“How a chance phone call connected an aspiring young paddler to his inspiration.”
Read Conor Mihell’s remembrance of Don Starkell in the May issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now. Click HERE to read more, along with the C&K profile from our August 2010 issue.
By Josh Valentine
The YMCA was boring me to death. The front desk was devoid of action, the lobby abandoned. The moon of a late New Jersey winter shone through the windows. My shift was about half over, but the book that I had brought to pass the time was completely finished. Despite my best attempt to return to my duties, I found myself drifting back to the cover of the well-worn paperback sitting on the desk beside me. I allowed my eyes to graze across the cover.
Paddle to the Amazon: The Ultimate 12,000 Mile Canoe Adventure, by Don Starkell.
It had long been one of my favorite books. At the center of the story was Starkell himself, a figure larger than life in my mind. Glancing at the front desk phone, a sudden whimsical notion passed over me. With a shrug, I picked it up and dialed information. When the operator answered, I asked for Starkell in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She quickly connected the number.
Surprise gave way to tense anticipation as the phone rang. Doing things without thinking was a regular occurrence for me; be it for better or worse. Invading the privacy of a paddling celebrity however, was thus far uncharted territory.
“Hello,” a man’s voice answered, compounding the tension.
“Hello,” I replied, doing my best to sound casual. “Is this … Don Starkell?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Uh, my name is Josh,” I replied. “Sorry to bother you at home, and I know this is going to sound strange, but I am a huge fan of your books. I’ve read them both several times. I’m a canoeist myself, and you’re a huge inspiration of mine, I was just hoping for a chance to talk to you.”
The tension had reached its height. I was unsure as to how he would react. After all, not everyone is open to random phone calls from complete strangers at night, especially not famous people.
“You’re kidding,” he answered, breaking the silence with a hearty laugh. “How old are you? How did you get my number?”
“Twenty,” I replied, still unsure as to whether or not I had gotten away with it. “I just sorta took a shot and dialed information.”
“Wow,” he laughed again. “It’s not often I hear from someone your age.”
The tension was gone. Don was not only happy to talk, but flattered. He welcomed the conversation, unwittingly opening the floodgates upon himself as I bombarded him with questions.
What had it been like to eat ants? What had it felt like to think you were about to be shot? Did Dana still play the guitar? What was it like to live without fingertips? What on earth had made him think it was a good idea to get that close to that anaconda? What came over him to cause him to hold his ground with a polar bear?
“Wow, you really have read those books,” he replied. His voice was warm, and carried wisdom with it the likes only found within a well-traveled soul. He answered each and every one of my frantic questions with depth, humility, and genuine thought. Then he surprised me even further.
“So what about you,” Don asked, once he had satisfied my interrogation. “Where are you from? Where do you paddle?”
The man who would go on to paddle more miles than three times the circumference of the globe was genuinely interested in hearing about me. Each story I told, he asked to hear more. With each story’s end, I was met with enthusiasm and encouragement.
“You really have to do the Mississippi,” Don continuously suggested. “It’s just incredible. We kayaked the whole east coast of the U.S., but the Mississippi is just incredible.”
“It’s one of my goals,” I replied.
“You know, I still make the park rangers in the area crazy every day,” he chuckled. “Every time I’m out paddling, they insist that I wear my life vest, but I never do.” It was my turn to laugh.
“Lately, I have all this firewood taking up all this room in my house,” began another story. “I had it all out in my yard, but I had so much that they told me they would fine me if I didn’t get rid of it, so I started keeping it inside.”
With each story, Don’s character only grew. At 72 years old, he was every bit as vivacious as he had seemed in the pages of his books, and his infamous stubbornness was no act. An hour and a half had passed before I realized that I was nearly to the end of my shift.
“Thank you so much,” I said as we brought the conversation to a close. “It really made my day to get to speak with you.”
“Well it made mine to speak to you,” Don replied. “It’s great to get to talk about this sort of thing with someone your age. If you’re ever in the Winnipeg area, you’re welcome to stay anytime, Josh. And you’ve got someone to paddle with. As long as you don’t mind all the firewood.”
In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined that moment. Don had answered as an idol. He’d said goodbye as a friend. If the YMCA fired me for this call I wouldn’t have noticed. My mind was racing at the thought of getting to paddle with Don Starkell himself.
Seven years later, bittersweet appreciation came across me as I read headlines announcing Don’s passing. My mind raced back across the memories of our conversation. Hurricane Katrina had derailed my previous goal of paddling the Mississippi, a goal that suddenly revisited me with a new sense of urgency.
A moment of regret passed across me. I never did get to paddle with him. Yet I had been granted an audience with a legend, and with that experience his inspiration came to shine only brighter. In my mind as well as countless others, Don is with us every time paddles strike the water.