By ALAN SHACKLETON
Markus Pukonen paddled a canoe out into Lake Ontario from the shore in front of the Balmy Beach Club on July 18, 2015. Eight years later he made his return to the club, walking east along the Boardwalk late on the afternoon of Saturday, July 8.
In between, he had circumnavigated the globe without the use of any motorized vehicles, motorized boats or even an elevator.
Pukonen has travelled more than 73,000 kilometres in the journey that saw him walk, cycle, pogostick, ski, paddle, row and sail.
He left his home in the Beach at the age of 33 to start the journey, and had not been back to Canada again until he crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Niagara Falls on July 2.
He said he was overwhelmed with emotion when he crossed over back into Canada. The last time he had been in his home country was in March of 2016 when left Victoria, B.C. and headed south to San Francisco.
“It was a special moment to see the (Niagara) Gorge and see Canada again. It really brought back to me all that was happening and had happened,” said Pukonen in an interview on Monday, July 10, on a bench in Balmy Beach Park at the foot of Silver Birch Avenue — the street he grew up on.
He said he had to wait in line with vehicles crossing the border, and was wondering what kind of reception he would get from the Canada Border Services Agency. Pukonen said he talked to the agent in the booth who was a bit taken aback to hear of his travels and how long he had been away.
“I think he was a bit surprised to hear it, but he saw all the stamps in my passport,” said Pukonen.
And then, just like that, Pukonen was back in Canada.
“I got around the corner and stopped the bike and I just started crying. It was pretty emotional,” he said.
Also emotional was his return on July 8 to the place where the journey started. Many friends, family and supporters joined Pukonen as he walked the final leg along the Boardwalk from Ashbridges Bay Park to the Balmy Beach Club.
“I was in a daze,” said Pukonen of those final steps of the journey.
“Yeah, it was very surreal and felt very emotional to wrap up the trip where it started eight years ago. It felt right though because I had the same buddy with me who I started out with in the canoe. There was a crowd of people with us then and we were playing the same song as when we left.”
The song was Around The World by Daft Punk. The buddy is Rein Tammemagi who joined Pukonen in the canoe on the first day of the journey in 2015 as they paddled away from the Balmy Beach Club.
Tammemagi also paddled with Pukonen across Lake Ontario from St. Catharines to Humber Bay Park in Etobicoke on July 5. Joining them as they crossed the lake on small kayaks was legendary Canadian paddler and author Max Finkelstein. The three of them paddled together in what turned out to be a 10-hour crossing due to lake conditions and the size of the kayaks.
After a couple of days rest, Pukonen then began his final walk eastwards across Toronto to end his journey early on the morning of July 8.
He said noticed a number of changes in his first walk in Toronto in eight years. “The skyline has certainly gotten bigger and there’s a lot more buildings,” said Pukonen.
While the Boardwalk and the Beach area didn’t appear to have changed too much, he said he did notice larger crowds than he remembered before he left enjoying the area on what was a very busy Saturday afternoon in July.
“The Boardwalk and the Balmy Beach Club are the same. This is a beautiful spot here,” said Pukonen.
One of the first things he did when arriving back at Balmy Beach was to brush some sand off the plaque in front of the tree planted in memory of his mother. That was also part of the emotion of the day, said Pukonen.
So why did he do it? And how?
Pukonen, who grew up in the Beach and attended Balmy Beach Junior Public School, Glen Ames Senior Public School, and Malvern Collegiate, said the death of his father Erkki made him evaluate the priorities in his life. His father died of cancer when Pukonen was 26. His mother Margaret had died of cancer when Pukonen was only five years old.
“When he told me he was going to die, I decided on this trip because that’s what I would want to be doing if I was told I was dying,” he said.
Pukonen wanted the journey to help promote and support non-profit environmental and social justice organizations. That led to the creation of the Routes of Change website, which is where information and fundraising for organizations during his journey was co-ordinated. The website can be found at https://routesofchange.org/
“They’re all small grass-roots organizations with small budgets and I wanted to help give them a spotlight and help raise awareness and funding,” said Pukonen of the establishment of Routes of Change.
One of the many groups supported through Routes of Change is the Pine Project which teaches kids how to live in nature, developing survival skills and confidence in being in the outdoors. Prevent Cancer Now is another one of the groups supported, and it is especially important to Pukonen given both his parents died of cancer.
He said his sense of adventure came from his parents. “My mother had spent time in Africa as a nurse, and had hitchhiked across the Sahara.”
His dad came to Canada at the age of five from Estonia. “They both loved to travel and were very athletic.”
Pukonen’s father had been an all-star running back with the University of Toronto’s football team that won the Vanier Cup in 1965 (Canadian university championship) and had been drafted by the Saskatchewan Roughriders of Canadian Football League but did not pursue a pro career. His father Erkki also taught Pukonen to sail, a skill that would be crucially important in the journey around the world.
“My dad was a sailor and I learned how to sail on Lake Ontario. I was confident in my sailing abilities when I started. I certainly knew the basics,” said Pukonen.
On leaving North America, he sailed from San Francisco to Hong Kong on a 30-foot boat with one other person who was an expert sailor. Pukonen said he learned everything he needed to know about ocean sailing on that trip.
“The boat basically sails itself on the ocean,” he said.
And Pukonen already had extensive experience being on the ocean in a boat as he was part of a team of four rowers that attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa to Florida in 2013. That attempt ended with all four of them being rescued by a cargo ship, with help from the United States Coast Guard in locating them, in the ocean north of Puerto Rico after a rogue wave capsized the boat. The team had been 73 days at sea at that point. So for Pukonen sailing was literally a breeze.
“A sailboat is a much more comfortable way to travel in than a rowboat. Sailing was cakewalk compared to rowing,” he said.
While he often sailed with others, Pukonen also did a lot of solo sailing on his journey.
He said the most important thing when solo sailing was to make sure he never fell overboard, since there would be no one to turn the boat around to rescue him or send out a message he was in trouble. “I was holding on always as I didn’t want to fall off. You always had to be careful.”
Pukonen said the most challenging part of sailing was the entry and exit to marinas and harbours since he could not use a motor to get the boat docked or out to sea.
The longest sailing portions of Pukonen’s journey included from San Francisco to Hong Kong (with a partner); and from South Africa to Florida (by himself). Pukonen also sailed solo from Tanzania in west Africa and through the Seychelles.
He said being alone on those long solo sails was not a problem for him beyond the safety concerns regarding going overboard. “I can be by myself for months on end,” said Pukonen.
Pukonen said the portions of his journey he considered the most challenging was cycling in India and Nepal on roads with no shoulders and unstable surfaces with lots of sand and gravel on them.
““The toughest by far was cycling on roads and dealing with people who were driving. I had nothing to fear in the ocean compared to that…I have spent so much time around vehicles and have seen how dangerous they are,” he said. “I’d be on a bike on these busy roads surrounded by dangerous drivers.”
He said the drivers were not trying to cause him problems but sometimes they would be loudly honking their horns in support of him, which was rattling and disconcerting while he was riding. “They were very friendly and always honking their horns at me. I’m riding and there’s no shoulders on the road and loose sand everywhere, and these long loud horns are coming up by me….”
Pukonen said the portion he considered the most dangerous from a personal safety point of view was walking The Appalachian Trail in the United States. The 2,200-mile trail begins in at Springer Mountain in Georgia (north of Atlanta) and ends at Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is considered to be the longest hiking-only trail in the world.
While the trail itself is beautiful and a true gift to nature lovers, he said the realities of the United States and some of the communities beyond the trail’s confines was never far from his mind.
“The leg of the journey that I felt was probably most dangerous was The Appalachian Trail. There are just so many people with guns and people with drug addictions, that I felt it was a dangerous situation. There’s nowhere else in the world like that.”
Pukonen did not hike the entire trail as he left it to cycle west to the Canadian border. He hiked 1,000 miles of the trail and said it took a toll on him physically, especially his feet and ankles. He said he started the trail in April feeling like he was 20 years old, but soon came to realize he was over 40 and his body was making that clear to him by the time he finished in the middle of June.
That being said, Pukonen was glad he was able to experience The Appalachain Trial for himself. The trail was completed in 1937, but planning and preparation on it began as early as 1921. When the first section opened in 1923 it went from Bear Mountain just north of New York City to nearby Harriman State Park to the west. Over the years it has expanded and is now designated a National Scenic Trail in the United States.
“It was a gift to the people in the 1930s and it is protected and cared for by so many people who look after it,” said Pukonen of his hike along the trail. “Walking there was how it all was once when we lived mostly in the wilderness and were always walking through forests. You could drink spring water and there was wildlife everywhere.”
What many might have thought would be the biggest challenge during Pukonen’s journey, the COVID-19 pandemic, proved to have little impact at all on his timeline.
He said he had determined the journey would take somewhere between five and 10 years, and the timing of the pandemic kind of worked in Pukonen’s favour as he had been planning to take a break at an Ashram in India at around that time anyway.
“COVID hit when I was planning on doing some social isolation at an Ashram in the Himalayas, and work on the YouTube videos (which can also be accessed through Routes of Change). Two days before I had met a girl and we ended up in Rishikesh – where the Beatles were in India.”
The site is often referred to as The Beatles Ashram, and it proved a good place to be during the early months of the pandemic in 2020.
“We ended up being locked down together in what was a very supportive, healthy, peaceful community…it worked out really well,” said Pukonen.
While in Rishikesh, Pukonen was also able to make a connection with an Australian man who sold him the sailboat he used later in his trip.
Pukonen travelled on that boat to the Seychelles, which had a high COVID-19 vaccination rate, and then to Tanzania, where he said the country’s leadership was basically taking the position that COVID did not exist. He was then on to South Africa.
They were all countries that were very welcoming to him despite the pandemic, though for different reasons, he said.
Pukonen said he has many memories (good and bad) from the journey. One of the saddest was to see the extent and impact of pollution and polluting industries in so many parts of Southeast Asia.
“Yes there’s lots of beautiful parts and wilderness, but there’s also a wave of humans and industry. Even in places that used to be remote.”
His best memories are of the many people (both near and far) who helped him along the way. Along with friends and family at home, people he had just met would provide him with or help him find needed bikes, boats and other equipment.
“I’ve had a lot of support from people I just met. It was the kindness of strangers around the world. They would offer me places to sleep and feed me. It was often the poorest people around the world who were the most caring and giving,” said Pukonen.
And what die he miss most while on his journey? Surfing, of course.
In his 20s he got into surfing and he said that it his greatest passion. Pukonen has spent a lot of time in the Tofino B.C. area, considered Canada’s surfing capital, and he is looking forward to getting back there soon.
“That’s my biggest passion and I really had to sacrifice surfing for the journey,” he said.
Pukonen’s niece Ocea Green is a professional surfer. “I’m looking forward to heading to Tofino and surfing with her.”
For those looking to find out more about his journey and support the organizations on the Routes of Change website, please go to https://routesofchange.org/
Pukonen pointed out the purpose of the journey was not to make money for himself, or to be a major fundraiser for other organizations either, but to raise awareness awareness and support for the “unsung” heroes of the planet.
“This hasn’t paid me anything, but it has been a dream,” said Pukonen.