dozens of interviews and retracing and dramatizing parts of their Central American leg by land, Forde finally found the answer: Don Starkell wanted nothing more than to suffer, to bond with his sons, and to survive.
“It was as if he was saying, ‘what’s going to stop me?’” says Forde. “He wanted hardship. He liked it when people said, ‘you can’t do that, you’re crazy, you’re insane.’ And then he proved them wrong.”
At age 76, Don Starkell remains an active paddler, and with a lifetime total of over 75,000 miles is set to eclipse the late U.S. expedition canoeist Verlen Kruger’s distance mark in the Guinness record book. Forde, who manages Starkell’s FaceBook page and has sifted through all of his meticulous journals, says he’s still driven and ever eccentric. “He’s kind of like a drill sergeant in some respects…right down to planning the number of paddle strokes in a day,” says Forde. “At first when I was filming on the Mississippi Don had no time for me to stop the flow of his paddling…working around his schedule was tough.” – Conor Mihell
Watch Forde’s trailers online at: www.paddletotheamazon.com