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Cheating Death With Don Starkell
By Ryan Parton
Paddler magazine, Sept./Oct. 2002

It’s May 24, 1981. Don Starkell and his 20-year-old son cower beside a barbed-wire fence, awaiting execution by a drunken or doped-up Honduran. As Starkell kneels in terror, his captor pumps his 12-gauge shotgun, raises it to a shoulder and takes aim.

Eleven years later, Sept. 23, 1992. Don Starkell is marooned 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s merciless Far North, his kayak icebound about a half mile offshore. He hasn’t eaten in six days, and in the past 25 hours he’s taken five spills in the ice drink. Hungry, shoeless and soaking wet, Starkell drifts in and out of consciousness and readies himself for an icy death.

Today, Jan. 4, 2002. Starkell sits in his cluttered Winnipeg, Manitoba, home, casually warms his frostbite-ravaged fingers by the heat of a wood stove and reflects on his uncanny ability to cheat death. “I’ve got something in me, I don’t know what it is,” he says, laughing ever so slightly. “It sounds like I’m bragging, but it’s humbling to me. It gives me the shivers.”

Whatever it is, it’s been with him since his first epic adventure, a 12,000-mile canoe odyssey from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon River. Just shy of 50 years old at the time, and accompanied by his eldest son Dana, Starkell endured violent seas, gun-toting drug runners and a face-to-face showdown with a 20-foot anaconda. Their closes brush with the great beyond, however, occurred in Honduras, where father and son were mistaken for Nicaraguan Sandinistas and led off to be executed by a pair of inebriated gunmen.

“I was waiting for the gun to go off,” Starkell recounts in a rare somber moment. “A guy had the gun, he was drugged or drunk, and he was crying, pleading with his brother, ‘Please let me shoot them now!’ He would say, ‘I’m gonna shoot your ass, I’m gonna shoot your ass!’” While being marched to what seemed like certain death, Dana made a bold dash into a nearby house and got the attention of a local woman. No longer able to murder them with impunity, their captors grudgingly let them go. Starkell believes his son’s action was the only thing that saved their lives.

Like most people who have knocked on heaven’s door only to find no one home, Starkell possesses an overwhelming appreciation for life. “Not just life,” he corrects, “but life every second.” He uses the analogy of a man who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, only to miraculously survive. “Every single minute to me, every second to me is so important, and I think that's the same as someone with cancer. They have a death sentence put on them and they survive it, and they look at these things that everyone thinks are so important and really they’re just so darned meaningless.

Starkell tries to live the simple lief, chopping his own wood to heat his modest home and taking great pride in his collection of antique bottles and other treasures that he digs up along the Red River’s muddy banks. Though he’ll be 70 this year, Starkell claims that his fitness level has never been higher. His 5’11”, 175-pound frame is more the body of a college senior than a senior citizen, and although his thick mustache is more salt than pepper, his bright blue eyes almost glow with youthful energy. “The secret is activity, constant activity,” he says. He still paddles regularly, and last year alone put in 180 miles in daily workouts on the Red. But when the days grow shorter and Winnipeg succumbs to its harsh prairie winter, Starkell prefers to retreat indoors.

“I kind of hibernate during the winter,” he admits. “I used to snowshoe and cross-country ski, but my toes...took quite a beating on that last Arctic trip. He’s referring to the fateful expedition, his third attempt to kayak through the fabled Northwest Passage from Churchill, Manitoba to Tuktoyuktuk, Northwest Territories. After spending five terrifying nights stormbound on a barren sandbar, Starkell was a break in the weather and cautiously paddled out of his Arctic prison, into what would become his most harrowing moment. Six hours of arduous paddling later, Starkell became mired in the increasingly slushy sea. He tried fruitlessly to ram through the ice to shore, and with the relentless waves piling more and more impenetrable slush behind him, he was locked in solid.

Several times he tried to walk to shore across the slush, but he fell through each time into the frigid water. Against all odds, he survived a full night sitting in his kayak, battling delirium, starvation and sub-zero temperatures. “The hardest thing I ever did in my life was to try not to let myself give in,” Starkell recounts. “And the easiest thing I could have done in my life was just let myself go.”

Relying on his self-proclaimed “crazy willpower,” Starkell held on, and the next morning was able to drag himself laboriously to shore across the newly hardened slush. An Edmonton-based search-and-rescue team, summoned by Dana when his father failed to arrive in Tuk, found the adventurer just 30 miles from his destination, severely frostbitten and on the verge of starvation. Amputations of all of Starkell’s fingers and five of his toes were later necessary.

Starkell credits his perseverance to a strong degree of mental toughness and acute intuition honed from experience. Nonetheless, he freely admits that he shouldn’t be alive today, and remains at a loss to explain his apparent power over death. “I’ve got something screwy going on in my life and it’s so bizarre, but I just go with the flow.”

He says he’d like to live to the ripe old age of 99. When asked “Why not 100?” Starkell chuckles and replies with typical humility: “I don’t want to be greedy.”

-Don Starkell has written two books, Paddle to the Arctic (1995) and Paddle to the Amazon (1987), edited by Charles Wilkins. Both were published by McClelland & Stewart, Inc. Back to Ryan's writing samples