Markus Pukonen is self-propelling himself around the world
Moonbows. Flying squid. Glow-in-dark dolphins.
Should you ever decided to paddle across the Atlantic Ocean, these are a few of the things you might want to be on the look out for.
Oh, and salt sores, sea-sickness, and the worst blisters ever.
Two years ago, Markus Pukonen and three other intrepid adventurers set out from Africa’s most westerly point, near Dakar, Senegal, to paddle to Miami. They were in a specially designed 29-foot rowboat their captain, Jordan Hanssen, had used to paddle across the North Atlantic (at 3,100 nautical miles, some 500 miles shorter than the Senegal to Miami route).
The boat had a wind turbine and solar panels to generate power, and was loaded with special scientific gear to monitor ocean conditions. (“We go real slow -perfect for gathering scientific data no one else can.”) They had the support of the Canadian Wildlife Federation, and a range of other organizations, including dozens of schools with whom they regularly communicated and helped deliver lessons.
“You can never really be prepared for what the ocean is going to throw at you,” Pukonen told the students at AHS Wednesday. “We think we know what’s going on… but we don’t really know [very much].”
So how on earth did he end up paddling across the Atlantic Ocean?
A Toronto native, he had worked out a life he enjoyed: forest fire fighter in the summer in B.C., traveller and adventurer in the off-season. He lived in Tofino, BC, and loved to surf and paddle board. But when his father was diagnosed with cancer (he died six years ago; his mother had died when he was a boy), he was forced to take a hard look at his life.
“What would I do if I was going to die?”
“I knew I wanted to do something for the planet, to make things better. Some think it’s hopeless, but I really believe humans are just too intelligent to waste it all away. So some kind of social environmental movement would be part of it, but I also knew that I didn’t want to sit behind a desk writing letters.”
He decided he wanted to go around the world.
“But how was I even going to begin? One step at a time.”
He signed up for (and completed) a program in documentary filmmaking, and then tried to figure out how he could make a self-propelled trip around the world.
“I knew that I would have to cross the oceans, and wasn’t sure how I was going to do that. So I just started asking questions and e-mailing people.”
He was no ocean novice – he was the first person to stand-up paddle board across the Georgia Strait (55 km from Vancouver Island to Nanaimo) – or novice long-distance traveller – he biked the 2,500 km route along the U.S. Pacific Coast. But around going the world meant taking things to a whole new level.
Eventually he hooked up with OAR Northwest, a team of ocean paddlers who’d won a race from New York to England (71 days). They planned to paddle around Vancouver Island and invited Markus to join them. (As it did for the Atlantic crossing, OAR Northwest made all kinds of educational tie-ins, and delivered school programs in person and digitally.) Pukonen created a video of the adventure.
His shipmates (rowboat mates?) liked him, and when a spot opened up on the Atlantic crossing they were planning, he jumped in.
The rowers did not make it to Miami – they came up about 900 km short – but they all survived. (See a landlubber’s version of the story, Capsized, at NBC Dateline.)
Pukonen did learn one thing from his adventure: he won’t be paddling across any more oceans. Sailing is the way he will henceforth deal with oceans… and there will be at least two more crossings to come. In July, he started his around the world trek in Lake Ontario, near his old home in Toronto’s Beaches area.
He’s paddled, walked, biked, danced, and pogo-ed his way to Atikokan; he actually arrived here on a paraplegic friend’s arm-powered recumbent bike (which was a hit at Wednesday’s AHS assembly). The youth centre got him up on stilts, too, so he can now add that to the long list of self-propelled modes of travel he will use over his five-year journey.
The environmental part of his dream is Roots of Change, a non-profit organization he helped found to support those making change happen on a local level. It will be the beneficiary of his trekking efforts.
“Our 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,” says the Roots of Change web page.
“We believe that there is no avoiding change so we might as well embrace it and share ways that we can better adapt to a new sustainable way of life on earth. We share stories of adventure and exploration of the planet by human powered means. By speaking face to face, through presentations, films, books, blogs, tv, media, and most forms of communication we aim to inspire change. Routes of Change.”
“Our vision is one of compassion and appreciation for all beings in the universe.”
Ultimately, Pukonen told the students, it’s up to each one of us to be responsible for their own lives.
“Don’t waste your time doing something you don’t love! Be honest. be healthy. Ask for help.”
“I’m always hesitant to ask for help… but the second I do ask, people go out of their way to help. I’m 75 days into an 1,800 day trip… it still feels like a dream. But this is it… I’m doing it!”
NBC Dateline did a long story on the cross-Atlantic adventure…