Friday, September 19, 2008

Paddle to the Arctic - Book Review

Paddle to the Arctic
by Don Starkell
McClelland and Stewart (M&S)

Interview with Don Starkell
Review of Paddle to the Arctic
Biography of Don Starkell

From 1980 through 1982 Don Starkell and his son Dana (from Manitoba) paddled to the Amazon. Don wrote a book about called Paddle to the Amazon. In 1986 Don paddled up the west coast of Canada from Vancouver Island to Ketchikan Alaska. and in 1990 he set out to paddle the Northwest passage - that elusive passage at the top of the world between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Don took 3 summers to complete the trip (1990-92) and he had to make 2 starts. The first start in 1990, Don tipped his canoe over into the Hudson Bay on his second day out of Churchill in Manitoba. He was able to get back to land, but was stranded for over a week (by a blizzard), before he could finally padddle back to Churchill. He decided to come back the following year and try again.

In 1991 Don came back to Churchill with 2 friends. Fred and Victoria. They left Churchill and paddled up the Hudson Bay coast all the way to Repulse Bay. Fred didnt last that long. He left the trip within the first month. The trouble with the Hudson Bay is that it has a very long continental shelf and very high tides. There are a LOT of shoals. If you were caught out in the shoals when the tide started dropping, then you could be stuck out there for 12 hours waiting for the next high tide to get moving again.

Don would not have been able to complete his trip without the help of the Northern Stores located in various Inuit communities along his route, and his GPS.

At Repulse Bay Don and Vicki called it a day and agreed to come back the following summer (1992) and carry along the northern coast of Canada all the way from repulse Bay to Tuktoyaktuk, north of Inuvik, in the North West Territory. At this time Nunavut had NOT yet split off into a separate territory. That would not happen until 1999.

Back in Manitoba, Don continued his training. Every day he pull large and heavy loads on his sleds going up and down snow covered hills, and walked around and around large carparks for hours to train for when the real trip started. Don was planning to pull the sled for 15 miles every day across what he thought would be nice flat ice.

It turns out he picked a bad year. The summer of 1992 started early so by the time Vicki and Don started pulling their sleds out of Repulse Bay. the ice was already turning slushy (starting to melt). They ended up have to be carried by snowmobile all the way fom Repulse Bay across to Committee Bay, Pelly Bay and on to Spence Bay. There they could finally start crossing the sea ice. By the time they arrived at Gjoa Haven (Joe Haven) on King william Island, Vicki had developed edema and was ordered by the doctor to go to bed and rest and that she would not continue.

So Don was left to continue on his own. He pulled 500 pounds of stuff on a sled for 500 miles from Gjoa Haven all the way to Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island. There he was laid up buying food and waiting for the slush and ice to melt so he could paddle the kayak.

Eventually he headed out across the ice paddling along a lead (an open space in the ice). When the lead ended, and there was only ice, he had to drag his kayak some 6miles to shore, and avoid all the rotten ice while doing so.

Don's next major stop was Coppermine. Along the way he went climbing and grabbed a rock that turned out to be loose. It fell down onto Don's foot and broke 3 of the smaller toes. Don then spent the next month in agony as he courageously continued to paddle to Coppermine, and from there to Cape Parry, Cape Dalhousie and then on to Tuktoyaktuk. That was the plan. (see map)

Don describes the landscape, the cliffs, the ice, the weather, all the animals he sees along the way - Muskox, polar bears, grizzly bears, beluga whales, caribou, seals amd lots of arctic birds. But NO penguins.

In 1992 there was a string of DEWline stations along the Canadian arctic coast. DEW is Distant Early Warning Line, and these stations were sometimes manned by men from USA. Remember in 1992, the Soviet Union had broken up, and there was no longer any threat of nuclear missiles coming over the North Pole. The DEW system and stations were disbanded permanently in 1994.

When Don stopped at one DEWline station to ask for medical help (for his broken toes), the Americans inside flatly refused to help. It's against regulations, they kept saying. At the next DEWline station, which was manned by Canadians and Americans, they too were reluctant to help out due to US regulations. But the Canadian chefs at that post quietly filled a large box with fresh food for Don. They did this against regulations. Once again Americans were unwilling to be flexible and help a man in distress.

Don was due to arrive at Tuktoyaktuk on September 15th, 1992. At Cape Dalhousie Don was ahead of schedule when he rounded the cape and headed south to Tuk. He only had 100 miles to go. Three good days of paddling and he would be finished and safe. But the weather did not cooperate. The east side of Cape Dalhousie faces the full force of the Beaufort Sea, and Blizzards rapidly developed. (Beaufort Sea map)

Don was forced to stop in McKinley Bay (a DEWLine station that was abandoned just the week before) for 5 days. This meant he was stuck here on September 15th, when he was supposed to be arriving at Tuk. After 5 days the weather cleared enough for him to make a drastic decison and to continue paddling. But within 6 hours, another blizzard rose up and this time Don could not get to land. There was just too much ice. He sat in his kayak for 24 hours waiting for the ice to freeze solid enough so that he could get out and walk across it.

Finally it was solid, and Don dragged himself out of the kayak and onto the ice. He managed to pull the kayak out of the ice but it left a large kayak shaped hole in the ice. By now Don was one week overdue, and his sons were getting worried. Dana called the RCMP and got a search started. Shortly after Don crawled to land, he heard a plane fly overhead. He knew enough to wave a large orange bag (stolen from McKinley base) over his head. The pilot spotted the hole in the ice and investigated, and then saw the orange bag. He flew over the bay 3 times and then returned to Tuk.

Don was about to give up. He had no idea if the pilot has seen him. Don slowly began to sink into that dream state between sleep and death. Then came the thumping that sounded like a helicopter. Don vaguely remembers being lifted into a chopper and flown to Tuk. Don had been forced to give up his trip just 35 miles from his destination. His fingers were frostbitten and those broken toes were damaged beyond repair. Don was told that, just like the summer had started early, so the winter had also started early. At McKinley station, the blizzards had come early. They didnt usually start until October.

Don Starkell lost all his fingers and most of his toes to frostbite. They had to be amputated. But he is still paddling on the Red River in Winnipeg and he gives lectures on his Arctic adventure.

This book was excellent for learning all about survival in the Arctic, the Inuit people, the geography, the landscape and the animals. There are some nice photos on the book, but they are all black and white so one does not get the full effect of this cold and uncompromising land. I hope to visit some of these northern towns in my life time. But I will not be paddling there. I really enjoyed this book. I read it in 3 days.

I read this book for the 2nd Canadian challenge, and this was my 13th and last book for the free spirit(FS) Challange. so I have FINISHED. I hope to complete the single author(SA) Challenge next month.


John Mutford said...

You say you won't be paddling there. Does that mean you're considering a trip by other means?

Historia said...

Mais Oui!!

I'll take the train, the plane and the automobile. I want to get to see the Arctic north. I also want to visit every province and territory at least once, before I die.

Steve Zipp said...

You might want to read Victoria's account of the same trip, Kabloona in a Yellow Kayak. It too has received excellent reviews.