Don Starkell. Portrait by Ian McCausland

Don Starkell. Portrait by Ian McCausland

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.