CBC Digital Archives

The longest canoe trip ever

The need to navigate the waters prompted native North Americans to invent the canoe. Hundreds of years later, their creation has become a favourite Canadian pastime. Many use canoeing as a means of finding tranquility in nature; others take it up as a sport. Some even view it as an art form. The CBC Digital Archives takes a look at the storied history of gliding along the water with paddle in hand.

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There may never be another canoe trip like it. On June 1, 1980, Don Starkell of Winnipeg and his two sons, Dana and Jeff, set out from the shores of the Red River on a mammoth voyage. Their quest: to paddle all the way to coastal Brazil via the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America. Jeff left in despair in Mexico, leaving Don and Dana to attempt the most arduous part of the journey. As illustrated in this 1987 report from CBC-TV's the fifth estate they were shot at, robbed and jailed, and endured persistent physical agony. But incredibly and against all the odds, they made it.
• Don Starkell was born December 7, 1932 in Winnipeg. His childhood involved stays in an orphanage and in a foster home. He took up canoeing in his teens and at age 17 was named most outstanding novice at the city's Kildonan Canoe Club.
  • As shown in this clip, Don was a member of the winning team in the 1967 Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant. The 104-day race began at Rocky Mountain House, Alberta and ended in Montreal, the site of Expo 67.

• In 1973, Dana and Jeff were just 12 and 11 years old when the three climbed Banff's Mount Rundle, a 9,000-foot summit.

• The Winnipeg to Belem voyage involved two lengthy recuperation periods, from November 1980 to February 1981 in Veracruz, Mexico (where Jeff departed) and from October 14, 1981 to January 1, 1982 in Trinidad. The trip ended at Belem, Brazil on May 2, 1982.

• In 1986, Guinness World Records recognized Don and Dana Starkell for having completed the longest canoe journey ever, a distance of 19,603 kilometres (12,181 miles).

• In 1990, Don Starkell set out to trace the Northwest Passage by kayak. The 4,830 kilometre trip took him three years and had to be terminated less than 60 kilometres from its end point at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, due to frostbite and encroaching winter temperatures. Starkell lost the tops of his fingers and some of his toes.

• Victoria Jason was Starkell's partner on some of that Arctic trip. She is the first woman to paddle solo through the Northwest Passage and wrote a book on the adventure, Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak. In it, Jason is very critical of Starkell and his canoeing style. Starkell responded to the criticism in an interview with the canoeing website Che-Mun. He said that he trained Jason personally and made compromises so that she could accompany him on the trip.

• Starkell is the author of two books. Paddle to the Amazon details the two-year journey from Winnipeg to Brazil. Paddle to the Arctic recounts the Northwest Passage expedition.

• Starkell was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in 2006.

Medium: Television
Program: The Fifth Estate
Broadcast Date: Oct. 13, 1987
Guest(s): Don Starkell, Dana Starkell, Jeff Starkell
Host: Hana Gartner
Duration: 14:20 This clip was edited for copyright reasons.

Last updated: May 16, 2013

Page consulted on September 19, 2014

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