Routes of change: An interview with Markus Pukonen

Markus Pukonen is like a modern-day mash-up of Marco Polo and Huckleberry Finn. Case in point: in a three-year span, he spent 73 days at sea rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, paddled the Mississippi River from source to sea, and circumnavigated Vancouver Island in a rowboat. Fittingly, he was recently named one of Canada’s Top Modern Day Explorers by Canadian Geographic.

But those trips were just a warmup for the main act. Markus is now on his most ambitious adventure yet: a five-year journey around the world without the use of a motor. The 80,000 kilometer expedition, called Routes of Change, is designed to raise awareness and money for people who are working to create a healthy, more sustainable future. Determined to walk the talk, he’s doing the entire trip without ever getting on an airplane, in a car, or in any other motorized mode of transportation.

I recently spoke with Markus about Routes of Change and his mission to connect with unsung heroes from all corners of the globe.

Markus, can you tell us a little about Routes of Change?

MP: Routes of Change is a circumnavigation of the planet without ever using a motor in support of a sustainable future. As I adventure around the planet, I am connecting with local leaders of non-profits and sharing their stories to raise support for them and also inspire others to follow their lead. Change is inevitable and doesn’t need to be hard if we embrace it and have fun.

You started Routes of Change with a bold personal challenge: to circumnavigate 80,000 kilometers around the planet without ever using a motor. What compelled you to take on such an epic adventure?

MP: I spent most of my twenties working seasonally in remote places and then traveling around the planet in my spare time on a tiny budget. I came to see firsthand how our lives in the developed world are affecting and harming the lives of people everywhere. I started making changes in my own life: shrinking my ecological footprint and learning more about social and environmental justice issues. I started to feel like that wasn’t enough and that I needed to do more to help.

Then my Dad called me and told me he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia and given a few weeks to live. I asked myself “What would I want to be doing if I found out I was going to die? What is my most honest expression on this planet?” On my flight home to be with my Dad I came up with the Routes of Change expedition. It’s a combination of everything I’m passionate about, expressed as honestly as I know how.

On his way to Hawaii in his 1968 Alberg 30-foot sailboat, Markus takes a dip in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,000 miles from the coast of North America.
On his way to Hawaii in his 1968 Alberg 30-foot sailboat, Markus takes a dip in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,000 miles from the coast of North America.

 

What modes of transportation have you used on your trip so far?

MP: Canoe, kayak, walk, recumbent tricycle, raft, run, crawl, trimaran, handcycle, skateboard, standup paddleboard, tandem kayak, rowboat, bicycle, toboggan, sailboat, ski, fatbike, dance, and pogo-stick.

Now that you’re 10,000 kilometers into your journey, can you tell us one of your favourite stories from the road?

MP: Some family came to visit me at a ski resort that was along my route across BC. I skinned (ski uphill with fur on the bottom of skies) up the mountain and then skied down to the bottom. As my brother-in-law and I were skinning back up we were stopped by ski patrol and told we had to get on a snowmobile to be escorted off the mountain as what we were doing was not permitted. I told them what I was doing and that I can’t travel by motor. They thought I was lying and said that if I didn’t get on the chair lift or snowmobile than they were going to call the police. I was ready to ski into the forest and go on the run from the police in order to uphold the integrity of my trip. It was the scariest moment of the trip for me. Thankfully, after a couple tense hours, they looked at my website and realized I wasn’t making up an elaborate lie, and they let me skin back up to the village and my family.

You’re planning to take about five years to complete your trip. What’s the biggest challenge of being on the road for so long? And how do you deal with it?

MP: It’s hard to say what is the biggest challenge. Being away from friends and family is tough at times but I can usually communicate with them and also convince them to come join me for legs of the journey. I carry my loved ones with me. It is often a big challenge to find good healthy food and the space to calm my mind and stretch my body. I search out local farmers’ markets wherever I go and I’m always on the lookout for yoga classes, sports games, and quiet spaces. Falling in love and saying goodbye is tough. I’m always honest but that doesn’t make it easier or less painful. If it feels like the right thing to do, I will end the trip for love.

Markus and his seven-year-old niece paddling to Tofino, on the final day after crossing Canada.
Markus and his seven-year-old niece paddling to Tofino, on the final day after crossing Canada.

 

You are using your trip to raise awareness for unsung leaders who are doing good in the world. Can you tell us more about your cause?

MP: A large part of the inspiration for this journey came from discovering the fact that there are amazing people all over the planet who are doing great work for the benefit of all of us and yet they lack support and often live as unsung heroes. I’m in a unique position both to find these people due to the slow way in which I travel and to raise support for them through my passion for adventure and film-making. This has been a great challenge so far as I have little support myself and seem to spend most of my energy and time figuring out how to continue on with the journey. I am meeting these people and making connections but I feel I’m just skimming the surface of what is possible. I’m in search of help to increase the impact of Routes of Change.

There is no single cause that I’m supporting. I believe there are many different solutions to the problems facing our species and they are all in need of support. You can’t separate social issues from environmental ones. They are all connected, just like all of us on this big floating island.

You must have met a lot of amazing people on your trip so far. I’m curious, have your experiences and interactions changed your views on what is means to be a leader?

MP: Yes. I now see that leaders come in many diverse and interesting forms. Leaders are all around us. I’ve come to believe that in one way or another we are all leaders. Our actions have reactions in the people and planet around us. I think it’s one of the most beautiful and potentially empowering truths of our lives. We are changing ourselves and the Earth and have the ability to influence that change in the direction we want.

Markus in his recumbent tricycle, with some of the students from a school in Northern Ontario where he had just given a presentation.
Markus in his recumbent tricycle, with some of the students from a school in Northern Ontario where he had just given a presentation.

 

How have people responded to your project? How do you think sharing your story has impacted others?

MP: The vast majority of the response to my project has been positive and inspiring. I often see people’s eyes light up with a realization of what is possible in their own lives and on this planet. I also sometimes see jealousy, envy, and a disbelief that what I am doing is going to have an impact on the powers that be. It’s sometimes hard to stomach but I think it frequently transforms into a desire to take a risk and follow their own dreams. I know many people who have been inspired to drive their cars less, bike or walk more, eat healthier, and take more action. I have been sharing my story at many schools along the way and it is inspiring for me to see the immediate impact it has on some kids. I had one 5th grade kid come up to me after a presentation and say, “I no longer want to be a soldier when I grow up, I want to be an explorer!”

Your trip must be a truly life-altering experience. If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned from your journey so far? 

MP: It’s a lesson I will likely learn for life. The grass is never greener on the other side. It’s not where you are or what you are doing that determines your happiness. Although being healthy in a healthy environment while living your dream will help, it is still possible to become depressed. Happiness is a state of mind, not a state that you live in. I think it’s always important to make some time for self-reflection.

As part of Routes of Change, Markus pogosticked a whopping 10 kilometers across Winnipeg, Manitoba.
As part of Routes of Change, Markus pogosticked a whopping 10 kilometers across Winnipeg, Manitoba.

 

Starting a movement is hard work. What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for their own social change project and wants to make it a reality?

MP: Go for it! Take risks and pursue it with all of your passion. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but be ready to accept that people may not think it’s an amazing idea. Find people who do think it’s an amazing idea and are willing to help you. I’d love to help if I can and I’m sure there are many others out there who would also be interested. Put yourself and your idea out there.

Finally, how can people get involved with Routes of Change?

MP: There are many ways to get involved. Connect and communicate with me at @routesofchange or www.routesofchange.org. Help me to find and share stories of positive change around the planet. If you or anyone you know might be interested in becoming a part of the team or joining for a leg of the adventure, please email me at markuspukonen@gmail.com. A small donation to the non-profit society will not only help me get around the planet but will also go to supporting the leaders of local non-profit organizations I meet along the way.

Markus Pukonen is the founder and leader of the Routes of Change organization whose mission is to use adventure and entertainment to support the unsung leaders of our planet as they work to create a healthy future for all beings. Markus has delivered presentations to both national and international audiences. In addition, he has presented to thousands of students and reached hundreds of schools with his expeditions. Born and raised in Toronto, he is based in Tofino, British Columbia.

Turning a passion into a profession: An interview with Holman Wang

After practicing law for seven years, Holman Wang took a hiatus in 2012 to pursue a career as a children’s book maker. He and his twin brother, Jack, set out to create a new series of board books called Cozy Classics, which abridges classic novels into word primers with beautiful needle-felted illustrations. The first two books in the series, Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick, came out in December 2012 and received both critical and popular acclaim. There are now 11 Cozy Classics titles, with The Nutcracker just out in September 2016 and The Wizard of Oz coming out spring 2017. The brothers also produced a second series of board books, called Star Wars Epic Yarns, which offers a fun take on the three original Star Wars movies.

I recently spoke with Holman about his unique career journey and how he was able to turn his passion for doing creative work into a viable profession.

Holman, can you tell us a little about your work?

HW: In a nutshell, I make word primers (along with my twin brother, Jack) that are ostensibly for babies. But our books hold appeal for older kids and adults, too, so we like to describe our creations as “all-ages board books.” Our board books abridge beloved literary and cinematic classics into just 12 words and 12 illustrations. We have one series called Cozy Classics that abridges classic novels, and another called Star Wars Epic Yarns, which abridges each of the three original Star Wars movies.

Our illustrative technique is unique, since we don’t draw or paint or do digital illustration. We create three-dimensional wool figures through a process called needle-felting, then photograph the figures in scale-model sets or on location outdoors.

When did you know this is what you wanted to do for a living and how did you make it happen?

HW: I really didn’t choose to be a children’s author and illustrator so much as simply choose to lead a creative life. My brother came up with the idea for Cozy Classics back in 2010, and as a full-time lawyer who was a frustrated creative person, I just wanted to help him execute on his idea. I didn’t think I could compete with professional children’s illustrators by just picking up a paintbrush, so I tried to think outside the box for a way to create the images. That’s when I came up with the idea of taking photographs of needle-felted figures. I literally taught myself to needle felt by watching some YouTube videos, and then plowing ahead and learning through trial and error.

It was just a fun side project to start, but when the books came out, they were a hit, so I kept on needle felting and making books. So I’m a bit of an accidental children’s author. The emotional and psychological driver was simply to work creatively, but the final form might well have turned out differently.

Needle felting involves repeatedly stabbing loose wool with a specialized barbed needle, which entangles wool fibers, allowing the wool to be sculpted.
Needle felting involves repeatedly stabbing loose wool with a specialized barbed needle, which entangles wool fibers, allowing the wool to be sculpted.

 

What do you love most about your work?

HW: What I really love about being a children’s book-maker is that my work has become a form of personal expression that people all around the world are responding to and enjoying. Through social media, school visits, and speaking engagements, I’ve had the opportunity to hear people tell me that they love my work, that they’ve enjoyed bonding moments with their children through my books, or that they’re inspired by my career change story. That’s the kind of wide-reaching impact on people’s lives that I would have never had if I remained in a downtown office tower.

It’s inspiring how you’ve developed your career around your passions. Would you say you’ve found your true calling?

HW: From a very young age, my identity was always tied to the notion of being creative. So to be able to be a professional “maker,” “illustrator,” or “artist” is certainly a big step towards self-fulfillment. But I wouldn’t call “needle felting” a true calling. I really enjoy the craft, but I definitely think that the creative work itself could have very well taken another form. The other caveat to the notion of finding my “true calling” is this: I want to be able to pursue my creative pursuits in an economically viable way. There was enough of a success-driven slant to my upbringing that for me, a true calling is defined as a successful artistic career, not a marginalized one that doesn’t find an audience or any remuneration. I’ve done the “starving artist” thing in my younger days, and for me, fulfillment is not just in the doing, but in the successful doing.

On location near Tucson, Arizona, Holman's brother Jack shoots for a scene on Tatooine for Star Wars Epic Yarns.
On location near Tucson, Arizona, Holman’s brother Jack shoots for a scene on Tatooine for Star Wars Epic Yarns.

 

You spent seven years working as a lawyer. Then you made, what many people would consider, a risky decision to leave a lucrative career path to become an independent artist. What compelled you to take this leap of faith?

HW: I’ve met people who describe themselves as “without passions.” This is a concept that is foreign to me. I’ve always had a passion to be a creative person, so the compulsion to take a leap of faith and leave the law was there on a near-constant basis: disenchantment with my day job, feeling distant from my true self, etc. The gravitational pull of creative work was always there, so when there was an opportunity to work on an artistic side-project (Cozy Classics), I was happy to spend evenings and weekends working on it. For some people like me, these kinds of decisions are less a choice than a necessity or inevitability.

If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned from your career journey? 

HW: The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that what holds people back in their own pursuit of fulfillment is themselves. So many people tell me they are inspired and awed by my career change, and these kinds of feelings are really rooted in their own fear of change or risk. And when I engage people in conversations about career change, or reflect on my own circumstances, I realize that there really is a tremendous amount of societal pressure to lead fairly conventional and conservative lives. Even in an era when the perception is that everyone is tremendously selfish about their own happiness, I think the opposite is true. Most people make decisions to please others, not themselves.

For The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Holman created a scale-model forest to capture the image of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn camping at night. The set was made with tree branches, real dirt and moss, model grass, and includes a real rock pit in the middle. He even lit a real fire in the rock pit for effect.
For The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Holman created a scale-model forest to capture the image of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn camping at night. The set was made with tree branches, real dirt and moss, model grass, and includes a real rock pit in the middle. He even lit a real fire in the rock pit for effect.

 

Here is the completed campfire scene, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Here is the completed campfire scene, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

 

If you were to do it again, would you do anything differently in the transition to your new artistic career?

HW: One thing to keep in mind, at least with non-traditional careers in the arts, is that you can’t chart a career trajectory based on initial success. Maybe early success is the precursor to great things ahead, or maybe it’s the peak of your artistic endeavors and it’s all downhill from there! Don’t draw a straight line from early success and assume that there’s just going to be more opportunity, more exposure, or more anything else. Artistic careers cycle, so expect the dips as much as the highs.

What advice do you have for others who want to make a big career change to focus on their own passion?

HW: It’s possible for you to take risks to explore a different career while playing it safe. I did this when I starting making children’s books, since I moonlighted for two years as a book-maker, illustrating only on evenings and weekends, while holding down a full-time job as a lawyer. What this means is that you have to be willing to double down on work and sacrifice pleasures like TV, some family time, going out, and even some sleep! If you’re not compelled to sacrifice your leisure time to work on your alternative career, it probably isn’t a passion after all.

You don’t need to tell your boss to take this job and shove it, even though this is a huge temptation! Hang on to that job as long as you can, but make room in your life for your true passion. This gives you a low-risk space to explore. If the alternative career takes off, you can go part-time or even quit your day job. If the alternative career doesn’t materialize, you’re not left destitute and directionless. Doubling down on your workload is career change the hard way, but for many people, it may be the only way.

Holman Wang and his twin brother, Jack, are the authors and illustrators of the popular board book series Cozy Classics, which abridges well-loved novels into word primers with needle-felted illustrations. The series has been featured in the New York Times, People, The Wall Street Journal, and Parents. Their latest series is Star Wars Epic Yarns, which offers a light-speed take on original Star Wars trilogy.

Making democracies relevant: An interview with Mark Coffin

American businessman and independent politician, Ross Perot once said, “The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.”

By this description, Halifax resident Mark Coffin is an activist through and through. Like many of us, Mark has experienced deep frustration and discontent with the current state of politics in his home province. However, instead of just complaining that the system is flawed and out of touch, he decided to do something about it. Back in Fall 2012, with the help of some friends, Mark started a new educational charity, called the Springtide Collective, to help make the political system in Nova Scotia more meaningful to people’s lives.

While in Halifax, I spoke with Mark about the Springtide Collective, and his work to build a more democratic, more participatory and more engaged Nova Scotia.

Mark, can you tell us a little about the Springtide Collective?

MC: A springtide is a set of extreme tides. At high tide, rising waters reach points usually untouched by ocean waves – sometimes powerful enough to move boulders and things previously undisturbed by normal high tides. At low tide, a springtide exposes elements that are usually unseen.

What an ocean springtide does for shorelines, the Springtide Collective aims to do for politics in Nova Scotia. We’re an educational charity, so the metaphor speaks to the power that education, research and transparency around politics can have on improving the way politics can work in our corner of the country.

In more direct terms, we’re dedicated to bridging the gap between Nova Scotians and our democratic institutions, and imagining ways of doing politics differently.

What compelled you to start the Springtide Collective?

MC: Frustration. There was no single light-bulb moment, but rather a series of experiences with politics, most of which left me lacking confidence that our political system and culture is up to the challenges that we need them to resolve.

I was very involved in the student movement in Nova Scotia for close to five years. I spent three years leading an organization now called Students Nova Scotia. I was the primary spokesperson for that organization and the liaison between the students we represented and the government we wanted to influence.

Firstly, I struggled with knowing the best way to influence decision-making. I’d read everything I could get my hands on, talked to people who had experience in advocacy, but still ended up feeling that trying to influence policy in government was like trying to find your way out of a labyrinth.

When we were meeting with officials on “the inside” it was clear that our problems weren’t unique; that backbenchers, public servants, and even some cabinet members were no further ahead at understanding how change in government policy can happen.

Finally, you reach the conclusion that most decisions happening in government are made in places that you cannot observe. That all of politics is a game, and that to get your issues on the public agenda, you need to play the game. Then you realize that to play the game you need resources (which we had), but also that many people who are losing the game have no resources, and their inability to play the game will lead them to having even fewer resources.

Success in this system isn’t about who had the greatest need, or the best values, or the best ideas. It’s about who can play the political game the best.

Having come to this realization, it was clear to me that there are really only two options: play the game, or change the rules.

Myself, and others, created the Springtide Collective out of an interest in changing the rules of the game. We don’t necessarily have all the answers for what the alternatives are, and I’m not convinced anyone does. But that gives us plenty of work to do, to explore and research ways of doing politics differently.

We’re building educational programming that will help others trying to do politics differently, whether those people are everyday citizens, active politicians, community advocates, or public servants.

Mark Coffin is an educator, a philosopher, and an advocate for democratic renewal. The order of those things is important to him.
Mark Coffin is an educator, a philosopher, and an advocate for democratic renewal. The order of those things is important to him.

 

How do you think your work with the Springtide Collective has impacted people in Nova Scotia?

MC: We’ve spent the last year running a project called Make Democracy Better. The first two goals of the project were to find people who like the idea of democracy but think it can be done better, and to get those people talking to one another — in their own communities, and across the province. Before we launched this program, there wasn’t a clear channel or organization through which Nova Scotians could register their optimism for the notion that democracy can be done better than it is. You read the cynical comments in news articles about the brokenness of politics. Having a place where people can be involved in co-creating alternatives to the way things are is a big step forward. Our next step is to build an action plan for a better democracy.

 

In your experience, what are the biggest problems with the current democratic system in Nova Scotia?

MC: The democratic system doesn’t actually need any of us. It’s unsustainable. The only logical trend we should expect is for participation to continue to decline. Let’s contrast that with a system we are all much more active in, the market. The market absolutely needs us. The less we participate, the harder it gets for people who sell things. The fewer of us who participate in politics, the easier it gets for politicians. The more of us who participate in politics, the harder it gets for politicians. Because the market needs us, it reaches out to us in ways very different from how our politicians reach out to us. Because our political system doesn’t rely on citizens, like the market does, politicians have no incentive to improve participation.

What do you think it will take to make the current system better?

MC: We need to build a system where there are incentives for politicians to act in ways that encourage participation amongst the citizenry. The politicians and parties who act this way now do so benevolently, at their own risk. They have a greater chance of success if they play the political game.

We need to build systems that not only reward politicians for appealing to the majority, but to reward the ones who go further and focus on consensus building. When politicians only need 51% to turn a bill into law, there’s little incentive to work with the other 49%. There are some practical ways to do this. Voting systems that use proportional representation promote consensus building, and power sharing among parties and lawmakers. Thoughtful, deliberative public engagement with citizens on important issues can help make good policy great policy. Proposals like MP Michael Chong’s reform act can give lawmakers the protection they need to follow their conscience and constituents instead of towing the often competitive and combative party line.

People have lost faith in the political system. How would you sell someone who has tuned out of politics on the benefits on getting more engaged?

MC: I wouldn’t. I have a friend who teaches an introductory course in politics at Dalhousie University. She once told me, “The biggest challenge I face is that it’s my job for students to leave my classroom knowing more about politics than when they came in.” Then she added, “The problem is, I can’t do that without making them more cynical about the whole system by the time I’m finished.”

Nobody gets involved in politics first. I encourage people to get active in their communities on issues they care about, that’s easier to get motivated about. Perhaps those issues will be something they can resolve on their own, but there’s a good chance they will discover those are political issues. If they continue to work on them, they’ll figure out for themselves that the political system is imperfect and needs to change.

If you had to choose one thing, whats the biggest lesson youve learned from your work with the Springtide Collective?

MC: Change is slow. Patience is hard.

Starting a movement is hard work. What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?

MC: Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I like this quote, but it’s incomplete. She forgot to mention the group must also be unqualified.

Any movement that is working for real change is trying to do something that’s never been done before. That movement is automatically the best and the worst in the world at creating that change. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the latter, more than the former.

There are always critics. Sometimes they’re worth listening to and sometimes they’re not. In either case, they’re not in the hot seat, and you’ve got to trust your own judgement and the judgement of the team you’re doing the work with and make the decisions that feel right. The information at your fingertips is imperfect, and the people who inspire you might not be any better prepared to make the impact you’re hoping to have. Everything is an experiment. Make your long-term goals about making change. Make your short-term goals about learning the best way to make that change happen.

How can people get involved with or help support the Springtide Collective?

MC: We plan to welcome on new volunteers in Fall 2015. We’ll notify people about that opportunity through our mailing list, and Facebook and Twitter pages. Of course, it takes money to make change. That is the most direct way people can contribute to our work. They can do that on our website.

Mark Coffin is an educator, a philosopher, and an advocate for democratic renewal. With the help of friends and now-colleagues, Mark started the Springtide Collective to bridge a growing gap between citizens and our democratic institutions. Mark also serves on the boards of Credit Union Atlantic and Engage Nova Scotia.