We stared through the dark windows at the ice-covered street, wondering … “Is he still going to make it here tonight?”
It was the evening of December 21, 2013, several hours after a huge ice storm settled over the north shore of Lake Ontario. Hundreds of thousands of people were without electricity, including everyone in our town of Port Hope. In mid-afternoon, before we lost all communications, Iohan had sent a message saying he was still determined to make it to our house that night – but he was making slow progress on his bike.
Long after dark we spotted a tiny flash bobbing down the street. Iohan was pointing his bike light at the houses, looking at the numbers, until he found our place at the end of the street. And so we met a truly unforgettable character, covered from head to toe in wet ice, who quickly filled our home with good cheer.
Iohan Gueorguiev had contacted us a few days earlier through the website Warmshowers, asking if he could spend a night at our house. We had hosted our share of eccentric travellers but Iohan’s plans were particularly audacious. As a newbie cycle traveller with no winter cycling experience, he was going to ride from Hamilton, Ontario to Halifax, Nova Scotia – more than 1800 km – during his Christmas holiday break from university.
By the second day the trip fit what would become a classic “travels with Iohan” template: tackle a challenging route, with minimal preparation and barely adequate gear, throw in plenty of rain, ice and bitter cold, plus the occasional major equipment failure, and Iohan would lap it all up and be even more eager for the next ride.
During his long day between Toronto and Port Hope he endured hours of cold rain, then plodded through the darkness on ice-covered roads, without studs on his tires or on his shoes. The next morning, it wasn’t easy to persuade him to stay another night rather than setting off again on the still-slick roads.
Fortunately for us he did stay and we got to enjoy his company for an extra 24 hours. We prepared an early Christmas dinner on the stove-top for 10 people, then feasted around a candle-lit table.
For many of our hours together, Iohan peppered me with questions about biking the ice highways in the western Canadian arctic. After two nights inside, however, he wasted little time packing his bags and suiting up for the ride. The roads were still ice-covered, there was no thaw in the forecast, and there wasn’t a working traffic light to be found anywhere in the region.
He biked away along our street and that turned out to be the last time I saw Iohan in person. But the memories of Iohan were just beginning. As I read his blog and then watched his many videos over the years, I joined a circle of friendship that grew to hundreds, then thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people.
For a few years we corresponded frequently, about biking and camping gear, possible travel routes, and how to shoot and edit his videos. In 2015 he was accepted into the Blackburn Ranger program, and was awarded some of the best bike-packing gear plus training for a journey along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Alberta to Mexico. Before long, it was clear that he knew far more about rugged bike trips than I had ever dreamed of knowing. Not only that, but he had a real gift for shoestring-budget, solo videography; his simply-narrated, simply astonishing travel stories gained a huge and devoted following.
The risks he took were breathtaking. Still a newbie winter camper, he explored off-beat trails where, had an unexpected blizzard outlasted his skimpy food supply or ripped his fragile tent, he may not have been discovered until spring. He slid down steep scree slopes, in areas so isolated that a broken limb could well have been a death sentence. Acquiring an inflatable raft, he arrived at a rocky trailhead on the Pacific coast, loaded his bike and gear, then embarked on his first boating trip, battling waves and wind throughout a very long day to reach a safe harbour.
Not all of his thirty-nine videos featured the same degree of danger, but most featured challenges and setbacks that would have turned back almost any other traveller. It was not unusual for Iohan to fail, at least on first try, to reach his destination. That uncertainty was always part of the attraction: “If you know you can do it,” he said, “why go in the first place?” Beyond the danger and the hardship, though, his videos share his love of the sky, the mountains, the waves, the snow, the animals – be they bears, horses, or dogs – and the kind-hearted people he met even in seemingly lonely places.
As much as he loved solitude Iohan connected readily and easily with people. That was clear from the two days he spent with our family, from the segments of his video where he enjoys newfound friendships, and from the testimonies of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people blessed to host this big-hearted traveller over the years. Perhaps that need to connect with people made the last two years particularly difficult.
My last communication with Iohan was in the spring of 2019. He wrote from South America, but he was hoping to do a winter trip down the frozen Mackenzie River from Norman Wells, NWT, beyond the Arctic Circle to Tsiigehtchic (shown on many maps as Arctic Red River), a distance of about 400 km as the crow flies and a good bit more as the river meanders. It was pointless, of course, to tell Iohan, “it sounds very dangerous, don’t do it.” I did, however, list many things that could, in my view, go wrong, even asking the advice of an elder friend who had travelled that route many times since growing up in the area.
I’ll likely never know whether my cautionary advice was a factor – it had never discouraged Iohan in the past! – but it seems he postponed that Mackenzie River trip. And now in hindsight I wonder, was my caution quite beside the point? During the past few years, it seems, Iohan had been struggling with what, for him, turned out to be more deadly set of challenges.
Yesterday I was amazed to see Iohan’s picture in the Washington Post, and heartbroken to read that he had died in August. In one of many poignant tributes, David Von Drehle wrote: “Iohan Gueorguiev died by apparent suicide in late summer. He was 33. Word of the loss moved slowly, as if on two wheels. As if through thick mud. As if across snowfields grabbing at fat tires, relentlessly.”
Iohan’s friend Matt Bardeen sheds light on the combination of factors that might have led Iohan into a storm I would not have imagined. Increasingly severe sleep apnea meant Iohan could not get a good night’s sleep, which in turn contributed to depression. The sleep apnea may have been worsened due to Iohan’s strenuous trips at high altitude, including one in February 2020. He received a diagnosis and the aid of a CPAP machine, but I can’t help but wonder if Iohan feared he’d never be able to drag a CPAP apparatus on the kind of trips he loved to take.
And then the pandemic set in. Iohan was unable to travel to other countries, and though he took short trips in Canada he could no longer make new friends with the hosts who had, unpredictably but frequently, given him a bed, hot meal, and warm conversation during his previous trips. He was unable, too, to keep up the stream of video releases which had become not only his livelihood but, I can only guess, a central part of his identity.
Frequently over the past eight years, I feared that someday I’d get news that Iohan had died. I thought he’d be lost in a fierce blizzard, or fall through the ice of a northern river, be attacked by a grizzly bear or polar bear or a poisonous snake, be swept under a wave in a coastal storm or slip over a cliff into a remote canyon. So the manner of his death was a complete shock, and a reminder that depression can be as tough and as dangerous as anything else we might face.
On my own first bike trip, a retired newspaper editor had waved me down on a Michigan road, warning me of an impending severe thunderstorm and giving me a safe place to sleep inside his barn. As we chatted he asked if I thought my trip was dangerous, then quickly followed that thought with “But then, the man who never died, never lived.”
Nothing can lessen the tragedy of Iohan’s final struggle and his far too early death at the age of 33. But more than just about anyone I’ve known, he avoided a greater tragedy – that of never having lived. For the better part of eight years, he lived with a joy that carried him from the frozen Beaufort Sea to the high plains of Wyoming, from the coastal inlets of BC to the jungles of Panama, over the Andes and onward to Patagonia. I count myself blessed to be one of the hundreds who met Iohan somewhere along his journey, and one of the millions who have been awed by his stories.
Born January 20, 1988, Bulgaria
Died August 19, 2021, Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada
Photo at top: Iohan Gueorguiev on December 22, 2013, in Port Hope, Ontario. (Full-screen image here.)
Recent articles about Iohan:
New York Times obituary
The Hard Road: Insights Into Iohan Gueorguiev (From A Close Friend), by Matt Bardeen in CyclingAbout
A Tribute To Iohan Gueorguiev, by Alee Denham in CyclingAbout
A man, his bicycle and an incredible gift to the world, Washington Post