Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN
(CNN) — This summer, Canadian firefighter Markus Pukonen is due to arrive back in his home city of Toronto, seven years after beginning an epic quest to circumnavigate the world using just his “muscles and some wind.”
During that time, the adventurer will have walked, canoed, kayaked, cycled, tricycled, skied, rowed, trimaraned, rafted, sailed and stand-up paddleboarded his way across 29 countries in support of a sustainable world future.
“No planes. No trains. No cars. Not even an elevator,” Pukonen says of his epic adventure, which has seen him travel around 80,000 kilometers without using motorized transport.
With various expeditions under his belt previously, including paddling down the Mississippi River, Pukonen had been mulling over attempting this particular trip for a long time.
But it wasn’t until he discovered that his father had just a few weeks to live that he finally decided to take the leap.
“I was fighting wildfires in Canada, and my dad called and told me that he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia,” Pukonen tells CNN Travel.
“I basically asked myself what I would want to be doing if I found out that I was going to die in a few weeks. How can I live my life without regrets?”
After spending some time with his father, who passed away around six months later, began finalizing plans for a journey that would see him travel across the world on various forms of non-motorized transport.
However, it would be another seven years or so before he’d actually set off. Pukonen explains that he’d originally planned to make a film documenting the entire journey, and even studied documentary film production, but was unable to secure the funding to do so. He eventually decided to go anyway, and gave himself five months to work on his physical shape.
Before beginning the trip, Pukonen founded nonprofit organization Routes of Change, with the aim of raising funds and awareness for small social and environmental organizations throughout his journey.
After a number of “super stressful” weeks, he set off from the steps of his former home in Toronto on July 13, 2015 and walked to a canoe in Lake Ontario.
“I started from the street where I was born. And from that moment on, it’s been pretty crazy,” he explains, describing how the tension that had been building up inside him “completely dissolved into the air” once he took that first step.
“No matter what happened, I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing on the planet,” he adds.
Since then, Pukonen has tricycled across the Canadian prairie provinces, skied across British Columbia, rowed to the US state of Washington, sailed to Hawaii, cycled through Macau and Vietnam and kayaked to Indonesia.
Pukonen, who stresses that he isn’t “anti motor,” admits that he’s been quite surprised by some of the reactions to his decision to forgo motorized transport completely.
“People forget that 150 years ago, nobody used motors at all,” he says. “So the fact that what I’m doing is such a crazy, astonishing thing [to some people] is really, really bizarre to me.
“How quickly we’ve forgotten our recent history. We survived perfectly fine and got on with our lives without motors [before].”
While making his way across the world, Pukonen has been visiting organizations such as Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a charity that provides care to children and families in crisis throughout Vietnam, and Clayoquot Action, a conservation society based in Tofino, Vancouver Island, and sharing their stories.
Although the bulk of his trip has been funded by donations from supporters, he’s been gifted various transportation modes including a canoe, provided to him by a company named Algonquin Outfitters, and some outdoor gear. Pukonen has one official sponsor, Canadian teashop JagaSilk.
“My biggest supporters are people who I just met [during the trip] and were super inspired by what I was doing,” he says. “They’ve been sort of my angels in helping me out when I needed help, and it’s been pretty special.”
In April 2021, Pukonen sailed from India to the Seychelles, a journey that took around 40 days.
His girlfriend, who he met in India while while border restrictions were in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic, joined him in the Seychelles, and the couple went on to sail to Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa together.
He then traveled to Brazil, along with various Caribbean islands and Florida solo. From Florida, Pukonen stand-up paddleboarded to Savannah, Georgia.
At the time of writing, Pukonen is riding through Georgia and say he’s “about a day’s ride away” from giving his bicycle away, and walking up the Appalachian Trail, which runs through 14 states to Maine, towards home.
“I might walk the trail all the way to the Hudson River, just outside of New York,” he says. “Or I may get off it earlier and head for Toronto.”
He explains that he’ll need to find a new mode of transportation in order to exit the trail. However, he isn’t totally sure what that will be as yet.
“Maybe a skateboard, maybe a bike, maybe rollerblades or something,” he adds.
Although Pukonen has used almost every form of non-motorized transport possible during the journey, he says there’s nothing quite like traveling on water.
“Being on the water is just super peaceful,” he says. “Stand-up paddleboarding is sort of my preferred way to travel on water, because I don’t have to be stuck on my bum. It’s a good workout. As long as you’re not going into the wind, it’s great.”
Traveling down the Mekong River in Vietnam, and spending three months in the Caribbean island of Tobago, are among the many highlights from his extensive journey, along with canoeing to Tofino with his sister and nieces, who had traveled over to pay him a special visit.
“I hadn’t seen them since I left Canada seven years ago, so that was a pretty special moment,” he says. “It’s making me cry right now actually.”
Pukonen also particularly enjoyed traveling via pogo stick, but admits that this was more of a novelty choice of transportation, and he was unable to even carry his bags while using it.
However, he says he has absolutely “no interest in traveling by bicycle anymore,” citing a particularly tough period cycling through the roads of Asia as one of the final straws.
“A lot of the cars are just spewing black smoke into your face,” he says. “And some of the cultures are very aggressive with their horn honking. So it’s like noise pollution, air pollution, light pollution. It’s all just so intense.”
Aside from cycling around parts of Asia, one of the most physically exhausting periods of the trip for Pukonen was skiing across British Columbia during particularly low temperatures.
“It’s so tough camping in the cold like that,” he says. “When I finished I was like, ‘I don’t need to do that again.’”
Now just a few months away from completing his journey, Pukonen is upping the pace so that he can be back in Toronto for a welcome home party over the summer, and is looking forward to reuniting with family and friends.
“I’m planning the party for early July,” he says. “I’ve just got to walk really fast to get to it.”
Once the celebrations are over, Pukonen has few plans, aside from “doing something creative” and growing food.
“I generally like to live in the present moment,” he says. “That’s why I love traveling so much. Because it’s much easier to live in the present moment while you’re traveling.
“I just sort of wake up and decide what I want to do and sort of survive off instinct as opposed to a predetermined plan or societal plan for me.”
He’s also planning to write a book about his incredible journey, and still hopes to turn his story into an adventure film “like no other.”
When he looks back on the past seven years, Pukonen says it’s hard to take in just how much he’s been able to achieve.
“I have trouble really taking credit for anything that I’ve done now,” he admits. “Because I feel like I’ve just been sort of surfing a wave that has been created by other people or the energy of the universe, and I’m just sort of flowing with it.
“I don’t really feel like I have any pressure to succeed or to make things happen. It’s just sort of working out for me. And I just need to keep moving and keep fueling my body healthily. I am seven years older than when I started the trip, so I do feel that a bit.”
Passing the baton?
While Pukonen says he’s often asked whether the death of his father has been his main motivation, he explains that while that difficult phone call was “part of the push” that persuaded him to make the move, the journey has been about much more than that.
“I’d say I’m doing it less for the memory of my dad and more for the well being of everybody on the planet,” he says. “I like to think my purpose is more to help everybody on the planet as opposed to just my dad.
“I’m hoping to change the way we look at the planet. And [to help people] realize that we all have the potential to change the world. It’s just a matter of taking that first step. We all influence the world around us in ways that we don’t appreciate every day.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge and appreciate the power that we have to make a difference.”
He points out that both his mother, who died when he was five, and his father “traveled a fair bit” throughout their lives, and he believes this thirst for travel is “in his blood.”
Although Pukonen initially hoped that his story could somehow be instrumental in creating change in the world, he’s had to let go of that vision to some extent and is “being patient with it” now.
“Once I put out a better product in a film and a book, where I can put some more serious thought into it instead of trying to produce content while I’m exhausted on the journey, hopefully it will reach more people,” he says.
After rounding off his unforgettable voyage, Pukonen says he’d love to be able to pass the baton to another determined adventurer who can continue to spread the message.
“I don’t want the journey to end when I finish the trip in Toronto,” he says. “I’d like somebody to continue it. And I’d like to help somebody to continue the Routes of Change in their own sort of style and manner.
“So if anybody out there who’s reading this is really keen and wants to do something similar, they should get in touch.”
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