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At 61, Dermot Higgins canoed through 3,150 kilometres of Arctic country with few supplies, little training and only a rough idea of how to reach the Bering Sea from Whitehorse. How did he succeed?

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Dermot Higgins dips his paddle into the Pacific in Vancouver last month, after his solo canoe trip down the Yukon River this past summer.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

It is hard to imagine someone less likely to paddle the length of the Yukon River than Dermot Higgins. Late last summer, the husky Irishman took up the lonely, herculean voyage on a lark.

Every summer, a handful of adventurers set out to conquer the mighty Yukon. It is North America’s third longest river and bisects one of the planet’s more remote regions. Most of those who attempt it fail to reach the Bering Sea, done in by frigid waters, dangerous wildlife, hideous weather and vast, unforgiving wilderness.

Mr. Higgins was, by his own admission, “seriously overweight and quite unfit.” At 61, he had never paddled a canoe, nor spent any time in the wilderness. The retired schoolteacher from the coastal town of Skerries, near Dublin, committed to the trip earlier this year, in the wee hours of St. Patrick’s Day, after many rounds honouring Ireland’s beloved patron saint. A Canadian sharing his table gave him the idea.

Most explorers spend two years and $60,000 preparing to paddle the Yukon. Mr. Higgins arrived in Whitehorse in late June, having spent the three months following St. Paddy’s Day “mostly faffing about and procrastinating.”

His back was shot and he was battling arthritis, but he had managed to cobble together $6,000 – enough to cover his airfare, a GPS tracker and a stack of paperbacks from a second-hand bookshop in Whitehorse.

The canoe – an aluminum, 17-foot Grumman – he bought used from “a real-life Grizzly Adams character named James,” he says.

James, perhaps taking pity on him, tossed in some food barrels, a lifejacket, spare paddles, a camp stove, a machete, a fishing rod and some lures.

He was alone: The three friends who had pledged to journey with him had all dropped out. Mr. Higgins hadn’t trained, save for a weekend spent on a lake in Northern Ireland, where he taught himself – roughly speaking – how to handle a canoe.

“Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane,” Robert Service, the great bard of the territory, wrote in The Law of the Yukon. “Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core.”

Mr. Higgins claims neither strength nor sanity, but there are few better descriptors for the accidental adventurer than “grit to the core.” This, more than anything else, is what carried him the length of this 3,150-kilometre exercise in masochism.

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In his 17-foot aluminum canoe, Mr. Higgins paddled the Yukon from June to August. Named for the Gwich’in word for ‘great river,’ the Yukon is the third-longest river in North America, and many First Nations live along its course.Courtesy of Dermot Higgins

This winding stretch of the Yukon lies between Whitehorse and Dawson City, former gold-rush towns in the northern territory named after the river. Past that point, there are few large population centres where a traveller can stop for help. DeAgostini/Getty Images
Before highways and planes, steamboats travelled the Yukon where railroads could not reach. These boats, beached in Whitehorse in 1963, had been sold to the federal government in 1955 when the railway discontinued river service. White Pass and Yukon Route via CP

The Yukon’s finish line is evident to all – but its source, made up, as it is, of countless tributaries and glacial lakes, is disputed. So most Yukon paddlers start where Mr. Higgins did, just south of Whitehorse.

He set out on Canada Day – a late start given that August marks the beginning of autumn in the far north. The frigid, turquoise water was moving at an alarming pace, its temperature hovering around -5 Celsius, Mr. Higgins says.

As he floated past the Yukon capital, the enormity of what lay ahead shocked Mr. Higgins into a “state of panic,” he recalls. He found himself constantly questioning the sanity of his venture. “I’m not the least bit mentally or physically prepared for what lies ahead,” he wrote on Facebook at the time. “To be really honest, I’m quite scared.”

Mr. Higgins, a romantic, grew up dreaming of adventure, staying up into the wee hours reading Jack London and Robert Service – the two men responsible, more than any others, for the literature of the Yukon. But he settled young. He married at 23, launched a teaching career, then had four children, each named for an Irish deity.

When he retired at 55, his marriage was faltering, his children were grown and he decided to leave his wife and home, setting off on a nine-month cycling trip, his first grand adventure. “I left a lot of baggage behind. But it was what I really needed,” Mr. Higgins explains over coffee near Jericho Beach in Vancouver, where he was resting for a few days after flying in from Alaska.

He had by then been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Three years ago, he nearly died from a suicide attempt following a profound depression. Mr. Higgins says he doesn’t experience the emotional highs typical of the disease, “but the troughs are really, really low.” He copes by exercising, spending time outside and raising money for Pieta, a suicide-prevention organization.

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Mr. Higgins dispensed with shirts, and eventually all clothes, on his long days of paddling.Courtesy of Dermot Higgins

On the Yukon, his only real plan was to “make hay while the sun shone,” and put in long paddling days while the weather window was open. Most days, he paddled shirtless. Eventually, he rowed stark naked. There was no one around to offend except the occasional eagle and beaver, though he badly burned his bum.

His first major hiccup came eight days in, after he came ashore near Selwyn Creek. Campers had left a mess of garbage and fish guts on the site. Mr. Higgins cleaned up what he could before setting up tent.

Early the next morning, he awoke to feel something large and angry swatting his shoulder. Peering through the nylon mesh, he saw a black bear – so close he could smell its ripe, pungent odour. He blew furiously into a tin whistle – “not very melodically.” The bear grew angrier, charging his tent, growling and snorting. Mr. Higgins pulled out a can of bear spray, dispensing it through the mesh. When the orange cloud hit the bear, it recoiled, then staggered backward. The cloud hit Mr. Higgins, too, and he was “blinded and couldn’t breathe.” He began to retch and passed out.

He came to 30 minutes later, around 7 a.m., covered in vomit. The bear was gone. Mr. Higgins tossed everything he had into his canoe – the bear had kept one of his boots as a memento – and paddled hard for Dawson City, and the nearest airport: “I was terrified. All I wanted was to go home. Nobody wants to be mauled by a bear. It’s not a nice way to go.”

He reached Dawson at 10 a.m. the following morning, having paddled 26 hours non-stop. “I’d covered 220 kilometres and was totally exhausted. My back ached as I stumbled from the canoe. But I was alive.”

Sweat-soaked and half-starved, he limped into town on a single boot, the other foot bare, adrenaline still racing through him like a runaway horse. A stiff drink that evening at a bar in town began to chip away at his resolve to fly home. Then three German paddlers he met there invited him to join them. In their camaraderie, he found strength enough to carry on.

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Near Dawson City, Mr. Higgins encountered a black bear that he shooed away with a chemical repellent that also knocked him unconscious.Courtesy of Dermot Higgins

The foursome crossed into Alaska near Eagle, Yukon, in their canoes, using a black U.S. Customs phone to alert authorities of their arrival. They reached the Arctic Circle a few days later. The Germans, keen to keep to their gruelling schedule, wanted to immediately push on toward the Bering Sea, but Mr. Higgins was entranced by the mythic landscape and the people living where the roads have run out. He preferred to explore for a few days, so they parted ways at Circle, Alaska, population 104.

It was here, over games of pool and shared stories, that Mr. Higgins began to form profound friendships with some of the Athabaskans and Yu’pik who live along the river, where the stores and roads have run out.

At Stevens Village, an Athabaskan family invited him to participate in an Elder’s funeral potlatch, which is much like the “afters” at an Irish funeral, Mr. Higgins says. He chose to belt out part of the Lúireach Pádraig in Gaelic – “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me … I arise today.”

By then, he had come to love moose head soup and akutuq – Inuit ice cream – made from caribou fat, seal oil, berries and sugar. He saw in Indigenous communities the tremendous importance of family, “how closely knit they are, how loyal and devoted they are to one another.” It made him think of his own family, particularly his two youngest children, who have not spoken to him in two years. A rift that emerged after he left their mother has widened since. “I realized that I must do whatever it takes to get them back – to say I’m sorry, to try to improve our relationship enough that they feel comfortable talking with me, spending time with me.”

Shortly after leaving Stevens Village, Mr. Higgins reached the Dalton Highway Bridge – the halfway point for paddlers. He’d heard it said along the river that the real challenge of paddling the Yukon begins here. “At that moment my back was so sore I couldn’t walk.” Some evenings, locals had to help lift him from his canoe.

Another challenge he faced was entirely of his making: He forgot to buy charts. All he had was a large-scale map of Alaska he’d bought in Whitehorse. At this point, the Yukon is braided with thousands of islands and channels, and notorious for losing boaters and paddlers. Somehow, Mr. Higgins muddled through, navigating by the sun and flow of the water.

By then, the weather had begun its gallop toward autumn. Rain fell in sheets and the opposite bank vanished in the mist. Honking chevrons of Canada geese flew overhead by the dozen.

The Yukon, as it nears the Bering Sea, can stretch to four kilometres across, a distance that might take an hour to cross by canoe. Stiff gales can kick up massive waves.

On windy days, Mr. Higgins hugged the shoreline. On really windy days, he hand-railed the bank, pulling himself along using plants and trees.

One rare, sunny day, Mr. Higgins decided to cross a wide bay rather than follow its winding bank. He was halfway across, his lifejacket cushioning his bare bottom, when a squall came suddenly blowing in. Mr. Higgins bent in, heaving on his paddle, trying to make the distant shore. But the waves were soon hitting him broadside, and Mr. Higgins was tossed into the ice-cold water. He managed to right the canoe but wasn’t strong enough to climb in.

In the hour it took him to swim the two kilometres to shore, dragging his canoe along, he found himself mumbling his father’s favourite prayer, over and over – “Angel of God, my guardian dear; to whom God’s love commits me here; ever this day be at my side; to light and guard, to rule and guide.”

When he finally crawled ashore, he was chilled to the bone, unutterably lonely and terrified. It was too wet to light a fire, so he warmed himself the only way he could: by climbing back into the canoe and rowing with all his might. Somewhere deep within him there remained a reserve of grit, and good humour, vast enough to see him off. So with a sigh, a guffaw – had he really cheated death once more? – and a whispered thanks to the great divine above, he shoved off.

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Mr. Higgins says he may not have made it to his destination without help from locals in the North.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Two weeks later, on Aug. 25, Mr. Higgins crossed the finish line, paddling into the Bering Sea near Emmonak, a Yu’pik fishing village. The howling breeze racing upriver toward him made the 14-hour day feel longer still. He was nursing three cracked ribs, the result of a bad fall. The chewing gum he was using to fix two large cracks in his canoe had come undone. For the last three hours of his journey, he had to bail frantically every 10 minutes just to stay afloat.

Emmonak, like many Alaskan communities, is dry, but a Yu’pik friend greeted Mr. Higgins with a smuggled bottle of R&R – Rich and Rare, a Canadian whiskey.

As he caught the first sulphury scent of the sea, the Arctic wind pricked tears from his eyes. The experience had been so powerful, so ethereal, so otherworldly, that some part of him didn’t want it to end.

The five teams that set off before Mr. Higgins this summer – all younger, more fit and far better prepared – pulled out before reaching the Bering Sea, including the trio of Germans. Mr. Higgins feels he owes his finish to the help and friendship of those he met along the way, who helped him navigate the obstacles and hardship the river set for him.

When the weather was grim, other paddlers huddled in their soaked, frigid tents, getting pounded by rains and tossed around by Arctic drafts, he says. Mr. Higgins spent the time with families, who gave him hot food, a warm bed, advice, kindness and wisdom.

“Sometimes people don’t give to get something back – that’s mercy. That’s what the people of the North showed me. I suppose I could have done it on my own, without their help. But this was so much more fun.”

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