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Extreme Canoe Journeys



The ICF Canoe Kayak Marathon World Championships will unfold on September 21 along Rome’s grand River Tiber: a global landmark rich in myth and legend. Though the setting is spectacular, athletes must not be distracted. They need the focus and staying power to make it through multiple laps and portages to the finish line.

Perhaps as inspiration they should look to those who have, despite all odds, undertaken and completed monster challenges in the seat of a boat.

Here are five of the most extreme canoe and kayak trips ever taken.

Photo Credit: Ed Lombard – Wikimedia Commons

Ernest Oberholtzer

Born 1884, Died 1977

Ernest Oberholtzer was an American explorer, writer and conservationist who beat some severe physical limitations. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighed less than 150 pounds and had a heart condition. During his childhood, he was puny and sickly. He could not even pass the physical exam to enter the military. Still, the Objiwe Indians of Minnesota called him “Atisokan,” or “legend”…and for good reason.

Among other canoeing exploits, Oberholtzer embarked in 1909 on a canoe trip along the border lakes and the Rainy Lake watershed: an area now known as the Boundary Waters.  He wound up covering no less than 3,000 miles of unmapped North American wilderness in a single summer. The journey is documented in a memoir called Bound for the Barrens.

Photo Credit: Grand Canyon NPS –

Oskar Speck

Born 1907, Died 1995

Few canoeists are more obscure or amazing than German daredevil Oskar Speck. Between 1932 and 1939, Speck rowed by folding kayak all the way from Germany to Australia: a trip that many find daunting today in a jet. A Hamburg electrical contractor, Speck lost his job during the Weimar age slump and decided to “see the world”. He duly continued to Australia via the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia: a staggering feat by any standards. But when he arrived in Australia, the Second World War was just teeing up. Bad timing. The authorities jailed him as an enemy.  For the rest of the war, he stayed in prisoner-of-war camps. On his release, he worked as an opal cutter at Lightning Ridge in outback New South Wales. Then Speck moved downtown to Sydney and embarked on a prosperous career as an opal retailer. But his 50,000 km, seven-year canoe trip would remain his epic life’s brightest highlight. You wonder why hardly anyone has heard of him.

Donald Starkell 

Born 1932, Died 2012

On June 1, 1980, explorer Don Starkell and his two sons, Dana and Jeff set out on a stirring canoe journey from their native Canada to Belem, Brazil. Their fluid trek traced the Red River to its headwaters south of Fargo, North Dakota. From there, the family team portaged to the Minnesota River, continuing along the Mississippi River to the Intracoastal Waterway at La Rose, Louisiana. They traced the Waterway south to Mexico, then edged the coast of Mexico to Veracruz. Between November 1980 and mid February 1981, they took a break, during which Jeff Starkell quit. Donald and Dana persisted and – off the Guajira Peninsula in Colombia – had a narrow scrape with pirates. On the Gulf of Coro, Venezuela they got plonked on a sandbar by heavy headwinds and almost starved. But they continued and, on October 14, 1981 docked at Port of Spain, Trinidad. There, they took another, six-week break before heading along the Orinoco river then the Amazon. The journey ended at Belem, Brazil on May 2, 1982.

Four years later, the names of Don and Dana Starkell entered the Guinness Book of World Records for completing the longest ever canoe journey: a distance of 12,181 miles. Their monster trip took two years.


Grayham Street

Born 1969

In August 2009, former Royal Marine Grayham Street rowed 23 miles across the English Channel in a 14ft canoe to raise funds for injured soldiers. “It may only take 45 minutes to get from Dover to Calais on a ferry, but it took Grayham Street a little longer to get to France – six hours and 11 minutes to be precise,” said regional English newspaper, Echo. Despite clear skies, the Channel was choppy. Waves reared 4 feet — a daunting height when you are tucked into a canoe — and Street had to dodge fleets of freight, fishing and transport boats. Through skill and alertness, however, he narrowly avoided being rolled. He completed the crossing in the late afternoon, off-course at the French village of Wissant, some 15 miles west of Calais because of the tides.

Kira Salak

Born 1971

Kira Salak is an American adventurer with a thirst for testing fitness and geographical boundaries. She grew up fascinated by the feats of the famous Scottish explorer Mungo Park and in 2002, she set out to trace his fatal journey down West Africa’s Niger river, kayaking 600 miles to Timbuktu. On the way, Salak became the first person to travel alone from Mali’s Old Segou to “the golden city of the Middle Ages”: the mythical doorway to the end of the world. Salak faced obstacles ranging from Sahara heat to roiling currents, tropical storms and brushes with one of the world’s most dangerous animals, the hippo. She found that the area had changed little since Mungo Park was captured by Moors in 1797.

Reliant on locals for food and shelter,  she docked nightly in mud-hut villages on the Niger’s banks. She met Dogan sorceresses and tribes sometimes hostile at the sight of a lone white woman paddling to Timbuktu. Once a gang of angry tribesmen chased her. Still, weakened by dysentery, she reached Timbuktu. To cap it all, Salak fulfilled her final goal of buying the freedom of two Bella slaves with gold. She was later dubbed “the gutsiest — and some say, craziest — woman adventurer of our day.”

Cover Photo Credit: m.prinke –

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