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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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.