Bears, fire no deterrent to charity ride: priest’s 2,000-km journey provides wheelchairs in Ukraine

Fr. Ivan Nachachewsky rides from Saskatchewan to the Pacific. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Nachachewsky - CCN)

By Wendy-Ann Clarke, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Fr. Ivan Nachachewsky of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon is taking some vacation time this month, well-earned after completing a gruelling 2,000-kilometre bike ride to raise money for wheelchairs to those in need in Ukraine.

The Saskatchewan priest has long been a lover of the outdoors. This was his fourth long-distance trip and twice the length of the longest trip he had done up until that point. Most of the journey was on gravel roads which made for a more challenging ride, but he was up for it.

A Byzantine priest in the Ukrainian tradition — he is allowed to be married and has four children with wife Debbie — Nachachewsky was accompanied by his 25-year-old daughter Nina, who drove a truck pulling a trailer. They began their journey in northern Saskatchewan with plans to make their way to the Northwest Territories.

The pair first set out on July 2 and wound up completing the trip at the Haida Gwaii islands in British Columbia on July 26.
It started off ominously enough. On their first day they encountered a bear, hit a hail storm and experienced such sandy roads that Nachachewsky was forced to walk his bike for 10 kilometres, barely hitting 30-per-cent of the target distance for the day. The bear sightings continued throughout the course of the trip.

“We had probably a total of close to 15 bear sightings and some of those were for me a little bit scary,” admits Nachachewsky. “But the good news is that bears respond really well to noise, so I had a whistle and an airhorn and never had to deploy the bear banger.”

More troubles would greet priest and daughter along the way. After 1,200 kilometres they reached Fort La Ronge where the forest fires were so intense they were forced to re-route their journey west.

“My daughter and I are both very spontaneous and it did not faze us at all to say we’re leaving Saskatchewan going west, even though we didn’t know where we were going to end up and start biking,” said Nachachewsky, who also travelled with Nina’s 10-month-old cat, Jamie, which provided lots of entertainment. “We just started driving. We said, we’ll plan it as we drive.”

Nachachewsky has been a military chaplain for the last seven years and finished his last deployment a year ago in Ukraine. While there he was able to visit various charitable organizations where Canadian soldiers were volunteering. Included was a visit to the Dzherlo Rehabilitation Centre in Lviv where he saw the need for wheelchairs.

“In Canada, if you need a wheelchair, you’re going to get one from some source but in the Ukraine that’s not the case,” said Nachachewsky. “There are lots of people who need wheelchairs who don’t have them and can’t afford them. I visited with one guy who was 30 years paralyzed and he just drags himself along the floor. It’s just a normal thing there, whereas here we would say that’s not normal.”

When Nachachewsky returned to Canada in May 2020 at the end of his seven-month deployment, thoughts of the rehabilitation centre and other experiences in Ukraine stayed with him.

In talking with Bishop Bryan Bayda of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon about a cause for his bike ride, they decided to connect with the Knights of Columbus of Saskatchewan who were already involved in a wheelchair fundraising initiative in partnership with the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation. Monies raised through Nachachewsky’s GoFundMe campaign would go towards the Dzherlo Children’s Rehabilitation Centre.

“He came to me and we talked about it and from there we just took his little goal that he was hoping to raise $3,000 and we’ve raised over $30,000 now and it’s still growing,” said Shawn Scherr, state wheelchair chairperson with the Saskatchewan Knights. “It was just a little bit more promoting and different people getting behind the project. I’m hoping to still get up to $50,000.”

Of Ukrainian descent, part of the success of the mission was Nachachewsky’s ablity to speak the language. Prior to joining the military, Nachachewsky also worked closely with various groups through his work as a priest and had made strong contacts in the nation over the years. He was stationed in western Ukraine which is 80-per-cent Catholic.

“I was like the little brother that came back and everybody was very happy to include me in all conversations and all the military courses that they were offering,” said Nachachewsky. “I was invited to everything, the conferences, the retreats and really had a lot of access.”

The father-daughter duo made it back safe and sound while raising thousands that will go a long way to help the less fortunate.

Scherr says though the journey and distance might not be for everyone, the heart behind it is something for all to strive for.  “To (Nachachewsky) the wilderness is great but I could never do it,” chuckled Scherr. “He got himself in shape and did it and it just shows so much of what a good man that he is to think above himself and ask, ‘How can I make this into something to make the world a better place?’ ”