According to NOTL Local columnist Owen Bjorgan, the 2020 Spirit of Niagara Awards snuck up on him last week. “This was news to my ears, just a week ago,” he said, in accepting the very first Dan Patterson Youth Leadership Award last week. “I’d been on the fly, I’ve been out in the woods, working, I wear rubber boots seven days a week.”
In juggling the many things he does, Bjorgan indeed pulls on those wellies each and every day. His love of, and commitment to, the environment, is what earned him the award. The Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce couldn’t have made a better choice.
The 27-year-old spends his weekdays, Monday to Friday, working as an outdoor educator for the District School Board of Niagara. He took on this role, a natural fit for Bjorgan, last fall. It continues to offer him the chance to share his lifelong passion with children of all ages.
“The kids and youth are something special,” he enthuses. “They’re still learning about their values, their surroundings, and their community. That’s the age when they’re really taking all that stuff in. To give them the proper experience of an outdoor education is an opportunity to inspire them.”
The Niagara-on-the-Lake native began his own relationship with the outdoors at a very young age. Growing up along the Niagara Escarpment, with the Bruce Trail practically in his backyard, he admits early on he didn’t grasp its importance. But he knew how much he loved it.
He also points to the swamp across the street as a unique learning ground for him. He credits his parents, Moe and Steffanie, as big influences on his love for the outdoors. Steffanie, he says, has always been an animal lover, and a hiker, while he would tag along with Moe to go fishing on trips up north.
He followed his passion for the outdoors through high school, at Sir Winston Churchill and Niagara District Secondary Schools, and enrolled at the University of Guelph for a Bachelor of Science degree in Biodiversity, which he completed in 2016.
He made headlines in his senior year by deciding to take on the entire 890-kilometre Bruce Trail while raising money for charity. Bjorgan was honoured when one of his heroes, Dr. David Suzuki, reached out to him at the start of his quest, to commend him for his efforts.
Bjorgan’s Bruce Trail hike brought in $27,000, which he decided to split between two organizations near and dear to his heart: Red Roof Retreat and Heartland Forest.
The former, of course, is a natural fit. Red Roof Retreat was founded by Bjorgan’s parents to help Owen’s brother, Garrett, and other children with special needs, to learn and grow in a safe, nurturing and fun environment. His desire to give back to the community that he loves is ingrained deeply, he says, another way his parents have profoundly influenced him.
Heartland Forest, meanwhile, is the subject of an eight-episode docu-series for YourTV (formerly TV Cogeco) that Bjorgan is currently editing with friend and colleague Jacob Graham. The 93-acre property, featuring a Carolinian forest, frog and turtle ponds, a stream, vernal pools and unique species of birds, trees, and amphibians, has similar roots to Red Roof Retreat. The land was purchased by Dan Bouwman of Niagara Falls to provide a peaceful place where his niece, Sydney, born with a rare brain disease, could experience nature.
Besides his position with the DSBN, the indefatigable Bjorgan also runs his own business. Recently rebranded as Owen’s Hiking and Adventures, Bjorgan spends much of his “off-time” guiding clients through the local wilderness. His tours bring people up close to wildlife in the Niagara Gorge, Short Hills Provincial Park, Decew Falls, the Wainfleet Bog, and other significant local nature spots. He’s been known to jump into the water to pick up a turtle, or to rifle through leaves to find a rare salamander, so his guests can get a closer look.
He has also shot and hosted a number of nature documentaries, where his love and respect for the outdoors takes centre stage. His series of Hidden Corners programs, available on his website (owenshikingandadventures.com) and his YouTube channel, follow him through his favourite spots in Niagara, as well as his adventures in Ecuador, Australia and Florida.
It was during his trip to Australia, when he was able to meet the family of another one of his heroes, the late Steve Irwin, known as the Crocodile Hunter. Bjorgan admires Irwin, who died in 2006 doing what he loved — he was pierced in the chest by a stingray while filming.
“He was in your face, he was passionate, he was enthusiastic, his heart really beat for conservation. I learned a lot from him, his fire, his ability to never quit.” He adds that it was a surreal honour to meet Irwin’s family.
Bjorgan has also brought his own passion to the stage in a Ted Talk, delivered at his alma mater, the University of Guelph. And, of course, there’s his regular column here in The NOTL Local, another avenue he uses to inspire a love and concern for nature.
That concern for nature is a big part of what drives him. “I believe we are at a crucial point in time when it comes to the environment,” he warns. “The Niagara Region has lost 90 per cent of its wetland coverage. I would like to see more action toward not just conservation but also preservation in Niagara, in order to curb our ecosystems being withered down to levels of functioning that would make them incomparable to their original state.”
Reflecting on receiving the Youth Leadership Award, Bjorgan remains humbled and honoured. As he says, “I feel deeply connected to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and it is “no ordinary town to be connected to. There are a lot of big, big hearts and influential people in this town, and they were in that room last night, and in the group photo with me, and I felt like I was part of a bigger, accomplished team.”
And he was further humbled when one of those influential people, Debi Pratt, spoke highly of him as a big part of NOTL’s bright future when she took to the stage to accept her Citizen of the Year Award. She said it was high time the chamber brought back a youth award, and that the choice of Bjorgan was “unbelievably well-deserved.”
Looking toward the future, he sees himself bringing his tours to ecosystems outside of Niagara. “I want to tour people globally, to ecosystems of greater significance,” he says, “and be an international outdoors tour guide. I would like to take people up to northern Ontario, and to teach navigation and outdoor skills in bear country and wilderness settings. These are skills I have that I can’t really apply in Niagara.”
He also talks about taking his nature documentaries to another level. His goal is for them to become educational tools that will further inspire others.
With these visions, Bjorgan is closer to becoming a peer of his heroes, Suzuki and Irwin. It’s clear that Niagara, though plenty bountiful in natural settings, may not be able to hold Owen Bjorgan much longer.