Skip to content

BACK ROADS BILL: All about the longest canoe trip

This week Bill tells us the inspiring story about the Guinness Book of World Records longest canoe trip, Paddle to the Amazon

Spring has sprung and the speckled grey and black, carbon fibre Swift Canoe has been plying the icy remains of the Mattawa River already. Thoughts of extended trips on the back roads have started.

You paddle and have been on canoe trips, but this one was different, very much so, it remains the longest journey on record anywhere.

You may recall Paddle to the Amazon - the trip and the book’s 1987 title. And there is a documentary film as well with the same name. It was somewhat unthinkable, and it turned out to be an adventure of a lifetime.

On the morning of June 1, 1980, Don Starkell and his two sons climbed aboard their orange, custom 21-foot canoe and launched on the Red River from a park near their home in Winnipeg. After a decade of planning the Starkells planned to paddle 12,000 miles (almost 20,000 km) from Winnipeg, down the Mississippi River, along the coastline of Central America to Belém, Brazil, on the mouth of the Amazon River.

From the book’s introduction, “They had no idea of the dangers that lay ahead. Two years later father and son Dana had each paddled nearly twenty million strokes, slept on beaches, in jungles and fields, dined on tapir, shark, and heaps of roasted ants.” (One son. Jeff, chose to leave en route in November of the first year.)

“They encountered piranhas, wild pigs, and hungry alligators. They were arrested, shot at, taken for spies and drug smugglers, and set upon by pirates. They had lived through terrifying hurricanes, food poisoning, and near starvation.”


Recently Adam Shoalts, known as Canada’s Indiana Jones was a guest on a Back Roads Bill podcast. We both have this adventure on our bookshelves. In conversation, we both agreed the Starkells’ journey to be a “thrilling, a crazy voyage of discovery and adventure.”

When you want to know more you reach out. Forty-four years later I found Dana Starkell now in Quad Cities, Iowa. He is a motivational speaker, professional guitarist, and music publisher. He has seven classical guitar albums and published seven guitar books.

Dana Starkell was 19 when he undertook the two-year odyssey with his father. His education in classical guitar began when he took a guitar on the Amazon trip. Miraculously it survived the many mishaps they encountered. In the course of this adventure, he cured his asthma and honed his musical skills. Sometimes for days when marooned on isolated beaches.

Dana recalls the beginning, “When people told him (dad) his dream of paddling a canoe from Winnipeg to the Amazon was impossible, it fuelled his determination to do it.”

Don Starkell took his first paddle strokes in his teens winning many competitions. He competed professionally as a canoeist and in 1967, his team from Manitoba competed in the Expo 67 Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant race from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Montreal, Quebec winning the race. Paddling was in his blood.

You try to ask new questions during the interview.

Looking back and as time goes on, what would be different if you would have undertaken this trek in 2024? The world has changed?

“The biggest change I see is cell phones. I think most of the remote places are still likely without cell towers, but we had a lot of problems around larger centres along the coast, and I assume the guys who hassled us there would now have cell phone access. It would be more difficult for us to bluff our way out of situations, and they could check to find out how vulnerable we were.” One of the chapters is ‘At Gunpoint in Honduras.’

I asked about contemporary canoeing.

“In 2017 we canoed from Quad Cities to New Orleans with multiple friends. And last summer at Caddy Lake, Manitoba, Canada with my son.”

There was a query about his allergies because his father said at the time they would disappear on the trek.

“I still have allergies, but they are diminishing every year. August 17, 2024, will mark 44 years without a drop of asthma medication.”

I have paddled on the ocean, and it is a tricky challenge, you are thinking all the time. For one half of the journey father and son tackled this day in and day out so this query made me go to a map.

“You're right, aside from the unpredictable crazies with guns, the ocean was our toughest battle. We had around 6000 miles of coastline and faced something different with almost every mile. I recall most of that coastline in vivid detail.

“There were always lots of huge waves! Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, and Venezuela coastlines were tricky.

“Some of the toughest areas: the Gulf of Mexico with almost no protected launches, the north shore of the Yucatan Peninsula, coral reefs, the mountainous Venezuelan coast with very few safe landing spots, the Beach of Rocks, Columbia and the Dragon’s Mouth - crossing to Trinidad.

“If I get more specific, this list could go on indefinitely. Nearly every day at sea was difficult.” One of the book’s chapters is called the ‘Evil Coast.’

“There were very few easy stretches like the Canal in Costa Rica or the west side of the Yucatan. Only the odd protected bits and pieces of coastline here and there, but generally, we were open to whatever the ocean threw at us, and we had to give it every respect to stay alive.”

Exactly 23 months after departing Winnipeg, Don and Dana paddled into Belém. They had accomplished the goal many had called impossible.

"For two solid years, every single day when we woke up, we had this goal and a purpose," Dana says. " As happy as we were to know that, you know, you’re safe, you’re alive — that was a beautiful feeling. But there was definitely a huge sadness in the sense that the trip and the adventure itself were over, you know?”

The documentary

There is a biographical documentary film of this epic adventure entitled: Paddle to the Amazon (2022). It makes all the characters, particularly Don Starkell come to life, and connects the dots. There is original footage, a film from another canoe trip and some stand-in actors to create a movie feel of the story of the two-hour, 12-minute reel.

It is also an unusual story in that it took the producer/director/writer 24 years to complete the documentary project.

Chris Forde is a documentary filmmaker educated at the Ontario College of Art. Chris has travelled the world extensively for NGOs capturing stories from some of the most dangerous and harshest environments.

Chris previews the documentary for us. “It was an ordinary 21-foot canoe. They were an ordinary family – a divorced father and his two teenage sons. But what they did was extraordinary. From Winnipeg, they paddled heading south. Twenty-three months later, two of them swept down the Amazon to Belém, Brazil, on the Atlantic – the longest canoe trip ever recorded.”

He summarized, “This film is a soulful journey of passion and determination and captures the inspirational message the Starkells expressed to follow your dreams.

“Don fell in love with canoeing during the devastating 1950 flood in Winnipeg," recalled Forde.

"He was out there every day during the flood, delivering groceries and you know, delivering people around however he could. It was his real first taste of freedom — getting in that canoe and paddling — and it continued throughout his life."

The impetus to the documentary film. “I was surprised that I didn’t know of the story when a friend loaned me the book back in the late 90s. The story caught my imagination many years ago as well and I set out to meet the legendary Don Starkell.”

Chris thought this trip and “what was accomplished should be known even today by every Canadian school kid as a part of our history."

It was a labour of love.

“Though it’s been a long and winding road after 24 years I’m excited to share their story.

“Early in my career, I thought it would make a great first doc I could sink my teeth into as I was a bit of an outdoors guy myself and a paddler.”

Funding for the project was sparse.

“It's a familiar story I'm afraid for documentary films, but I called up many production houses and government outlets to secure funding but wasn't successful in my ventures so I decided if I wanted to make the film it would be up to me.

“It was a big project to manage alone. My saving grace was that I had skills already as a cameraman, editor, producer, director, and so on I pressed.

“In 2010 I travelled south to Mexico to interview Gabby and got a lot of B roll (background) for the film there.” Gabriel Delgado was then a university student, who fortuitously me, helped and accompanied the Starkells for a short portion of the trip.

“When I expressed an interest to recreate some dramatizations Gabby set up the whole thing in a small fishing village he knew as a kid. He rounded up the town for actors and located a canoe that was close to the Starkells (not an easy thing to do in Mexico as it’s not a canoeing culture). He would drive us to the village every day and acted as translator then go to work and return at end of day. Once when we were short the Don Starkell character he even filled in as Don in the wild water scenes with fake beard and bread-baking paddles he purchased for us to use as paddles because we couldn't find any in Sant Cruz.”

Chris has edited many versions of the story over the years, receiving g new images and interviews. “I tried a Kickstarter funding campaign, I got discouraged at times and just left it idling on my hard drive and pieced the film together when I had any downtime as it was on my own dime.”

He did raise $20,000 from the campaign.

“The rest was me, travelling to Winnipeg several times, Mexico, the Mississippi for eight days with the crew, that was about $10,000 in production costs. If I was paid for the work of directing, shooting and editing the film we’d be into $100,000 I imagine.”

Here and there

They were no strangers to taking other long-distance canoe trips. As a follow-up father and son did a reunion trip in 2001 going from Iowa to Key West, Florida.

“I was lucky to be able to join the Starkell's reunion trip and get a lot of the base for the stories,” said Chris Forde. this is featured within the biographical documentary film as a complementary background piece.

From May 31, 2003 – July 29, 2003, they went from New York City, along the intercoastal waterway to Key Largo; a distance of 2,896 kilometres (1,800 miles).

Dana did the Mississippi section again, from Davenport, Iowa to New Orleans, Louisiana with others June 1, 2017 – Jul 5, 2017, the distance: 2,182 kilometres (1,344 miles)

In 1990, Don Starkell embarked on a solo kayak adventure, tracing the Northwest Passage by kayak. The 5,000-kilometre trip took three years and Starkell lost the tips on all of his fingers and some of his toes to frostbite. The book, Paddle to the Arctic, is an account of that journey.

“If we’d known what lay ahead,” Don wrote years later, “we certainly would not have gone.” Don lost a battle against cancer and died on Jan. 28, 2012, he was 79."

Another feature of the film is the narration by another Canadian adventurer, James Raffin, featured in an earlier Back Roads Bill story and a podcast.

For more go to the Paddle to the Amazon website - there are extensive bios and media clippings explaining the production of the film.

The Back Roads Bill podcast with Dana and Chris will be aired on Wednesday, March 27.

Canadian Canoe Museum

In 1986, the names of Don Starkell and his son Dana were entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for having completed the longest canoe journey ever, 19,603 kilometres (12,181 mi).

Their canoe is featured at the new Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. The grand opening is the weekend of May 11. You can have a virtual tour of the museum. Move your cursor, the much faded 21’ fibreglass, Orellana, with its webbed seats, evidence of repairs, and festooned with locational stickers is featured upstairs.

This year’s trips on the back roads won’t be as long as the Starkells'. As we take those first few strokes this spring the challenges and feeling of accomplishment remain familiar to us all.