“Everybody thought it was insane”: This man travelled the world without motorized transport—using boats, bikes, skis and even a pogo stick
When Markus Pukonen left Toronto in 2015, he vowed not to use any motor-powered transportation on his journey. The voyage took eight years and spanned 29 countries
In 2015, Markus Pukonen embarked on an eight-year odyssey around the world—with the notable caveat that he would not take any planes, trains or automobiles. He vowed that, on his tour around the globe, which ultimately covered 73,000 kilometres, he would use only motorless transportation in order to minimize his environmental impact. The 40-year-old ex-firefighter rode sailboats, bicycles, kayaks, skis and even a pogo stick, documenting much of his journey on his YouTube channel, Routes of Change, which has amassed nearly 20,000 followers. Pukonen began his trip in Toronto, and last week, he finally returned, touching ground after a final kayak ride from the Niagara region. Here, the Toronto-raised nomad dishes on his favourite destinations, the time he almost lost his leg and what it’s like to return to Toronto’s gridlock traffic.
Why travel the world sans motor?
Fifteen years ago, I was working as a forest firefighter. It was rewarding, but I wanted to play a bigger role in addressing climate change. I didn’t want to start working in an office, though—that just doesn’t feel exciting to me. Then, in 2008, we found out that my dad had acute myeloid leukemia. He was given two weeks to live. I rushed home to spend time with him before he passed. I started to ask myself, If I were to die soon, how could I live without regrets? That’s when I got this idea. It combined many of my passions—travel, physical activity, nature, environmental responsibility, photography and filmmaking. I called it the Routes of Change project. Basically, I challenged myself to find ways to explore the world while doing minimal damage to the planet, and then I shared my methods online.
The voyage ended up taking eight years. How do you plan for something like that?
I had some experience with big trips. I rowed across the Atlantic in 2013. At first, I tried to fund this new journey by pitching it as a film project. Unfortunately, producers weren’t lining up to pay for a potentially decade-long timeline plus a lot of risk. By 2015, I was 33. I figured I’d waited long enough. I started a crowdfunding website, which over the course of my travels raised close to $150,000. I left Toronto on a canoe with a barrel of food, a drone and video editing equipment. There was no real plan for what would come next. I decided on the route as I went. Quickly, I realized I’d packed way too much. I’ve since become a master at travelling ultra-light. I started carrying less food and ditched the drone.
I have to ask: Did anyone think you were totally nuts?
Everybody I spoke to thought it was a bit insane. Some family members were concerned because of the financial risk. But they knew how stubborn I am. Ultimately, they supported me.
So you started in Toronto. Where did you head first?
I sailed and canoed from Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, where a paraplegic man loaned me his hand cycle, a reclining bicycle with hand pedals, which I rode to Winnipeg. Then, I pogo-sticked for 10 kilometres, which took five hours and was brutal on my arms and legs. Still, I couldn’t stop smiling. Then I tricycled 1,600 kilometres across the prairies to Canmore, Alberta; skied over the Rockies into BC; paddleboarded into Vancouver and tandem kayaked to Vancouver Island. The entire Canada leg took about eight months.
Hold up—you’ve mentioned a lot of equipment. Surely you weren’t carrying a canoe, skis and a pogo stick the entire time?
Three things will help you on a trip like this: flexibility, patience and, especially, the kindness of strangers. I kept meeting lovely people who lent me gear.
How were you navigating? By compass?
Oh, no. I had Google Maps. I wasn’t trying to be tech-free about it.
Where did you go once you left Canada?
I cycled from Victoria to San Francisco and then joined a friend on a nine-metre sailboat for a 25-day sail to Hawaii. I stayed there for three months and mowed lawns to make money. Then I sailed alone for 21 days to the Marshall Islands. That part was challenging. My diet consisted mostly of dried fruit. And, after I left the islands to sail to the Philippines, I cut my knee open and caught a flesh-eating bacteria. It was scary—my leg was swollen and throbbing, and it was a week of travel to the nearest hospital. I was afraid they might have to amputate. All I had with me on the boat were herbs, so I made herbal tea and poured it onto the wound until I eventually made it to the Philippines.
At that point, did it cross your mind to stop?
Not yet. I felt like I was doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do. Once I healed, I sailed and biked through the south of China all the way to Malaysia, eventually kayaking across the Malacca Strait, the world’s busiest shipping lane. I was lucky to avoid other ships and the massive tidal waves. Once I hit land again, I was running extremely low on funds. So I started a YouTube vlog to raise money. The donations I received there kept me afloat. I kept cycling all the way to the Himalayas, which was an absolute highlight because of the cold air and the snow. I stayed there for a while, volunteering at a little organic farm in the Gorkha region in early 2020.
I’ll be very jealous if you tell me you spent the first Covid lockdowns in the Himalayas.
No. Just before the pandemic, I left and cycled to Rishikesh, India, where people from all over the world travel to become yoga teachers. It’s where the Beatles did their ashram. Because of lockdowns, I was there for eight months, swimming in the Ganges. It was surreal. After that, I bought an eight-metre sailboat and embarked on the toughest part of my journey: a 2,400-kilometre trek to the Seychelles. For 30 days, there was no wind, and I was barely advancing. Then, the wind picked up in a hurricane and wreaked havoc on the boat. Water was pouring in; parts were malfunctioning. I was running so low on drinking water that I started catching the rain in bottles. At that point, I was ready to call it quits. But the wind eventually settled and I kept going, stopping in Tanzania, South Africa and Brazil before docking in Florida in March of this year.
What was it like to touch land in North America for the first time since 2015?
I started bawling my eyes out. I didn’t realize how much stress I’d bottled up during the sail. Then I hiked and biked across the United States, crossed the Rainbow Bridge between Buffalo and Niagara, and kayaked from St. Catharines to Toronto.
Are you planning to stay in the city?
No. I’ll eventually head to Tofino, where I’ll surf every day and grow food to sell. I have no money, so I’m going to work on a book and a film about my experience and try to land a grant.
You’ve been through a lot since you left. Do you feel like a different person?
Physically, I’ve lost my hair and I carry around a few more aches and pains. Mentally, the trip humbled me. It helped me accept that I’m not in control. I spent two ten-day stints doing Vipassana meditation, which allowed me to let go of a lot of anxiety.
Is it too early to ask you if you would do a trip like this again?
Never say never.
Has Toronto changed much since 2015?
If anything, the beach is busier, the skyline is larger and the traffic is worse.
Not to mention the TTC…
I haven’t been on transit yet. I’m happy passing the streetcars on my bicycle for now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.