A fantastic voyage

Legendary Manitoban explorer leaves behind a legacy

Ayame Ulrich

On Jan. 28, 2012, after a two-year battle with cancer, accomplished Canadian canoe adventurer Don Starkell passed away at 79.

Don was born and raised in Winnipeg; he became impassioned with canoeing in 1948 when a devastating flood struck the city.

The muddy Winnipeg waters that drowned the city during the flood found Don paddling his foster family’s canoe through the streets to get supplies and offer assistance to others.

The waters must have infected him with a strange disease: a thirst for adventure. Don later went on to explore the Amazon by canoe and the Arctic by kayak.

Don’s Amazonian adventure began on June 1, 1980, when he and his two sons, Jeff and Dana, embarked on a 20,000 kilometre canoe voyage from Winnipeg to Belem, Brazil.

The trio began by paddling up the Red River into North Dakota, and then made their way through the United States into waters just south of Mexico.

They stopped their gruelling journey to rest for three months in Veracruz, Mexico where Jeff abandoned their adventure.

Don and Dana carried on together as a father and son duo that would face enormous obstacles and hardship, including possible death.

Paddle to the Amazon is an incredible account of Don and Dana’s two-year expedition, written with the help of journals Don kept during the trip.

An excerpt from the book says the men came face to face with piranhas, alligators and wild pigs on their voyage, and experienced being shot at and arrested by the authorities who had mistaken them for spies and drug smugglers.

The men survived the pains of food poisoning and near starvation, sometimes resorting to eating roasted ants.

They faced modern-day pirates in Colombia, only to escape and make it to Venezuela, where the duo became trapped on a sandbar due to strong headwinds. Their food supply ran out, leaving them near-death on the Gulf of Coro - but miraculously, they made it out alive.

The men finished their extraordinary journey two years later on May 2, 1982.

They went on to have their names immortalized in the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records as record holders for the longest canoe trip ever, at an astounding 19,603 kilometres.

Following his treacherous Amazon adventure, Don was even more enamoured with exploration. In 1990, he undertook an equally exhilarating solo kayak mission through the Northwest Passage to the Arctic.

Paddle to the Arctic, Don’s second book, chronicles his 4,800 kilometre trip through icy waters, a journey that cost him the tips of his fingers and toes to frostbite.

Unfortunately, due to the injuries he sustained from the weather, he was forced to desert his expedition when he reached Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. He was only 50 kilometres from his goal.

Don was quoted as saying, “When I did the Arctic trip, I gave absolutely everything I had and that was success.”

Yet in a life filled with incredible events and obstacles, another unbelievable event in Don’s life occurred in March 2010, when his home caught fire while he was inside.

He survived, but he was seriously injured - he suffered smoke inhalation and burns.

However, he overcame his injuries with the same lively spirit he had during his adventures.

In 2006, Don was inducted in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Museum for his great exploits, and Don’s improbable life will be immortalized again in a forthcoming documentary by Chris Forde, a friend of the Starkells.

Many people have called death life’s last adventure.

I’m sure a man like Don Starkell would agree.

Bon voyage, Don, and rest in peace.

Erika Miller is a student at the University of Manitoba.

Published in Volume 66, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 8, 2012)

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