Passionate wilderness campaigner succumbs to cancer

The territory lost a champion of conservation this week with the passing of Mike Dehn, the former executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

The territory lost a champion of conservation this week with the passing of Mike Dehn, the former executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Dehn, 65, died at the Whitehorse General Hospital on Monday after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer.

Originally from Illinois, Dehn first visited the Yukon in 1985. He moved here permanently in the early 1990s and became the executive director of CPAWS in 2007 after serving on the board for many years.

Dehn’s passion for protecting the Peel watershed motivated him to take the top job, recalled Jill Pangman, CPAWS’ president, in an interview this week.

Even as he fought the cancer in his body, he devoted his life to protecting the area.

“I think it was the extraordinary opportunity that we have here in the Yukon to do something for humanity, for North America and the world, mainly preserving a very large ecosystem in its intact state. I think that excited him,” said Gill Cracknell, the society’s executive director.

Cracknell took over Dehn’s role in November after his illness made it impossible for him to keep coming into the office.

“It was a logical progression,” said Cracknell. She and Dehn had worked on the Peel watershed file for many years, and travelled together to Fort McPherson, N.W.T. together last year.

She remembered how Dehn embraced Gwich’in elders at meetings.

“He was just passionate about the whole thing,” she said. And even though the disease took its toll on him, “he would always bounce back,” she said.

But greater than his passion for the Peel was his passion for people, several friends recalled in interviews this week.

“In a conversation, he really listened, and not only recited back what people said, but made connections between what people said and things that might happen later in the conversation. Just, very present,” said Sue Kemmett, who met Dehn while they were both teaching at Yukon College.

She would often share a meal with him at his home in Mary Lake. The two would plan on watching a movie together, but their conversations always prevented them. After a year-and-a-half of this, they finally started one, but they never finished it.

The movie they began watching was A Beautiful Mind, about mathematician John Nash.

That’s fitting – Dehn had a strong interest in Nash’s theories, said Gord Bradshaw, a good friend of Dehn’s.

The two met in the fall of 1994, also while teaching at the college. Bradshaw was a heavy-duty mechanics instructor. Dehn taught in the renewable resource management program.

That year Dehn completed a PhD in biology from Simon Fraser University. He also held degrees in electrical engineering, economics and environmental sciences.

“I was always amazed that we had anything in common to talk about at all,” said Bradshaw, remembering the evenings they would spend discussing physics and string theory.

But what bound the two men together was their interest in computers and the Internet. In 1994, Dehn wanted to learn more about these subjects and came to Bradshaw’s office.

“We just hit it off from the start,” remembered Bradshaw.

Dehn treated his diagnosis “like another thesis,” Bradshaw said. Dehn spoke with specialists across the continent, and was on at least one drug trial, said Bradshaw. Originally, his friend wanted a “silver bullet,” something that would cure him. But about a year ago, he began to accept he wouldn’t win the battle.

Last November, he became bedridden. Lucille Stewart, a local doctor, took a leave of absence from her job and moved into Dehn’s home to care for him. Stewart and Dehn met through mutual friends in 2003. The two were a couple until 2011, and Dehn became like a father to Stewart’s daughter, Anna.

In December, Stewart realized Dehn could not be left alone. Friends came by on a schedule to spend time with him. He was never alone.

But despite his pain, he remained focused on his friends.

While Dehn was sick, Stewart travelled to Vancouver for her own surgery. She needed to have some skin cancer removed. One of the few people to call her while she was in the hospital was Dehn. “He was lying literally on his deathbed, and he called me and said, ‘How are you doing? How was your surgery?’” she remembered, noting he made no mention of his own illness in the conversation.

Kemmett had a similar experience. When she called Dehn to say she wouldn’t be able to come to a New Year’s Eve gathering at his home because she was sick, his response was simple. He asked her what he could to do to help her, she recalled in an interview Thursday.

She ended up going to the gathering.

“Mike would do for others what we would do for him in a heartbeat,” Kemmett said.

“He was just a big bear of a guy with a big smile that made friends easily,” said Bradshaw.

Dehn is survived by his mother, Maxine, his sister, Missy, and his brother, Matthew. He is predeceased by his father, Henry, to whom he dedicated his doctoral thesis. A celebration of life will be held at an upcoming date.

A Mike Dehn Memorial Fund has been set up by CPAWS National for people to donate to the Peel watershed. Donations can be made online at Donors will need to click on “in memory” or specify “for the Mike Dehn Memorial Fund” to have their donations directed there.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at