Born January 20, 1988, Bulgaria
Died August 19, 2021, Cranbrook, Canada
Iohan’s journey was one of discovery. However, he was not interested in going places where nobody had gone before but more in exploring his inner self. How far he could push himself, and his bike, in some of the most remote places on the planet?
When we first meet Iohan on his journey, he’s conversing with a trucker while both are rolling down a stretch of ‘highway’ plowed onto the ice somewhere in Canada.
“What’s your name” screams the trucker.
“Iohan” he replies.
“Where are you going?” asks the trucker.
“On your bike?”
“Oh man, I love you!” replies the trucker.
That iconic opening set the stage of an epic journey that played out over seven years, covering two continents and fourteen countries, with detours, twists and turns, good times and bad times.
All throughout, Iohan remained this unflappable force, responding to dire situations with characteristic good humor, willpower, and optimism. We know of his journey through his videos, photos and writings as he documented his passage through the vast landscapes and his interactions with the animals and the people he met along the way. Always pushing forward, looking for the next route, he moved inexorably toward his goal.
The videos he produced were sparse, but lush at the same time. He eschewed the self-centred introspection and the generated drama seen in many travel logs, opting for more of a documentary approach. The star of his videos was the natural world and all its inhabitants. He just happened to be there, filming it all as it unfolded before him.
Iohan did make it to Argentina, though not to the tip of South America as he had hoped. His journey was cut short by the Covid pandemic, and he was caught in Canada when the borders closed.
During this time, largely unable to travel, a battle with latent insomnia took its toll on his psyche. Angry and frustrated at being unable to sleep, he eventually sought help.
He was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which a person’s airways relax while sleeping, preventing the flow of oxygen to the brain. This lack of oxygen to the brain causes it to react, waking the person in order to deal with the problem.
Any person that has spent a night at a high altitude will recognize these symptoms and will know how debilitating the lack of sleep and lack of oxygen can become. Life becomes a waking dream, the brain processes slow and its chemistry changes. People suffering from sleep deprivation and low oxygen levels show a lack of concentration and poor memory, they are irritable and moody.
He later confessed to me that he had been dealing with insomnia since 2018, though it was certainly made worse by his lack of travel. It was also, not surprisingly, aggravated by the time he spent at high altitude, most recently in February of 2020 when he attempted to climb Ojos del Salado. He hoped the cause of his insomnia was this diagnosis of sleep apnea and had acquired a CPAP machine to ensure his brain would get enough oxygen so he could sleep. With help from friends, he started looking forward to the future and making plans – we were hopeful he would work past his struggles.
What the CPAP machine could not treat was the depression that had accompanied his insomnia. After seven years of constantly moving forward, he was trapped by circumstances beyond his control.
His lack of concentration meant he had great difficulty producing the videos he loved. His inability to produce weighed on him and he felt unable to please his fans.
This is a trap that many creators come to face. As they becoming increasingly famous, the pressure on them grows. It might not even come from external sources – it may spring from an internal drive to be perfect or present a perfect image to their fans. Iohan was no exception to this trap.
Despite his calm and measured exterior, he had a typical internal life, rife with all of the struggles and all the doubts that people face. However, what caused him to ultimately take his own life (suicide) will forever be a mystery and my musings here remain nothing more than mere speculation.
As tragic and, perhaps, unnecessary as his death was, his legacy will be in his interactions with the people he met along his journey.
Picture yourself as an arriero, a Chilean mountain cowboy, riding along on your horse on some isolated trail high in the Andes mountains, when you come across a foreigner pushing a heavily-loaded bike.
“De dónde viene?” (“Where are you coming from?”)
“De dónde? Nunca he escuchado de esa” (“From where? I’ve never heard of that”)
That memory of this stranger with a bike appearing out of nowhere, hailing from far off lands would remain indelibly etched in your consciousness. Maybe at times, you’d think you imagined it all. But what a memory it would be.
Many of the people Iohan met along the way would help him, and some would become friends that he would return to visit with when he could. Those personal connections ground the story of Iohan’s voyage, offering a hopeful vision of humanity, one not of selfishness and greed, but of altruism and good intentions.
Likewise, his interactions with animals showed Iohan’s true nature. Cows and horses were often protagonists in his story, sometimes as a comic foil (“I’ll call you Big Mac”, he once said to a cow), sometimes as threats of bodily harm (facing down a bull angered by his attempt to pass), and sometimes as traveling companions.
However, the most constant protagonists in the story Iohan told were the dogs. He would gravitate towards them as much as they would towards him. The forgotten street dogs seemed to be his favorites.
I’ve often speculated on the reasons behind this affinity – was it because he recognized them as kindred spirits and identified with them? Was he in need of the unquestioning affection they provided? Did he recognize their freedom and sympathize with their struggles?
Answering these questions would require a deeper understanding of Iohan as a person, and here things become difficult. I don’t know much about his early life. I know from interviews that he immigrated to Canada from Bulgaria to live with his uncle when he was 15. What happened to the rest of his family? He didn’t share and I didn’t ask. Some demons are better left unearthed, I felt, and still feel.
The people who he gravitated towards – those who knew him best – shared common traits. Despite the small age gap, I often remarked to my wife that I felt like he was our adopted son. Later I would find out that many of the people who helped him along the way felt the same.
Was that born of his early life? Were we subconsciously recognizing some inherent need that drove him? Once again, I can merely speculate, as the people he confided in were few – and they had a shared reluctance to ask him those difficult questions.
So now we come full circle, back to the start of his journey, to ask the most difficult of questions. Why? Why did he make this journey? Why did he choose the hard routes? The solitary routes, where people were few and far between?
I said at the start that he was exploring himself. Iohan once talked to me of his admiration for the documentaries of the director Warner Herzog. These documentaries are marked by a common examination of the human spirit in an indifferent and uncaring universe.
One of the more fascinating subjects of Herzog’s lens was Reinhold Messner, the mountain climber who first attempted to climb Everest without oxygen. Messner said, “I’m doing this high altitude climb to know myself. It is not important for me to explore the mountain. What’s important to explore is myself”.
Was that a self-destructive impulse, born from the loss of Messner’s beloved brother earlier in his life? Or did it stem from the primal draw that the unknown holds for humankind and the desire to challenge that unknown? Herzog pondered these questions in his documentary, but never presented an answer.
I see echoes of them in Iohan’s videos and story – in the first video of his voyage he asks “Where am I?” “How did I get here?” “Why am I doing this?” as he wrangles his bike through a blizzard. Later he finds his answers – “I’m at the top of a mountain peak somewhere in the arctic”, “I chose to challenge myself” he says as a response to the first two questions.
He left the last unanswered, unvoiced, instead choosing to show us a pristine landscape of mountains covered in snow.
This is not the end of his voyage. Everyone he touched, through his videos or in person, will carry his light with them. Please spread that light to other people.
“Let us all just be as kind and calm and curious and humorous as he was, so that at least this part of him will stay and grow in this beautiful world he showed us so uniquely.”
– Karin Koch