At 69, canoeist guides a pack through city

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 2, 2001

Don Starkell talks of his journey across the Arctic where he lost his 10 fingers to frostbite. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[07/02/01] When Don Starkell stumbled upon the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce hospitality trailer at City Front 21 years ago, he was greeted by the cool of air conditioning and a free Coca-Cola.

“This was the first place where Coke was bottled, they told me,” he said.

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Starkell, then 48, and his two sons had been paddling the rough waters of the Mississippi River since they put in their canoe above the U.S.-Canadian border.

“I say this straight from the heart. When we came through in 1980, Vicksburg was the first place where every single person we met was nice and easy to talk to,” said Starkell, whose trip two decades ago logged 12,000 miles from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. The two-year trip produced a world record and a best-selling adventure book.

Yet the memories of Vicksburg’s Southern hospitality lingered, and last week, the city was again a port of call.

“Yeah, the times have changed,” the now-69-year-old Starkell said and laughed. His greeting of a free drink and climate control on this trip came from Harrah’s, a casino next door to City Front.

Yet for this world-record paddler, his quest for adventure has not subsided.

Since retiring at 47, Starkell has paddled more miles on rough ocean waters than Christopher Columbus did on his trip to the New World, maneuvered past pirates and Colombian drug lords and crossed the Arctic on a two-year journey that ended with the loss of all 10 fingers to frostbite.

“The last time we came down, in August 1980, it was scorching, with temperatures over 100 degrees and a drought,” he said. “Now, we’re in a flood climate. It’s two completely different rivers.”

As he talked, Starkell sat on a bench across from the waterfront and picked at the skin peeling from his dark legs with the nubs that are now his fingers.

For Starkell, the latest endeavor a 2,500-mile sojourn from Davenport, Iowa, to Key West, Fla., is more of a pleasure cruise.

Twenty-one years ago, he set out with his two sons, 18 and 19 at the time, to paddle from his hometown in Canada to the mouth of the Amazon. The trip took him two years, but he and one of his sons, Dana, completed it. The other returned home when they reached Mexico.

“There were shootings, robbings, jailings, 15 gun incidents. We were on our knees to be executed, had Colombian drug lords threaten to blow our heads off,” he said, recounting the journey he eventually turned into the best-selling book, “Paddling to the Amazon.” “My oldest son and I stayed in Vera Cruz for four months trying to decide if we should carry on.”

Celebrating the anniversary of that fateful journey, the father-and-son team decided to take a more-relaxing course.

“I didn’t want to go with anyone but my son and myself,” Starkell said. But the energetic spirit of two of his son’s friends convinced him to let them join.

“We bought a canoe just nine days before we left,” said Josh Sparks, 21, who with his friend Jason Carl, had never paddled a canoe before tackling the turbulent waters of the Mississippi.

“For the first five days, they were all over the place,” Starkell said. “I gave them some tips. They were willing to learn. I call them the straight arrow’ canoe now.”

The group including Dana Starkell’s wife and a two-member film crew that will accompany them as far as New Orleans keeps a tight schedule. Under Starkell’s direction, they wake each morning at 5, paddle about 40 miles and then find a place to camp along the riverbank each night. “We did 69 miles in one day because we couldn’t find a place to stop,” Starkell said. “That’s 12 to 14 hours in the sun, drifting in the current, doing maybe 8 miles per hour.”

But pushing beyond perceived limits, for Starkell, is what motivates him. “You learn so much about yourself,” said the veteran canoeist, who has paddled since the age of 15. He earned four world records, including one for the longest canoe race across Canada that one lasted 104 days and covered 3,300 miles. He almost perished on his two-year trek across the Arctic. “I knew what I was seeking,” he said, about the reason he pushed himself to cross the Northern Territory in a kayak, a route that only military ships have completed. “Would I break down in a bad situation? Was I strong? People don’t know what their abilities really are,” he said, recounting his experiences canoeing days without sleep or water and capsizing in freezing arctic water.

Even at the slower pace of the current journey, Starkell’s mates are impressed by the soon-to-be septuagenarian. “He’s just like Superman,” said Carl, 21, his lips cracked and raw from the summer sun.

The group hopes to reach Key West by mid-August.