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Paddle to the Amazon by Don Starkell

12,000+ mile canoe journey from Canada to the Amazon River in Brazil. The classic Idiots Abroad. Inspirational.

We’ve all heard of the father who wants to live out his dreams through his sons, but Don Starkell took it a step further by dragging his sons along with him. Since his marriage broke up in 1970 he spent a decade waiting for his sons to come of age while he planned the journey that would save them as a family – a 9000 mile voyage by canoe from Winnipeg in Canada to the foot of the Amazon river in Belem, Brazil.

Dismissing thoughts of regular family therapy, Don Starkell researched his route intensively, getting his head around some Spanish, leaning about all the first aid that would serve them and fretting over all the natural obstacles on their path. Paddle to the Amazon is the tale of the journey from Canada to Brazil by canoe after being shot at, robbed, capsized 15 times, denied entry by immigration officials, arrested, assailed by storms, food poisoning and almost starving to death on more than one occasion.

Don and Dana Starkell are the classic Idiots Abroad and their innocence, courage and resourcefulness sees them through in one of the greatest journeys ever undertaken. Paddle to the Amazon isn’t the greatest travel book you’ll ever come across in terms of style or prose but the voice is honest and unpretentious, relating the events in diary form, so that you never really know what’s coming next.

Heading down through America their greatest pests are the accumulated trash thrown in the rivers and the journalists hounding them for interviews. They pass through Cajun and redneck territory and people throw them cans of beer and ice cubes as they go. Sunburnt and developing their shoulder muscles they arrive down at the Mexican Gulf where they try to canoe on the sea for the very first time.

This is when the adventure really starts and the dangers from nature soon pail in comparison to the bandits, corrupt cops and drug traffickers that await them in Honduras, war-torn Nicaragua and Colombia. Yet whilst they come within an ace of being murdered on several occasions, are robbed mercilessly and are blocked by officials everywhere who simply refuse to believe they came all the way from Canada in a canoe, they also meet incredible generosity; on a couple of occasions Starkell’s credit card isn’t accepted at the banks and they have to paddle another 1000 miles relying upon coconuts and handouts from the poorest of the poor along the coast.

All these experiences have a humbling effect on both father and son and, when they’re not pushing each other around and arguing about which side of the bay they should head on, realisations about the kindness of humanity draw them together. Dana is a classical guitarist and plays impromptu concerts for the natives and Indians they meet, blowing their minds as much as if Eric Clapton had just floated in.

At other times though Dana accuses his father of not giving a damn if they live or die, especially when unknown soldiers are shooting at them or they’ve been dumped on a coral reef and the canoe starts taking on water. Whilst they’re waiting to learn if they’ll live or die in a cell in Honduras, Don Starkell promises his son they’ll go home if they get free. No sooner are they at liberty though than his stubborn resolve kicks in and off they go once more.

Their resolve is truly awesome. When there’s no possibility of continuing by sea or river due to killer surf of a blocked creek, they pick up the 21 foot canoe and carry the damn thing 15 miles to the next point they can continue paddling. They’re smart enough to get letters of safe conduct from every official they manage to charm along the way and, when they arrive in Belem, they meet an officer on board a Dutch ship that allows them to work their passage back to the USA.

If nothing else, Don and Dana Starkell proved that just about any crazy journey is possible if you have the imagination, courage and perseverance to attempt it. Paddle to the Amazon joins the library of travel epics, an inspiration and a lesson to the cagey modern backpacker who doesn’t set foot in an airport without comprehensive travel insurance.