Last week, the Granite Falls Area Community Foundation hosted a gathering for their grant awards. The evening also featured a presentation by Dana Starkell, who made the Guinness world record setting 12,000 mile canoe trip from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon river. We sat down with him to get an in-depth discussion about his journey, as covered in the book Paddle to the Amazon.
His father, Don Starkell, had spent the previous 10 years planning the trip. Growing up, family issues lead Don to living in the Children's Home with 200 other kids. Everything was regimented, to the point all the kids taking daily cod liver oil from the same spoon. This helped instill a burning desire to overcome insignificance, to BE somebody. He gravitated toward physical challenges. First he started swimming, setting challenges for himself like swimming 13 miles on the Red River, or 16 miles across Lake Winnipeg.
He discovered canoeing when he was placed with the Roberts family. He started competing, and winning, races, and was selected to be part of Team Manitoba in the Centennial trans-Canada canoe race. His boss at the time wouldn't grant him the four month leave of absence requested, so he quit his job. "For the first time in my life, I had made a major decision that was not subject to someone else's expectations or control. I had done as I pleased, I would do so from that point on."
Don had grown up around divorce, and had sworn to never have that happen to his future family. But his wife left, and he knew he needed something to unify himself with his sons. According to Dana, "My dad always wanted to see what he was capable of doing, something that was un-doable really. Something that would test him to the very end. He set the trip up as a farfetched goal. At the same time, he felt it may be possible if he stuck to it and had the right breaks."
When he proposed the trip idea to his sons, even at age 9 Dana had 100% certainty that the trip was going to happen. Dana describes himself as a dreamer, his motivation for the trip was to get out of the freezing Winnipeg weather and in to the jungle.
The planning and preparation took 10 years. Don worked at the YMCA, saved his money and was able to retire at age 47, after setting his family up with lifetime memberships (to give them access to showers along the trip). His sons, Jeff and Dana, were 18 and 19 respectively. Practice trips helped them figure out they could carry one month's supply of food in their orange canoe, named Orellena, after Francisco de Orellena, the first white man to navigate the Amazon River, back in 1541.
They set off on the two year journey on June 1, 1980. One of their early stops took them to our very own Granite Falls. In the book, Don describes it as "the perfect model of the American small town...The people are friendly, and the setting is so serene..."
Dana brought his guitar, and practiced pretty much every evening. When they stopped in Tennessee, he was able to talk his way in to a Queen concert and even chat with their guitarist, Brian May.
It wasn't their first obstacle, but the family hit a major snag in Mexico. They were trying to navigate the Laguna Madre, but the water was basically just four feet of mud. They ended up getting driven to the town of Veracruz, and stayed for three months, waiting for the north winds to bring the water back. They weren't certain if they were going to be able to continue, and Jeff chose to head back to Canada to continue his studies to be an electrical engineer.
They were able to continue, fighting through getting robbed, stranded by strong winds and waves, and even being marched to be executed in Honduras. The most difficult thing to lose was their food. They kept the little money they carried well hidden, and most of their equipment was rusted from the sea water. They had brought a rifle and handgun for survival hunting, but never used them, and the authorities in Honduras stole the rifle and forced them to sell the handgun. Dana explained, "Our best way of protecting ourselves was to really have nothing to offer. Being father and son, in the third world people really respected that. Sometimes when people wanted to rob us and would find out we were father and son they'd let us go."
In Columbia, after losing most of their clothes and food, they resolved to stop in as few populated areas as possible, and even started paddling at night, sometimes in pitch dark, not even moonlight.
They rested in Trinidad for a few months. This marked the end of paddling on the open sea, it was just river paddling from here on out. They still had nightmares and PTSD about tall waves crashing on them. Dana reported that the nightmares continued for 15 years after. He also would get shakes from looking at the moon, which would bring him back to the time paddling at night in Columbia.
In Brazil, their last country, they ran into problems when the official in charge at Cucui refused them entry. Dana asked about using a radio or phone to call the Canadian Embassy. The official said there wasn't one. After dealing with pirates, thieves, police, military, and thugs, Dana had plenty of saviness. He pulled out a map of the area, which included radio call numbers, catching the official in his lie. Two other officers, who spoke English but had been watching the situation unfold, stepped in, and checked Don's diaries against their story to confirm it, and clear things up.
Their strategies with dealing with authority fluctuated. At first, they tried to just avoid, then realized things typically went better if they approached the whatever respective military first. The Acting Captain of the Port in Colon, Panama, E.F. Moochler, wouldn't let them pass through the Panama canal because he deemed their canoe "wasn't seaworthy." This taught them they had to balance permission vs. forgiveness.
In the Rio Negro in Brazil, they were starting to relax. There were still a lot of regulated areas. People on the rivers increasingly beckoned them, but they "generally picked up the pace." Dana explained that being friendly could open them up to danger. "For the most part, people were good, but there was one guy who rung his bell, and then when we came over, he pulled a handgun on us."
Don covered the idea in the book as well, "Our stubborn behavior (running/paddling away when boats try to pull them over) may seem unaccountable at times - Why couldn't we just give in and make things easy? But I knew very well that if it weren't for our obstinacy we'd have never come 12,000 miles. If we allowed ourselves to be bullied by guys like this, we'd probably still be in Columbia."
They arrived in their destination, the city of Belem, Brazil, which Don fittingly said translates to Bethlehem. Their next challenge was figuring out how to get home. Originally, they had planned a funeral pyre for the canoe, but had grown too attached for that. Their passports were stolen, but Don was able to get emergency ones shipped. The thief approached Don and said his friend would give them back for the equivalent of $20. Don haggled them down to $1.10. Don and Dana were able to board the boat Saba, and were dropped off at the Mississippi river. They rented a car and drove home, met by Jeff in Grand Forks.
Don wrote a passage in Panama, "Dana and I had a long conversation, not entirely positive, about all the realities and illusions we've dealt with in getting here. We talked about the benefits and sacrifices and purposes of it all. Lately however, I'm inclined to think of the trip not so much as having purposes, but of being its own purpose, of having a rich and varied meaning in itself - the journey as the message."
One of the biggest things Dana learned on the trip was the importance of life or death situations. "When I got back, a few people I knew weren't here anymore because they died in car accidents. Maybe it was safer being in the jungle going three miles per hour, where you can always swim to a beach, than going down a highway at 70 mph when you have a car coming at you the same speed.
"When we were preparing for the trip, people would question my dad's sanity, and lots of what-if's. What if you get accosted by guys with guns? What if one of you gets shot? many times, fears that shut things down, fears of doing things, never materialize. or the things that do become problems you couldn't prepare for anyways. Every year that goes by, I realize how fortunate we were to come out the other side of the trip. You see how people get done in from innocent things - falling off a ladder, slipping on the stairs, it doesn't take much. After a while you realize that you're one second away from being gone from a little mistake. I think sometimes having a life or death situation can be a good thing because it makes you more aware of how easily that life switch can easily be turned off."
Don Starkell wrote one other book, Paddle to the Arctic. He died of cancer in 2012. Dana and his wife and their son live in Bettendorf Iowa where he is a professional classical guitarist and music teacher. There is a movie version of Paddle to the Amazon in the works.