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Interview with Don Starkell


Don Starkell
 Don Starkell, 64, has written two intriguing canoe adventure books in the last decade. These books are remarkable in both their scale and extremes. Paddle to the Amazon (1987) and Paddle to the Arctic (1995 and both published by McClelland & Stewart) tell of epic trips that stretched Starkell's luck and endurance to the limit.
 The final year of the his three summer Arctic trip, in 1992, saw him miraculously rescued after being frozen in on the Arctic Coast for five days. He lost most of his fingers and some toes from that encounter but has managed to almost fully regain his paddling form and strength and continues to paddle to this day. His paddling partner on some of that trip, Victoria Jason, wrote her own book that was harshly critical of Starkell and his style.
 A veteran marathon racer of considerable skill, Starkell has also made many enemies in his travels. He is an extreme man which also makes him extremely interesting. Che-Mun spoke with Don Starkell in his Winnipeg home in late October.
 Che-Mun: What are some of your favourite paddling experiences?
 Starkell: In 1967, on the Centennial Trans-Canada Canoe Pageant, I wasn't wanted on the Manitoba team. The captain wanted an all Flin Flon team and he did everything possible for 104 days to get me off that team and I wouldn't break. They used to spit tobacco juice in my boots and gum too and the only time I was put in the bow was on stormy days and when we went into a city they wouldn't put me in the canoe so there'd be no photographs of me. But I didn't go there to get my picture taken. But I'm proud to have been the member of the four Manitoba teams which have won similar big boat races over the years. And I'm the only paddler who's been on all four teams.
 I ended up captaining the Manitoba team in a big race a few years later in the British Columbia Centennial. That was a great thrill, I didn't take the medal off for four days. It made me feel so proud especially since we beat the guy who was the captain of the 1967 team.
 Che-Mun: You come under quite a bit of criticism on your both your personal and paddling styles from your former partner Victoria Jason in her book Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak. Would you want to go canoeing with Don Starkell?
 Starkell: Yes, I kind of think I would. I'm not an ogre. I have been portrayed as being someone who goes out there and tries to grind someone into the ground . . .
 Che-Mun: Victoria Jason.
 Starkell: Ya, that's garbage. She had paddled a little bit in a canoe. When I first met her I wouldn't even go up north with her. I trained her for 700 miles and she could paddle 40 or 50 miles non-stop.
 That's the first time in my life I did a canoeing experience with someone who literally shit on me. It irks me because I sacrificed so much to take her up there with me. I had to reduce my speed terrifically. I had to change my plans and go two weeks earlier. But when you're a team you give and take.
 I respect her for her first year but the second year something went to her head. . . I didn't read her book entirely but there's one thing that really bugs me. I gave her a presentation knife that the Russell knife people gave to me. Victoria didn't have a decent knife so I gave her this knife and told her to respect it and take care of it 'cause it means a lot to me. I was up there two days with her and after we had to take the snowmobile lift I noticed that the Inuk who was driving had the same exact knife. She had given it to him as a gift. I couldn't believe it.
 Then there was the comment that came out that she used her brains and I just used brawn. Well that's crappo! I wouldn't have gotten to the Amazon without being able to add two and two together.
 She said that every community I went into I alienated everybody I met. And one of the most important things in my life is to respect people and respect cultures. I'll admit I'm hyper when I'm doing something but I try my best not to hurt anybody. When she's jumping around an hour or two before we're leaving on something that's going to take so much willpower and so much energy and she doesn't seem to have a worry in the world. Like I'm thoughtful and pensive and caring and I'm quiet because I'm psyching myself up for what lies ahead. And I saw her there jumping around - she proved before she didn't have the energy. If you psych yourself up for something you have to do - a long work project where your going to have to put out for eight hours pulling a big load you have to get your mind in a certain focus for that. It's more powerful than any muscle you'll ever grow.
 Che-Mun: You were raised in Manitoba, the home of another well-known canoeist Bill Mason. Did you know him?
 Starkell: I remember meeting him in 1955 at the YMCA in Winnipeg. I was running around the track and he asked me why and I said I was training for a canoe race. He told me that he was into canoeing too but his real thing was photography and he told me he was going down east to be a photographer. I was into photography at the time myself and I was gall-darned good but I didn't have the guts that he had. I looked at him and said "are you prepared to starve?" And he told me that he thought he'd be okay.
 I remember saying many times to people that Bill Mason as a far as a paddler, he a strange kind of paddler. As far as technical paddler, I've never seen anything like him in the world. But that's not my kind of paddling. I don't even like canoe instruction.
 Many years later after the Amazon book came out some publicist wanted to get us together. They told me to get a paddle for him and I told them that Bill Mason would surely come with his own paddle. And they said he wouldn't have one and to get him one. Of course, Bill showed up with his own paddle.
 Bill came down to see us and our Orellana {Ed. Note - their heavy 21-foot long canoe}. Bill had a pretty neat system for picking up a canoe and he liked to demonstrate it. He got it up on his thighs and put it down and said, 'Not this baby!' And then he jumped into the second seat of our canoe like he'd been there for five years - and it's an awkward seat to paddle.We were quite honoured to have him. I really respected Bill.
 Che-Mun: On your last days of the Arctic expedition you came very close to death being literally frozen into the Arctic Ocean and you had what can only be described as a miraculous escape.
 Starkell: I don't know if it came out in the book. At the end I was definitely dying. I got to within half a mile of land when the ice stopped me. . . My kayak was covered with an inch or two of ice, my double blade had to weigh 20 to 25 pounds, I could barely hold it in front of me and I struggled to within half a mile of land but I couldn't get through that slush. I still wasn't beat 'cause I could still crawl over the slush and get into land but I had to keep my kayak with me.
 I got out of my kayak to try and haul through this stuff and went in to my waist and tried again and went up to my crotch. I said, I can do this for a while but I'm going to get hypothermic. You don't eat for five days you don't have the ability to produce heat and your blood is thickened and your not getting proper flow of blood to your fingers.
 I sat in that kayak for 25 hours. The only reason I didn't die - and I could have died a hundred times that last night - it was easier to die than live. I felt, that yes, I'm in agony, I'm in pain and I'm dying and all that but so many times I was fighting with myself, should I release myself and go into my final sleep, which I could have done so easy. It was easier to do that than go through the pain I was going through. I said to myself that I don't care how painful, my life is going to have to be taken. I'm not going to release it.
 The miracle of all miracles was getting frozen in that ice out at sea actually turned out to be the blessing of my life. Because when I left that hole in the ice, that's what the airplane saw. If I'd made it to shore, they never would have searched there. If I had been able to walk out and been successful, they would have had to knock my arms and legs off.
 What happened was like almost something pre-arranged. But I don't believe in destiny. I never cried, I never pleaded. I accepted my death. But when that helicopter came, I was ready.


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