Sixty-one-year old Dermot ’Dermo’ Higgins has never been one to shy away from a challenge but his latest “Yesyukon 2023 Adventure” tops all previous escapades!
A retired schoolteacher of 35 years and principal, Dermot has completed his solo, source-to-sea expedition on the River Yukon in Canada and Alaska.
From North Dublin, he has spent most of his life living in Skerries, but on Friday last, August 25, he finally reached the small Yupik town of Emmonak on the Baltic Sea, having paddled a staggering distance of 3,150km from the river’s source, south of Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada.
Dermot believes he is the oldest person in the world and the first Irish person to accomplish this feat. Incredibly, the Dubliner paddled the last leg of the journey with two cracked ribs and in a boat patched up with chewing gum!
Despite having cycled around the world and taken on many other physical challenges over the years, Dermot feels this was the most arduous and his greatest achievement to date.
“I was quite unfit and had never spent any significant time in the wilderness; nor had I ever paddled a Canadian canoe!”
For the early part of the trip, he felt frightened and extremely vulnerable. And he certainly had some hair-raising experiences during his long journey to the Bering Sea from being capsized and flung into the swirling waters during high winds – more than 500m from the shore to being attacked by a grizzly bear.
Fortunately, Dermot had put on his lifejacket before the squalls hit. “The water wasn’t too cold either and I was paddling in the nip save for my life jacket. Otherwise, it would have been all over for me.”
Paddling in the nude was liberating, Dermot said, especially as he was travelling through the wilderness with no fear of prying eyes or causing offense.
And the Dubliner made headlines in Canada along the way when he got up close and personal with a black bear.
“Early on in the Yesyukon adventure, I was trapped in my tent and attacked by a ferocious black bear. I first tried to charm the beast by playing my tin whistle to no effect, and then I shouted and swore at it.”
Unfortunately, the bear charged at Dermot who had no option other but to deploy bear spray. It stopped the bear in its tracks but also knocked out the unfortunate adventurer!
“When I came to, I was covered in vomit and found it difficult to see anything but I knew the bear was gone,” said Dermot. He was so traumatised by the event that he immediately bundled everything into the canoe and paddled 220 km in 26 hours, non- stop to sanctuary in Dawson City. The local press ran a headline “He who swears at bears!”
At that point, he’d decided to quit but fortunately, friends and family members encouraged him to keep going.
Despite the difficulties he encountered, Dermot firmly believes that the three million paddle strokes, the pain and the loneliness were well worth the effort.
He felt the adventure was so good for his mental wellbeing and he learnt much about himself and the wilds. Among the sights he experienced was a moose swimming with her calf across the river at dawn, a golden eagle swooping down to catch a fish in its talons, metres from his canoe and huge grizzlies prowling along the riverbank as he paddled by.
However, of all his experiences, it was his encounters with the native people, in particular, the Athabascan and Yu’pic peoples of Alaska which made the deepest impression on Dermot. The tremendous generosity, hospitality and kindness shown him was incredible.
“They took me into the bosom of their families and treated me like one of their own.”
For almost a week, Dermot was weather bound and lived with the large extended family Liz and David Fitka in the town of Marshall, 300 km from Emmonak. A terrible tragedy had just befallen this family; their eldest daughter Kimberly O’Domin had intervened to stop a fight and disappeared in very suspicious circumstances. Her body was eventually found 100 miles downriver and the funeral had taken place only days before Dermot’s arrival.
Despite their pain and grief, they gave the Irish traveller sanctuary and support. In Marshall, Dermot sampled seal stew, Eskimo ice cream (made from fish!) to ‘castors’, a medicinal elixer made from the scent glands of the beaver, an amazing cure for toothache.
Dermot was so touched by their kindness that he launched a publicity campaign to aid the family in securing justice for their deceased daughter and Dermot is dedicating the Yesyukon adventure to the memory of Kimberly Fitka O Domin.
When he returns hopefully to Ireland in October 2, he hopes to publish a book entitled “He who swears at bears!” The aim of the book is to tell the story of the Yesyukon adventure and also to encourage ordinary people to move out of their comfort zone by taking on challenges, big or small in the great outdoors.
All profits raised by this publication along with a series of presentations will go to the Irish suicide prevention and counselling service, Pieta which helped him greatly in 2020 when he himself fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide.
“Alaska is amazing, but Ireland is where my heart is and it’s where I want to be, plus I miss my girlfriend Anne. She trades under the name Duchesse so you could say I was dating a French Duchess!”