Remembering Iohan

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.

Iohan Gueorguiev, December 23, 2013, in Port Hope, Ontario

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.

Iohan Gueorguiev
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:

Bikepacking magazine tribute

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

spring forward

PHOTO POST

We all have fond memories of that most welcome season, when instead of going out to play on ice, we sneak out and slop around in mud for the first time.

But how many of us have had the thrill of sliding into the muck wearing a pristine white suit?

Clean White Suit

A pair of Mute Swans were the first to try out this puddle in the Bowmanville Marsh, on an afternoon when most of the marsh was still covered in ice.

First Flowers

Just a few days later, Snowdrops were poking through mud and leaves without sullying their white coats in the slightest.

Whiskers on Blue

With their jet-black attire, what fun would it be for a squirrel to play in the mud? So they stick to the high road, except when it’s time to drop down to ground level to check a food cache.

Still Life with Circles

It’s not a bad idea to study the forest from a mouse-eye view, because visual treats abound on this lively backdrop of mosses.

Shelter and Shadow

Along the waterfront, a remnant of shore ice had one more opportunity to soak up sunrise before joining the waves.

The Shape of the Shore at This Moment

Shape of Shore II – Echo

Shape of Shore III – Lifeform in Sand

Shape of Shore IV – Drop of Blue

Some of our less common spring visitors are fishing the mouth of the creek. From left, female and male Hooded Merganser, female and male Greater Scaup.

Mergansers, meet the Scaups

The Long-Tailed Ducks are feeding too – but also keeping their wings in shape for their long flight to the arctic coast.

Water off a duck’s back

In a small hole in the breakwater, icicles catch the afternoon sun once more – but the colours of algae and water-soaked wood are coming into season.

A Window on Water


Photo at top of page: detail from Leading Edge (full-screen image here)

 

wintering at sea

PHOTO POST

In our house, if a lake is big enough so that we can’t see across to the far shore, then we’re allowed to call it “the sea”.

Many ducks, we’re pleased to report, agree with our interpretation. In winter we have as company several species of ducks who ordinarily shun frozen lakes and typically hang out along the New England coast. The open waters of Lake Ontario, they seem to believe, are as good as the sea.

In recent months groups of Goldeneye, Scaup, and Long-Tailed Ducks have been visible off the coast in Scarborough, Pickering, Whitby and here in Port Darlington – though they don’t typically get within good camera range.

Blue Rainbow

On a recent excursion to Cranberry Marsh, at lake’s edge south of  Whitby, the diving ducks kept their usual distance but a pair of Trumpeter Swans swam right up to the shore.

Young Trumpeter

These beautiful birds had been hunted nearly to extinction but are now making a steady recovery, thanks in no small part to determined work by Ontario conservationists over the past four decades.

The Trumpeters’ resurgence is apparently not welcomed by the Mute Swans who have taken over much of the habitat for large swans.

Trumpeter, chased by Mute

Mute Swans will also chase each other or will chase Canada Geese – but there was no obvious reason why all these geese suddenly decided they had to take to the air.

All Together Now

At home in Port Darlington, the north winds have been cold enough to shape some shore ice.

Lively Ice

Where waves bounce against ice, feeding conditions seem especially attractive to true diving ducks.

Bluebill

Though most of their number stay well off-shore, one or two Greater Scaup (above) and Common Goldeneye (below, with Mallard) have plied the narrow harbour channel recently.

Goldeneye

By the heat of the morning sun, as steam rises off waves, fishing near the breakwater is well-nigh irresistible.

Hot Sun

Making Strides

Drops of Ice

Swells break against the shore ice, the water churns and foams – and now and then a Long-Tailed Duck or two ventures close to play in the surf.

Home on the Waves

That’s winter at its finest, down by the seashore.


Photo at top of page: Scratching the Surface (click here for full-screen view)

suite for january

PHOTO POST

Perhaps no month can show so many moods as January,* particularly when we get a taste of real winter as in the past few days.

On a clear crisp morning wave-spray has transformed every twig on the shoreline into a jewel.

Twigshine

Under an arch

Even grains of sand have conspired with the water and the temperature to shape new faces, if only for a day.

One Particular Wave

On a quiet cloudy morning, though, colours are understated, asking for careful study.

Steel Blues

Budding branches await a spring thaw.

Refraction

Much closer to the ground, a small thistle managed to grow in a thin layer of gravel on the breakwater last summer, and stands strong still.

Prickling Sensation

The January sunlight can be harsh, glancing low across the water through clouds of steam.

Wet Nose

The same rays can light mallard feathers into full iridescent glory.

Feathers will fly

On a clear morning the tones ring out most intensely right around sunrise.

Five Step

Net Orange

The atmosphere catches colour: in a tiny channel carved through a small shelf of shore ice, soft waves push moist air up against the ice and new designs shape themselves.

Breathing Hole

Even the rocks get a make-over just for this moment.

Long pink line

Back at home the mid-morning sun thaws a collection of American Bittersweet berries, calling hungry Starlings.

Bitter Sweet

If these berries tasted better they wouldn’t have lasted this long. A flock of Starlings, once they get hungry enough, can polish them off in minutes.

A Minor Murmuration


*It’s one of the top twelve, for sure.

staying close to land

PHOTO POST

These days can be ever so quiet.

Some mornings the marsh is filled with geese and gulls, but other days the honks and screeches are far away.

Sparkle and Shadow

A pair of foxes might criss-cross the marsh before dawn, tracing the edges of every island, but leaving no evidence that they found a single mouse to eat.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it

Read More

quiet passage

PHOTO POST

We’ve slipped into a new year, but perhaps not yet into a new winter.

With no ice on the lake and patchy ice on the marshes, moisture rises to the sky and cloud mutes the light of many sunsets and sunrises.

 

She Sells Seashells (By the Lakeshore)

 

Swells Come Ashore

The morning of January 2nd was one glorious exception, as a bright sun rose in time to light up the freshly fallen snow.

Light in the Woods 1

 

Light in the Woods 2

 

Light in the Woods 3

The shipping season on Lake Ontario, typically finished by the end of December, is still in swing with two ships coming to port in the past week.

Shipping Lane 1

Shipping Lane 2

At the end of December we also had a fortuitous patch of clear sky, as the Long Night’s Moon rose over the lake before 5 pm.

Long Night’s Moon

This full moon, named for its proximity to the Winter Solstice, is often also called the Cold Moon –  but this year even the nights have been mild.

Do the birds expect the warm trend to carry through January? I couldn’t help but wonder when I saw this Great Blue Heron on January 4, a good month later in the season than I had spotted any herons in previous years.

Winter Vigil


Photo at top of page: Fragments (click here for full-screen view)

a fond farewell to winter

PHOTO POST

In truth it wasn’t much of a winter, with only a few cold days and a modest amount of snow. But now a wide variety of returning species are expressing their faith that an early spring is in progress.

Mild temperatures did not, of course, mean that the winter was easy for all creatures. The lack of any shore ice left the shoreline open to the pounding of the waves, which were many and fierce. By the end of February a beloved tree was toppling into the water.

Willow, fallen (click images for larger views)

Weight of the world

Marshes were still frozen at the beginning of March and this Fox could still take its shortcut across the harbour channel.

March 1 Fox

By mid-March, though, a wide variety of migratory ducks – Ring-Necked, Scaup, Mergansers, Mallards, Long-tails – had arrived and the Muskrats were enjoying the open water too.

On point

Shed no tears for me

Spring forward

Regatta

In the thickets around the marshes, winter stalwarts the Cardinal and Downy Woodpecker have been joined by Cedar Waxwings.

Blue window

Top ’o the morning

Downy Woodpecker

Most arresting of all on a sunny Sunday morning was a Broad-Winged Hawk taking a long look across the marsh.

Broad-Winged Hawk


Photo at top of page: Broad-Winged Hawk, Profile (click here for larger view)

 

the fastness of february

PHOTO POST

The problem with February, you may feel, is that it goes by much too fast. This year we award ourselves a free bonus day of February – though it looks like we’ll still end up with a good bit less winter than we used to take for granted.

Sea Light (click photos for larger views)

The mild weather seems to suit the ever-growing population of winter-resident geese. As temperatures climb each morning they begin to stir, fly north to nearby fields where they can fuel up on corn kernels, then return before sundown to settle on lake or marsh.

Pas de deux

 

Imminent Splash

Snow cover has been intermittent but parts of our marshes have gathered small drifts.

Prevailing Wind

Open areas of the marshes have mostly stayed frozen but thin ice at the edges has made for uncertain hiking and skating.

Zigzag Story

Bright clear skies have been a rare treat all winter, with none more beautiful than daybreak on the coldest morning, February 14.

Valentine

Steam hung over the lake as the sun rose, but moisture took a very different form in sheltered locations on the marsh.

Branches

Even the tangle of sticks and reeds on the beaver dam took on a sparkle that morning.

 

Contraflow

By mid-morning the woods were alive with birdsong.

Best Regards

The cardinal’s flashing red was a surprise, but even on the quietest snowy days there are glimpses of colour in the meadows and woods.

Mullein Spear

 

Gift

Photo at top of page: Snow Load (click here for larger view)

 

just this side of freezing

PHOTO POST

Winter proceeds in fits and starts. The marshes have frozen, thawed, filled with January rain, frozen again.

Perhaps that suits the otters just fine. They certainly appeared to enjoy playing on thin ice in recent weeks. There was enough open water to dive into while chasing mud-cats, and enough ice to climb onto while munching on fresh fish.

Otters on Thin Ice (click images for larger views)

The freeze-thaw cycles on the lakeshore tossed up playful effects too. Softly breaking waves piled pebbles and froze them into place, and just as quickly started to melt pieces out of the stone walls.

Assemblage

What shape is water? Is it round or made of sharp angles? The waters of Westside Marsh yield complicated answers.

Breath of the Marsh

Above, a gently bending shelf of ice remains from a previous period of high water. Insulated under that shelf, the warm mud of the marsh pumps out humid air. And where the breath of the marsh meets a crisp overnight breeze, a profusion of frost crystals have gathered by the time the warm sun wakes.

Our local waters showed a very different face this past Saturday, with wet snow blowing into the waves under a relentlessly grey sky.

Across the Channel

It was just the sort of a chilly, windy, damp day when people like to say “It’s a nice day – if you’re a duck.”

But is that true? I set out to find an answer.

Sentry

Now, engaging a duck in small talk is not as easy as you might think. There was the problem of finding a duck in a blizzard, of course – and then getting close enough for comfortable conversation.

Edge of the Visible

On this day the ducks were not to be found at sea. In the relative shelter of the harbour, however, I came across several clusters of buffleheads and long-tailed ducks, dodging the ice chunks together.

Mixed Company

When at last I had worked myself close to the ducks and out of the howling wind, I popped the question.

Long-tailed Three

“Is this really a nice day for a duck?”

And I was met with a steely silence which seemed to say, “Well, you’re supposed to be the homo sapiensyou figure it out.”

You Tell Me

And so I came home from this encounter none the wiser. I can only say that it was a nice day to be out watching ducks.

 

Photo at top: Drift Wood Diptych (click here for larger view)

portrait of december

PHOTO POST

Has this been the greyest month of the year? So it seems, but intermittent snow cover and several spectacular sunrises have brightened things up.

 

Daybreak

 

Beacon

 

Water Colour

A sudden afternoon squall caught these birds – and their photographer – by surprise. One minute the sun was poking through and the next a swift cloud of snow was blowing across the beach.

Snow Gulls

Before the marshes were sealed in ice, fascinating and complex patterns formed just at the edges.

Ice Puzzle

Late afternoon light across the lake is a beautiful sight and often a challenge to photograph.

Swan 4.13.02

These two swan photos are just about as different as day and night though they were taken less than two minutes apart. Above, a swan swam into a sunbeam as I pointed my camera almost directly at the light. Below, I waited as the swam swam by, then got a shot at about a 90 degree angle to the light.

Swan 4.14.59

Last but not least, late afternoon sunshine suits this local celebrity just as well.

Fox Wants to Know

(click images for larger views)