Paddle of the Century

40 years ago, Don Starkell and his teenaged sons set off from Winnipeg’s Red River on a world-record-setting canoe trip.

Don Starkell wasn't the kind of guy to shy away from improbable odds. So when people told him his dream of paddling a canoe from Winnipeg to the Amazon was impossible, it fuelled his determination to do it.

The epic trip would stretch nearly 20,000 kilometres, through 13 countries, and would include life-threatening tropical storms, fierce waves and a near-execution in Honduras.

Don on a bike trip from Winnipeg to Nova Scotia in 1984. (Rhonda Rich/Submitted by Dana Starkell)

“If we’d known what lay ahead,” Don wrote years later, “we certainly would not have gone.”

Against all odds, Don and his son Dana would complete the trip in just under two years, setting a Guinness World Record for the longest canoe trip ever taken.

Setting off

Don started talking about the canoe trip 10 years before it actually began.

During visits to a local library, Dana remembers him poring over the histories of people who had travelled portions of the proposed trek.

CBC Archives: The Longest Canoe Trip Ever

“It's just a matter of putting it together,” he remembered his father saying.

Don was already a seasoned — and decorated — canoeist. He'd been paddling since he was in his teens and was a member of the winning team in the 1967 Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant — a 104-day race that stretched from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., to Montreal.

Don with his young sons Dana, left, and Jeff, right, around the time he first began talking to them about paddling to the Amazon. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

The long trip was the perfect opportunity for Dana to hone his musical skills. He brought his guitar along to play when he wasn't paddling.

His younger brother, Jeff, wasn't so lucky; his passions — electronics and engineering — were less beach-friendly. He’d have to put his studies on hold.

Nevertheless, the Starkell family pushed off from the beach on Winnipeg's Red River with Dana, 19, and Jeff, 18, in the Orellana, their custom-built fibreglass canoe, on June 1, 1980 — a Canadian flag proudly declaring their origins.

Departure day. From left, Don, Dana and Jeff prepare for takeoff from the banks of the Red River in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

Most days, it went about like any other camping trip. Dana, being larger than Jeff, would sit at the front of the boat, with Jeff behind him and their father at the rear.

Don kept a journal throughout the trip. It would form the basis of his 1987 memoir, Paddle to the Amazon.

“The Mississippi has been good to us, and we feel none of the resentment toward it that we felt toward the Red,” he wrote on July 31. “We do have our little hardships: warm drinking water, Mississippi sand in everything, and of course the heat.”

The pancake incident

Their travels through the U.S. waterways were mostly peaceful. But even though everything generally went well, after months on the water, tensions began developing among the trio.

Jeff recalled Dana and his dad scrapping over a single pancake that wasn’t split into perfectly even thirds.

Don, Jeff and Dana on the Red River in North Dakota. (Submitted by Jeff Starkell)

“Dana grabbed the pancake, and then my dad kinda grabbed him in a big bear hug and smothered him down to the ground to kind of settle them down.”

Don recorded other tense moments in his journal.

“I’ve been trying so hard not to be bossy that we’ve now got three captains in the boat, each with a mind of his own. It’s a problem, and I’m going to have to be a little less democratic,” he wrote on Aug. 18.

“If I go too far, however, I’ll have a mutiny on my hands. I need my crew — need everything they can give me.”

‘D-Day’

In his journal, Don called Sept. 20, 1980 “D-Day,” when they planned to leave the protection of the Intracoastal Waterway near Port Isabel, Texas, and head out into the open sea, eventually crossing into Mexican waters.

Don assured his sons that as long as they followed his instructions, everything would be fine. The harsh currents resulting from the Waterway meeting the Gulf of Mexico had other ideas.

“Our first attempts to launch? I mean, it was a total disaster. We had no idea what we were doing,” Dana said.

Don, Dana and Jeff on Day 1, on the Red River Floodway. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

It took multiple attempts to make even minor headway without their canoe getting filled with water. Eventually, they realized they just had to paddle forward and that getting semi-swamped was just part of the process.

Jeff leaves

Rough waters made the next steps even more difficult. On Sept. 30, Don wrote in his journal that after 10 days of fighting the relentless currents, they managed to progress little more than three kilometres.

Things got worse when they hit the Laguna Madre, a long stretch of water that runs inland along Mexico’s coast. Jeff recalls they entered it at a double — both daily and monthly — high tide. They thought it was enough to take them down the coast, but it soon dried up.

“The next thing you know, we’re in the middle of this lagoon, a mile on either side of us mud,” Dana recalled.

The three decided they would settle in the Mexican port city of Veracruz for the winter to re-evaluate if and when they could continue.

Dana still had his guitar to pass the time. But Jeff saw little reason to put his career aspirations on indefinite hold. So he decided to return home and enrol in engineering school.

Dana practises guitar on a beach in Tampico, Mexico. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

“It wasn’t an easy decision for me. I felt like I was letting them down to some extent,” Jeff said.

“But on the other hand, you only have one life, and you sort of have to live it the way you want to live it.”

Tropical storm Arlene

By February 1981, the Gulf had calmed enough for Don and Dana set off again — with nearly 14,000 kilometres left to go.

After crossing from Mexico into Belize, they enjoyed a peaceful stretch along the Colson Cays in Belize. But that calmness was violently shattered by tropical storm Arlene, which barrelled down on them just as they took shelter in a fishing shack.

Dana and Don off the coast of Venezuela. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

All night, the wind and waves tore at the flimsy plywood walls of the shack. Don and Dana were certain it would be ripped from its moorings and they would be flung out to sea.

But somehow they survived the night. Even more surprising, so did their canoe. Don had tied it to posts driven into the sharp coral bank the night before. Incredibly, it suffered no damage.

“As we packed and retarped,” Don wrote in his journal, “we kept saying to one another, 'It’s a miracle.'”

Gunpoint in Honduras

On May 24, with their water supplies dwindling, Don and Dana stumbled on a small coconut plantation on the Laguna de Caratasca, which runs just inside the Honduran coastline.

Upon pulling into shore, they struck up a conversation with two women who agreed to cook them some food.

Don was filling their canteens with fresh coconut water when two men approached them — one of them brandishing a shotgun.

"They walk right up to us and the guy levels this shotgun at us, raises it slightly overhead, blows it off just to show us they weren't fooling around and then ordered us down to our canoe," Dana said.

Dana on the Rio Negro, in Venezuela. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

The rogue soldiers ransacked the canoe, then ordered Don and Dana to start marching.

“They stopped a few times to shoot us, but every time … some people would come along down this road,” Dana said.

“At that stage of the trip, my dad is thinking like, you know, we're not getting out of this. These guys are going to kill us.”

Eventually, the men dropped Don and Dana off at a military base, leaving the duo puzzled over why their lives were spared.

The next morning, just before they were released and returned to their canoe, the women they had met earlier showed up in tears at the military base.

“It was those two ladies that we met that saved us. They told [one of the soldiers] that if they killed us, they were going to report him. And those guys could have turned around and put bullets through their heads,” Dana explained. “Just as easy.”

Long stretch

Nearly a year after leaving Winnipeg, Don and Dana had paddled through six countries — Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras — with seven still to go: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago and finally Brazil.

Sometimes, Dana was able to break the ice with strangers in towns along the way by playing his guitar.

But other times, Dana and his father adopted a “survival mode,” growing into their now-haggard appearances to scare off would-be aggressors.

Dana making friends in Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela, on the Orinoco River. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

“The way we thought at the time was just to kind of look at somebody in such a way to say to them: If they bothered us, we would kill 'em,” Dana said.

By Dana’s recollection, they had at least 13 encounters with people who threatened them at gunpoint. But nothing came as close to disaster as the Honduras incident.

Finally, on May 1, 1982, the father-son duo paddled into the port of Bélem, Brazil — where the Amazon meets the Atlantic. It marked the end of a 23-month journey covering nearly 20,000 kilometres from Winnipeg's Red River.

Don and Dana arrive in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

Dana remembers his father talking about going even further down the Rio de la Plata to Argentina, despite everything they had been through.

“Up to that point, every day was an adventure. It was always something new," Dana said. "We didn't want it to end."

Dana, however, felt they had accomplished all they set out to do. And he felt the desire to continue his musical studies tugging him back home.

Dana getting in some guitar practice on the Orinoco River. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

“It was the end of an adventure, you know. [There] was that sort of melancholy, that kind of sadness, in that regard. But we were happy to be there.”

Looking back

Don and Dana hitched a ride on a Dutch ship to begin their (much simpler) trip back home.

Their reunion with Jeff was an emotional one. But he couldn't help noting their ragged, wild appearances.

Don and Dana in the town of Tama Tama, Venezuela, on the Orinoco. (Submitted by Dana Starkell)

“First, they were just like tanned, you know, to a crisp. But it wasn't that; it was this sort of a strange look, where they just looked sort of hyper-alert and aware,” said Jeff, who now operates an electronics design company in Ottawa.

“Put it this way: If they weren't my brother and dad, I would not go up to them.”

Dana, now nearly 60, lives in Bettendorf, Iowa, where he works as a professional classical guitarist.

Dana, left, is a professional guitarist and lives in Bettendorf, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Jeff is an electrical engineer and runs his own electronics design company in Ottawa. (Submitted by Dana Starkell, Jeff Starkell)

He acknowledged that people have asked about his father’s willingness to take his two sons on such a perilous journey — something Dana himself would never do with his own son, who is now 10 years old.

“Knowing my dad the way that I did, his greatest fear was not living life,” he said.

The Starkells’ custom-built canoe, Orellana, is currently on display at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., to mark the 40th anniversary of the trip. (Michael Cullen/The Canadian Canoe Museum)

“And so I think in his mind he figured, you know, of course there's dangers ahead. But maybe if we use our brains and … treat people right, we can come through this unscathed somehow.”

The Orellana is currently on display at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Starkells' journey.

Don Starkell died in 2012 at the age of 79, but not before attempting to paddle the Northwest Passage in a kayak in 1990.

Don poses with the plaque in 2005 in Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park commemorating the epic voyage he made with his sons. (Ron Boily)

He made it within 60 kilometres of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., before having to be rescued. He lost fingertips and toes to frostbite.

“I don't have to prove anything to myself anymore,” he wrote in his other travel memoir, Paddle to the Arctic. “Finally, at age 60, I am at peace with myself. My adventures are done.”

Written by: Jonathan Ore | Radio documentary by: Kevin Ball | Doc Project producer/editors: Acey Rowe, Alison Cook | Doc Project senior producer: Jennifer Warren | Senior digital producer: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Digital producer: Althea Manasan | Copy editor: Paula Kulig | Graphics: Ben Shannon | Web design: Geoff Isaac | Web development: Geoff Isaac