A close call with a black bear wasn’t enough to deter a 61-year-old Irish paddler from completing a 3,185-kilometre trip on the Yukon River from Whitehorse to the Bering Sea.
Turns out, the bear incident — in which Dermot Higgins passed out from pepper spraying himself while trying to fend off the animal — was just one of many adventures on the 56-day canoe trip.
“You know I’m a little bit overweight, I have arthritis, so people looked at me and said, ‘There’s no way that guy’s going to make it down the river,'” he said over the phone from Anchorage, recounting his time on the water.
Higgins said he feels proud to have completed the trip through the Yukon and Alaska, adding there were some hairy situations.
“I wouldn’t say I was very well prepared, to be really honest.”
Nonetheless, he finished his adventure last weekend — with tales to tell.
In addition to sometimes paddling naked in the wilderness, Higgins said he cracked some ribs, and encountered bad weather, which capsized his boat.
“I was out in the middle of the river and I got stuck in a squally storm and ended up in the water and I really did think it was all over,” he said.
Higgins said he was able to drag the half-submerged boat in the current and eventually made it to shore after an hour.
Then, with just one final day before the end of his journey, Higgins said he found himself with a hole in his canoe and no repair kit.
“So I actually just plugged it up with chewing gum, stuffed it into the hole and that got me across the finish line,” he said.
After a journey of 56 days, at the end of the river in the town of Emmonak, Alaska, city manager Dave Roland met Higgins along the river and offered to drive him to his accommodations.
“But he walked. He walked everywhere… no shoes on, no nothing,” said Roland.
According to Roland, the isolated Yupik village of about 700 people is used to seeing people pass through.
“We get some end-of-the-roaders. You get a lot of them here. You get a lot of characters,” he said.
But of all the travelers he’s seen pass through, Roland said Higgins was unique, and not just for his gift of the gab.
“He takes the cake. He had less gear — less anything — than anybody I’ve ever seen come in a canoe,” said Roland. “He had nothing… he seemed perfectly content with that.”
Higgins’ girlfriend, Anne Laurent, is relieved he finished the trip safely.
“Every time he was just giving me an update and trying to reassure me that he was alright,” she said on the phone from Ireland.
“He’s tough. Really, really tough. He has a will like nobody I know and when he wants to go somewhere, he will go for it.”
With a laugh, she said she’s worried this trip will give Higgins the impression that he can do a lot more than he did.
“I’m afraid of that,” she said, “but we’ll see.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Study touts domestic tourism potential in Nordics, custom approach needed for Arctic, Eye on the Arctic
Iceland: Iceland moving ahead on better ways to manage tourism & safeguard protected areas, Eye on the Arctic
Russia: Old icebreakers eye upgrades for Murmansk-Vladivostok tourism, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: Reindeer herding affected by increased tourism in Swedish mountains, Radio Sweden