To legions of admirers, Don Starkell was one of Canada's last great adventurers -- a determined distance paddler who embarked on epic voyages purely for the sake of the challenge.

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WAYNE GLOWACKI / Winnipeg Free Press archives
 Don Starkell was still paddling 22 kilometres a day in 2009 as he hauled up his 19-year-old kayak from the Red River.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / Winnipeg Free Press archives Don Starkell was still paddling 22 kilometres a day in 2009 as he hauled up his 19-year-old kayak from the Red River.

To legions of admirers, Don Starkell was one of Canada's last great adventurers -- a determined distance paddler who embarked on epic voyages purely for the sake of the challenge.

To a handful of detractors, Winnipeg's most famous canoeist and kayaker was a stubborn risk-taker, a man who placed himself and others in danger due to an internal need to remain in perpetual motion and go farther than anyone else.

Donald George Starkell, who died of cancer Saturday at the age of 79, will forever be known as the man who paddled 19,490 kilometres from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil with son Dana in tow, braving the likes of heavy surf, armed bandits and drug runners along the way.

He will also be remembered as the man who paddled 5,120 kilometres across the Canadian Arctic, negotiating ice-choked channels and evading polar bears before getting stranded in the Northwest Passage and losing parts of his fingers to frostbite.

And he will leave behind a lifetime paddling record of more than 120,000 kilometres, a distance equal to three times the circumference of the planet.

Winnipeg Free Press archives
Dana Starkell (right) with his dad on their 19,490-km trip to Brazil's Amazon River.

Winnipeg Free Press archives Dana Starkell (right) with his dad on their 19,490-km trip to Brazil's Amazon River.

"If you try something that's never been done before, you can't lose," Starkell said in an interview in 2009, when he was still paddling almost daily. "Even my own kids will say, 'My dad was sort of weird, but at least he did something.' "

Starkell's chronicles of his exploits -- Paddle to the Amazon (1987) and Paddle to the Arctic (1996) -- secured his reputation as an adventurer, in the old-school sense of the term. He had no corporate sponsors during his most active period in the 1980s, no promotional website during the '90s and no social-media presence during his last decade, when he quietly attempted to prove he had surpassed the world record for distance paddling. That mark remains credited to Verlen Kruger, an American who died in 2004.

Up until 2010, when Starkell suffered serious burns in a $200,000 fire at his East Kildonan home, he continued to paddle 22 kilometres a day, when the weather permitted him to slip his kayak onto the Red River. He kept a tally of his daily mileage in a hand-written ledger, recording his annual mileage -- dating back to 1945 -- in a separate book.

"It was more than a drive he had. It was like he was possessed. He had a fire inside of him," said Phil Manaigre, a friend and fellow paddler who considered Starkell his mentor.

"People see him as being this determined character, but I also got to know the real Don," Manaigre added. "Deep down, he was this very compassionate person. He'd pick up birds he found on the river and took them home until they got better. People didn't get to see that side of him."

Manaigre described Starkell as a brilliant and meticulous trip planner whose singular focus could be misunderstood as selfishness. Growing up as an orphan predisposed his mentor to being preoccupied with his own survival, Manaigre opined.

In a 2009 interview, Starkell acknowledged he was shaped by the disappointment of not being able to recall his parents. He also failed courses at school, retired from sales jobs because he didn't like having to persuade anyone to do anything and divorced his wife, Anne.

Starkell said his drive to paddle was born out of a desire to succeed in one area of his life. Family spokesman Chris Forde elaborated, calling Starkell a compassionate and dedicated father who loved to set seemingly impossible goals.

"Orphaned as a child, Don overcame his insecurities through paddling a canoe during the great floods of Winnipeg of 1950," Forde wrote in an email to the Free Press. "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 Paddle to the Amazon, described Starkell's most famous journey as beyond the ability of ordinary mortals.

"What's significant is that when his older son (Jeff) 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," Gibson said in an email from Toronto.

Starkell's ability to withstand pain and adversity was remarkable, Manaigre added. He didn't even complain when the scabs on his partly amputated fingers opened up on Lake Winnipeg during his first paddle after he recovered from his Arctic ordeal.

Starkell died at his beloved home. He is survived by his three children, Jeff, Dana and Sherri.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked donations be made to the YMCA at strongkids.ca

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca