Now, Winnipeg's most famous canoeist and kayaker figures he's only several weeks from paddling the equivalent of three trips around the world -- and has quietly blown away the world record for the most kilometres ever paddled by a human over the course of a lifetime.
By his own estimation, the 76-year-old Starkell is 456 kilometres away from a lifetime paddling mark of 120,226 kilometres, a distance equal to three times the circumference of the planet. It's also 20,000 kilometres more than the 100,000 credited to American paddler and Guinness record-holder Verlen Kruger, who died in 2004.
Unlike most long-distance athletes, Starkell does not chronicle his exploits on a website, doesn't promote himself in social media and avoids corporate sponsorship like an unfavourable tide.
Instead, he has documented his paddles in a pair of hand-noted ledgers, one noting the distance paddled each day and the other noting the mileage he's racked up every year of his life since he paddled eight scant kilometres in 1945.
"Some people may doubt my record, but if they talk to any locals, people see me out on the river almost every day," Starkell said over a cup of coffee on Monday, when the morning thunderstorm convinced him not to paddle.
Most days, he gets up at 2:45 a.m., leaves his East Kildonan home and hits the water by 4 a.m., paddling 22 kilometres along a route that takes him up the Red River to the Assiniboine River, west to the Osborne Bridge and back, further south to Fort Rouge and then back home.
This summer, he's on the water fewer days than he would prefer. The partial amputation of his fingers following the end of his 1991-92 paddle from Churchill to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., have left him with a chronic aversion to cold.
"I'm tired of getting all wet and soaked and hypothermic," he said.
Nevertheless, he's proud of paddling the equivalent of roughly one trip around the world since his time in the Arctic. He describes his drive to paddle as partly borne out of a desire to succeed in one area of his life.
Taken from his parents as a toddler, he can't recall a conversation with his mother or father. He failed courses at school. His marriage to his wife Anne produced three children but ended in divorce. He retired from sales jobs because he didn't like persuading people to do anything.
"If you try something that's never been done before, you can't lose," Starkell said. "Even my own kids will say, 'My dad was sort of weird, but at least he did something.'"
Starkell said he knows some paddlers will be skeptical of his mileage total, but claims the late Kruger's milestone was achieved with the help of motorized transport to aid with portages and upstream paddling sections. Kruger's biographer, Wisconsin-based writer Phil Peterson, could not be reached for comment.
Frederick Reimers, an editor with Canoe & Kayak magazine in Portland, Ore., said in an email that lifetime paddling totals are difficult figures to verify.
Jay Morrison, an Ottawa endurance paddler who made an 8,000-kilometre solo journey across Canada in 2007-08, said both Kruger and Starkell were highly driven, but Kruger was more obsessed with speed. But the national spokesman for Paddle Canada, a recreational paddling organization, said if anyone has a legitimate claim to the lifetime mileage record, it's Donald George Starkell.
"I think it's extremely likely. We all know some of the distances he's done. It's not only highly probable, I wouldn't doubt it at all," said Jamie Hilland, a Winnipeg-based kayaker who's also the Manitoba regional director for Paddle Canada.
"You're looking at 64 years of paddling. I think it's inspirational that he still puts the kilometres in every day and has made some sensational trips."
Ottawa's Morrison said it's more important to ask a paddler why they're making the trek than how many kilometres they've paddled. Starkell claims opportunity is even more important, as he's been divorced and retired for decades.
"If someone did better than me, I'd be the first to congratulate them," he said, making no apologies for claiming to be the world record holder.
"People tell me I talk a lot. I go back and say there's plenty of time to be quiet once you're dead."
Don Starkell's greatest trips
Selected journeys in the 64-year paddling career of 76-year-old Winnipegger Don Starkell
1) Rocky Mountain House, Alta. to Montreal (1967): 5,250 kms
2) Winnipeg to Belem, Brazil (1980-82): 19,490 kms
3) Vancouver to Alaska border (1986): 1,280 kms
4) Churchill, Man. to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (1991-92): 5,120 kms
5) Davenport, Iowa to several island past Key West, Fla. (2001): 4,000
6) New York City to Key Largo, Fla. (2003): 3,520 kms
Read all about (some of) it
Paddle to the Amazon (1987)
Paddle to the Arctic (1995)