Paddler Starkell was modern-day voyageur


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/01/2012 (3852 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.



Legendary Winnipeg adventurer Don Starkell, who is best remembered for a Guinness Book of World Records feat of paddling with his son Dana more than 19,000 kilometres from his prairie home to the Amazon, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 79.

Starkell died Saturday at his East Kildonan home, family spokesman Chris Forde announced in an email to the Free Press.

He had been battling cancer.

Forde, who has been working on an educational video on the Starkells’ 1980 epic journey — that also included his other son Jeff for much of the way — called Don a compassionate man and a dedicated father who loved to set seemingly impossible goals.

He was at home with nature, history and antiques, which he collected obsessively, Forde said.

“Orphaned as a child, Don overcame his insecurities through paddling a canoe during the great floods of Winnipeg of 1950,” Forde wrote. “A divorce from his wife changed the course of Don’s life so he decided to give his boys an adventure they’d never forget – to paddle a canoe from Winnipeg to the Amazon River.”

Doug Gibson, who edited and published the story for McClelland & Stewart under the title, Paddle to the Amazon, said he had trouble believing that his old pal’s adventurous life was over.

“To me, Don always seemed super-human, and thus, immortal, too.” Gibson said.

“Even the concept — paddling an open canoe from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon -– is beyond ordinary mortals,” Gibson wrote in an email from his home in Toronto.

“Yet Don, very strong in body and immensely strong in determination, not only planned it, he pulled it off, despite all the obstacles that high seas, drug-runners, alligators, piranhas and ill health could throw at him and Dana, the son who stuck with him all the way to Belem.

"What’s significant” Gibson added, ”is that when his older son quits in Mexico, certain that they are going to die if they continue, the reader (and in my case, the editor) is in full agreement, urging them all to see sense, and save their lives by quitting.

“Not Don Starkell.”

The Amazon voyage won the Starkells a place in Guinness Book of World Records for the longest canoe trip, but the father wasn’t satisfied.

A decade later Don tried to paddle a kayak from Churchill through the Northwest Passage.

His publisher tried to dissuade him, but nothing would stop Starkell.

Nothing, it turned out, but the ice that ended his second epic effort a matter of kilometres from this destination.

In the process he lost fingers to frostbite and nearly lost his life.

Gibson said a significant part of Starkell’s Arctic story is what happened after he was rescued and flown by helicopter to the hospital in Tuktoyaktuk.

“The emergency nurse kept taking, then re-taking, his vital signs,” Gibson said. “Don challenged her, saying ‘I should be dead, right?’ And a normal man would have been.”

When he called me from the hospital, he apologized for not making it to his goal. I told him to get well.

Almost to the end, Starkell could be seen on his daily voyage — paddling his white kayak up and down the Red River.

The Starkell family has asked in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the YMCA at

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