The Starkells set out from Winnipeg on a journey that would take two years.

Book review: Paddle to the Amazon

In the summer of 1980, Don Starkell set out from Winnipeg, Manitoba with his two sons – Jeff, 19, and Dana, 18 – with the goal of canoeing to the mouth of the Amazon River. It seemed impossible and many told Don he would never make it and was foolish for trying, but he spent months preparing for the trip with his sons. They painstakingly mapped the 12,000+ mile route out in detail, had a local canoe maker craft a sturdy vessel (named after Spanish explorer Orellana), and packed enough gear and food so they could survive out of their canoe for weeks at a time. They departed as planned and two years later, Don completed his trip by paddling into Belize, Brazil. This book is an edited collection of the daily journal entries Don makes on his world-record making canoe trip.

Paddle to the Amazon is as fantastical and adventurous as any work of fiction. The experiences that Don describes in his daily entries are written in an immediate way that brings the reader into the story, so that you feel like you’re in the canoe along with the Starkells. There are close-up encounters with wildlife; such as the pink-spotted freshwater dolphins that befriend the voyageur’s canoe and jump out of the water in playful displays, or the hordes of red ants that invade their campsites and relentlessly assault them with painful bites, or the myriad bird species encountered on the water that Don can’t help but imagine sticking into a boiling pot.

Even though the reader knows of the successful outcome of the trip in the end, and of the Starkells’ survival, at some points in the book it is hard to believe our heroes will make it. They are held hostage at gunpoint by rogue Colombian soldiers, threatened at sea by a motor-boat full of machete wielding men, and capsized at sea countless times by the massive ocean waves they are attempting to navigate with their 21-foot canoe. Don reflects on the amazing luck they enjoy throughout the journey, and predicts that his trip could never be replicated by another paddler. The reflection isn’t merely an ego-polishing statement, but an objective insight. The uniqueness of the journey planned by and embarked upon by Starkell and sons required not only the most adept paddling and survival skills, but also quick-wittedness, a slightly insane disposition, and a willingness to trust strangers.

Don Starkell (stern) and Dana pose for a photo taken by Winnipeg Free Press photographer Ritchie Gage, whom met the paddlers in Trinidad.

The Starkells’ encounters with other humans along their journey stand out as the most significant parts of the book. Most met by the paddlers show incredible charity and generosity once they learn of the nature of the Starkells’ journey. Even natives who subside on ancient methods of hunting and gathering are willing to share food and shelter with the paddlers. There are several “small world” moments throughout the book when the trio encounter other Canadians, or even people from Winnipeg. At points, there are surprising encounters with significant people you won’t expect. Don, in one entry in the southern U.S., describes how his son Dana goes into town to see a Queen performance. Not only does he gain entry to the show for free upon explaining his situation, but is given backstage access to meet the band.

More than anything, Paddle to the Amazon is a tale of the bond between a father and his sons. The expected high tension created by extended periods stuck living in the confined quarters of a canoe and a tent often arise. There are several points when aggression boils over into an exchange of blows, or pointless destruction of equipment. Conversely, there are times when the shared success of the journey elates the family. During one particularly period of travel along the ocean gulf, the Starkells are so relieved to be off the water at the end of each day that they embrace lovingly when they reach shore. Don’s description of his relationship with his sons provides the emotional peaks and valleys of this book – which can hit both extremes from one journal entry to the next.

Don is a tragic character at times, unapologetically fixed on making progress along the planned canoe route. His sense of purpose is so strong that sometimes the reader will wonder why he doesn’t allow himself to linger at some of the amazing sites along his journey. Don’s desire to be moving forward strains his relationship with his sons and ultimately leads to a major turning point in the book. His judgement is sometimes obscured by his stubbornness, leading to unnecessary life-threatening risks. But his spirit and passion for paddling redeems him, as does his ability  to take any situation in stride and find a way through. His empathy towards the strangers he meets along the route, and the pride he takes in his son’s accomplishments makes him likeable.

When the Starkells finish their trip, it is anti-climactic. It’s a timeless reminder that life is not about the destination, but about the journey. And this is one journey any arm-chair adventurer will enjoy thoroughly.

Don Starkell passed away in January of this year at the age of 79 from cancer. It was in reading his obituary that I learned of his love of his adventures and this book. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve ordered Paddle to the Arctic, a later journey that Starkell takes through Canada’s North West Passage over the course of three summers.

There’s a Kickstarter project by a documentary filmmaker who’s been working on a piece about Paddle to the Amazon for 11 years. He joined the Starkells for a reunion trip they did in 2001 that retraced the portion of their trip from Winnipeg to the Florida keys. Dana also has a Web presence where you can listen to his classical guitar music, which is a recurring theme in the book as Don describes his tireless practicing and impromptu performances for locals they encounter.

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Brian has been canoeing his entire life, going on his first multi-day backcountry out trip when he was 13. Brian worked at summer camps as an out trip leader and canoe instructor, and now lives in Toronto and works as a technology trends analyst. He escapes to go canoeing whenever possible.

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