Canoeist Don Starkell Dies

Legendary paddler canoed from Winnipeg to Brazil

Don Starkell, who claimed to have paddled more miles than any person in history, died of cancer Saturday at his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Winnipeg Free Press reports. He was 79.

The famously stubborn canoeist is best known for paddling 12,000 miles with his son Dana, from their home near Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon. The 1980 open canoe journey earned the Starkells a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was but one episode in a life of canoeing and kayaking that, according to Starkell’s meticulous journals, spanned nearly 75,000 miles.

In addition to the Amazon expedition, Starkell took part in the 1967 trans-Canada Centennial paddle and in the 1991 and 1992 paddling seasons, he attempted to kayak the Northwest Passage. Trapped in pack ice and slipping in and out of consciousness, the then 59-year-old Starkell accepted a helicopter rescue just 36 miles from the finish.

“I was going to die, but I would not let my mind accept it,” Starkell told C&K Editor-at-Large Conor Mihell in 2010, while recovering from a house fire that nearly claimed his life. Mihell’s Unfiltered feature, which ran in the August, 2010 Canoe & Kayak, is published below.


UNFILTERED: Don Starkell, Expedition Paddler

In the spring of 1980, Don Starkell and sons Dana and Jeff portaged their 21-foot canoe down the street from their home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to the banks of the Red River and set off for South America. They were arrested, shot at, kidnapped by pirates and nearly starved. But two years later, Don and Dana finished the 12,000-mile epic (Jeff bowed out after one too many near-misses) and took their place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest canoe trip of all time.

Despite this grand achievement, Starkell’s life has been a struggle for self-esteem and survival. Canoeing gave him an escape from the revolving door of a foster care childhood. For two decades, beginning in the 1950s, he was one of Canada’s top sprint and marathon canoe racers. In 1992, his two-year attempt to kayak the Northwest Passage ended in a helicopter rescue only 36 miles from his destination. Starkell, 77, has meticulously documented his 75,000 paddling miles in spiral-bound ledgers-more distance, he claims, than anyone else in the world.

In March an errant spark from his wood stove led to another close call. “I woke up and there was a bonfire in my front room,” says Starkell, who stubbornly stood toe-to-toe with the flames and nearly died from the burns he received. “God, I tell you, this burning has been like going to hell and back,” he said, after recuperating in a Winnipeg hospital for a month. “But I’m feeling better every day, and if I can get myself healed up, I’ll be back on the water.”  — Conor Mihell

I’ve been psychoanalyzing myself for the past 15 or 20 years. I have a thing where if people say, ‘You can’t do that,’ right away I respond, ‘How do you know without trying?’

The only reason I ever got into canoeing was my second foster home. It was on a creek that flooded in the spring and they had a canoe. That canoe gave me the first freedom in my life. I was just like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

I know what I was doing in every year. 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.

They had the Canadian Centennial canoe race from Rocky Mountain House to Montreal in 1967. It was over 3,200 miles and I had to quit my 17-year job to do it. My attitude has always been when something good comes you better take advantage of it.

In 1970 my wife took off on me. I can’t look back in my past and see anything that I can be proud of with my parents or grandparents. It was a horrible mess. And I never wanted to do that to my kids.

Right away it came to me. I would take them on a long canoe trip. Dana had always wanted to walk to the Amazon and I told him, ‘How about we canoe from Winnipeg to the Amazon?’ He looked at a globe and the distance didn’t look that far, it was only two of his hands. Dana and Jeff were 8 and 9 years old when we decided on this. Ten years later we would do it.

During those 10 years I did a good job on those guys. I was tough on them and made them struggle. And then the time came to do it and we took off and that’s the story.

Everyday I think about that trip.

My last year up north I was 59 years old. In one stretch I dragged my kayak overland for 525 miles in 26 days. I averaged almost 20 miles a day. No one has done that kind of pace in Arctic or Antarctic history.

There’s no overstatement in [my] book Paddle to the Arctic. Everything is understated, believe me. It was six times worse. I got stuck in my kayak for 26 hours in slush ice. 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.

That was the first time in my life that I’d given 100 percent and I failed. But there isn’t one thing that I could’ve done that would’ve made me successful.

One of my biggest achievements as far as I’m concerned is my lifetime paddling miles. Have you ever heard of that guy Kruger who claims all those miles? 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. That’s my sour grapes on Verlen Kruger.

My miles are so much beyond his that I’m not even worried about it. I’ve been keeping my records since 1948 when I was 15 years old and right now I’m just under 75,000 miles.

Last year was the worst year I’ve done in 15 years. It was a cold summer in Winnipeg and I paddled only 1,500 miles.

It’s crazy, you know. I’ve paddled three times around the world. If someone wants to beat that, I don’t give a damn.

This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

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  • GABRIEL (GABBY) DELGADO

    It is hard to write words that describe a person such as Don, and it is even harder to describe the influence to many of us who he touched during his life. Having shared with Don a portion of his legendary trip to the Amazon influenced me for a life. he will certainly be missed. I am now certain that, if there are oceans, rivers and lakes in heaven, most likely Don will be paddling all during eternity.
    Gabriel (gabby) Delgado

  • Anne Creally

    Don was a true blue Canadian hero , tough , driven and humble in my opinion . I heard him speak in a CBC radio interview with Peter Gzowski decades ago , shortly after his book, Paddle to the Amazon , was published. I couldn’t believe that he had made this unimagineable journey … I had to read about it . I have shared the book with many and continue to encourage others to read about this amazingly stubborn man’s epic adventure shared with his sons.
    Your contribution to all that is Canadian is one to be proud of , Don . Though we never met , I’m so very proud of you. Thank you . Rest in Peace .

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  • Richard M Moss

    A true warrior, world explorer and man of “True Grit” has passed on leaving behind a trail marker for those who yearn for adventure. His exploits reveal the truth that with challenging travel come pain, hardship and self-sacrifice not to mention the extreme prize, self awareness. God rest his soul.

  • John Walker

    I read his book and I was hooked. I bought a beat up jon boat out of a guy’s backyard and cheap oars from Walmart and my son and I headed down a local river. Have done it every year since. There are too many drones in the world… Don was a King Bee… Paddle On Bro.

  • Phil Oster

    Reading Don’s book “Paddle to the Amazon” was and is still one of the most inspiring stories of adventure around. Up there with Shackleton! Don is a legend and will remain one of the great paddlers for a very long time !!
    Power To The Paddle.

  • George Stockman

    Great to learn of a new canoe character and book to read. There are several more such characters I’ve learned about, such as the two stock brokers who paddled from NYC to the Bering Sea in the 1920′s, wintering with Canadian trappers and taking 2 years to do it. Did Verlen Kruger know about them? One shouldn’t get into mileage contests, however. Some Amazonian fishermen probably paddle 20 miles per day, 300 days per year, covering 150,000 miles in 25 years. Isn’t it the quality of the miles that counts? Those of us here in Michigan personally knew and loved Verlen Kruger. Not only only did he paddle long, but he was pretty good at PR with his talks and books. Even so, most kayakers I meet have never heard of Verlen either, or Gregg Barton. Now i can ask them about Don Starkell and how their boof at High Falls compares to the Northwest Passage!

  • Chris Maguire

    In 1993 we read Don’s book “Paddle to the Amazon” and decided to follow his Canoes steps, starting in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Little did we know that in 1996 we would finish in the Amazon and break Don’s record.
    We stopped in Winnipeg, en route, and spent the evening with Don, at the time we were only paddling as far as Mexico. Don was an inspiration, full of enthusiasm, energy and support for our adventure.

    A role model to all adventurers !

  • Sheldon

    I read his book and kayaks down the Nile when I was a teen and said I would take my boys on a trip when I was a Dad. Two summers ago we did our first rip when we went from Fort Wayne Indiana to Lake Erie on a Seacycle. We are now planning a bigger trip. I love what the trip did to my sons and I.
    RIP my friend there is water in Heaven!

  • kenneth Sawchuk

    Having read Don’s book I can truly say he ranks among Canada”s great adventurers during a time when we so sorely need adventurers and entrepreneurs

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