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HomeNL-2012-04 Book Review Amazon

Book Review: "Paddle to the Amazon"
John Rich

In the February issue of the HCC newsletter, in the "In The News" section, a news story was posted about the death of Don Starkell, a man who holds the Guinness world record for the longest canoe trip in history.  I had never heard of this man or story before, but it intrigued me and spurred me to learn more about it. 

Don Starkell, with his son Dana, paddled from Winnipeg, Canada, to the Amazon River in Brazil, a distance of 12,000 miles, and they did it all in a 21-foot canoe over a period of two years!  I quickly discovered that he had written a book about the experience titled "Paddle to the Amazon".  My next stop was to check the Harris County Library online catalog, and saw to my disappointment that they do not have the book, at any branch, anywhere in the county.  Therefore my next step was, appropriately enough,, to order the book about paddling to the Amazon.  There are plenty of used copies available, and for as little as $4.  The book arrived in my mailbox within the week, and I abandoned another book I had just started, in my enthusiasm to begin reading this one.

   Book cover
The back cover of the book gives this synopsis:


"It was crazy.  It was nuts.  It was the adventure of a lifetime.

"When Don and Dana Starkell left Winnipeg in a tiny three-seater canoe they had no idea of the dangers that lay ahead.


"Two years and twelve thousand miles later, father and son had each paddled nearly 20 million strokes, slept on beaches and in jungles and fields, dined on tapir, shark, and heaps of roasted ants.  They had encountered piranhas, wild pigs, and hungry alligators.  They had been arrested, shot at, taken for spies, and set upon by pirates.  They had lived through terrifying hurricanes, food poisoning, and near-starvation.  And at the same time they had set a record for a thrilling voyage of discovery that they - and you - will never forget."

Don Starkell was an avid canoeist, and spent almost 10 years planning this adventure, figuring out what route to take, the timing of the trip with the seasons, collecting maps, getting passports, obtaining visas for travel permission in 10 different countries, getting diplomatic letters to pacify unwelcoming authorities, figuring out what equipment to take, how to replenish supplies along the way, and a thousand other details. 

Their 21-foot canoe for the trip was a fiberglass boat, orange in color, which they named the "Orellana", after a Spanish explorer who conducted the first known navigation of the length of the Amazon River in 1541.

When his two sons were 18 years old, the trio set out on this grand adventure together.  Things went fairly smoothly until they got to the Gulf Coast, where their canoe was often no match for huge waves, high winds and rocky shorelines.  By the time they were half-way through Mexico, one son decided it was too dangerous, refused to continue, and went home.  The remaining father and son continued the journey. 

   Route map
Here is the route for this trip, starting at Winnipeg in central Canada, west of the Great Lakes:


• Red River south from Canada through North Dakota.
Minnesota River through Minnesota to the Mississippi River.
Mississippi River to the Gulf Coast at New Orleans.
Along the Gulf shoreline through Texas.
Along the Gulf shore south through Mexico and around the Yucatan

Through Belize.
Through Guatemala.
Through Honduras.
Through Nicaragua.
Through Costa Rica.
Through Panama.
Through Columbia.
Through Venezuela to the Orinoco River.
Upstream on the Orinoco River to the Rio Negro in Brazil.
Downstream on the Rio Negro to the Amazon.
Downstream on the Amazon to the Atlantic mouth of the river at Belem, Brazil.

The story synopsis above, with it's terrible list of difficulties, is actually a very short list of the problems they encountered along the way.  There were numerous run-ins with military authorities, who often wanted to confiscate their boat and arrest them, and the Starkells were only allowed on their way again after much showing of papers and long, heated arguments.  A Panama Canal bureaucrat flatly refused them permission to paddle the Panama Canal, which had been in their plans, and this was one of their biggest disappointments.  On several occasions, native inhabitants stole equipment and food from their canoe, forcing them to scavenge the jungle for coconuts and bananas upon which to survive, and they had to always keep one of them posted near the boat as a guard.  They were ravaged by biting insects, whose puncture wounds became infected and festered from the salt water.  And then there was the mental and emotional pressure, causing father and son to argue and even come to blows.  They were stranded sometimes for weeks, waiting for high wind and waves to subside so they could re-enter the Gulf of Mexico.  And taking a shortcut across a shallow bay a change in wind blew the few inches of water out to sea, leaving them stranded for a week in a sea of mud, many miles from any shoreline, with little food.      

Despite the enormous difficulties with both nature and man, there were also a great many generous people along the way, without whom they probably would not have succeeded.  People would take them into their homes for a shower and a good meal, repair their boat for free, or give them rides to an embassy to get their visas stamped.  Some inhabitants were so poor, living only in shoreline shacks, that they could barely feed their own families, but they would invite the Starkell's in for a meal and share whatever little they had.  Sometimes the Starkell's were so struck by their poverty and generosity, that they would give them some of their own meager food supplies from their canoe.  In one Mexican village, Don's shoes had fallen apart, so he traced an outline of his feet on a piece of paper, and gave it to a small boy along with some pesos, and asked him to go buy him some new shoes with the money.  He feared the kid would just run off with the money, but several hours later, the kid arrived back with some new sandals that fit perfectly, and the grateful Starkell let him keep the change for his favor.

   Dana & Don Starkell
with Orellana

Along the way Don maintained a diary of all of their experiences, and these were the things that he feared losing most in a capsized canoe.  Those diaries became the source of the editted manuscript which evolved into the book, "Paddle to the Amazon".

This is an amazing tale of unimaginable hardship, and it will astound you with every chapter at the Starkell's endurance, both physical and mental, and their drive to continue, no matter what obstacles they encountered.  Anyone who loves expedition paddling will get a kick out of this tale.

And you would think that after this incredible feat that almost killed him numerous times, that he would be content to take it easy for the rest of his life.  But no, not Don Starkell.  Eight years later he paddled the 3,000-mile northwest passage through the Canadian arctic by kayak, and in the process lost the tips of his fingers and some of his toes to frostbite.  And that is the subject of yet another book; "Paddle to the Arctic".

Now that I'm done with "Paddle to the Amazon", I'll pass it on to anyone else who wishes to read this astounding story.  The only condition is that when you are through with it, that in turn, you too will pass it on to someone else.  If it reaches a point where no one else is interested, it should be donated to the HCC library.  I've ceased accumulating my large collection of books that, once read, just sit on my shelves and do nothing.  I like looking at them, but I like even more the idea that other people will get to read them.


 The reviewer, John Rich