Peace By Paddling

Catching up with humanitarian Mark Fuhrmann’s European sea kayak tour

Fifty-nine-year-old Mark Fuhrmann admits he's "not a hardened explorer type." Fuhrmann's been sea kayaking for 10 years and describes his skills as intermediate. "I have no idea of what it is like to cross a large channel of water or paddle alongside a barge on a canal," he said before departing on a 3,500-mile solo paddling expedition from his home in Oslo, Norway, to Athens, Greece. "Guess I will find out."

Fuhrmann's journey may appear to be a youthful last hurrah before his 60th birthday in September. But that's not his intention at all. His mission is to mend the tears in society's fabric by highlighting the humanitarian efforts of individuals through a non-profit initiative he calls the "Piece Prize."

On his website, Fuhrmann describes the Piece Prize as "a humanitarian award to recognise individuals/organizations who are actively involved in making neighbourhoods, communities and cities a peaceful place through acts of genuine kindness and caring." By identifying and celebrating "Silent Heroes" in 15 cities on his kayak journey, Fuhrmann says he hopes to "generate a 21st century mindset that a peaceful world starts with 'me' and requires the effort of many individuals."

We caught up with Fuhrmann as he paddles through the Netherlands to learn more about his project.

CanoeKayak.com: How did you get into sea kayaking? What role does paddling play in your life?
Mark Fuhrmann: I started sea kayaking in 2006 to spend time with my son, Filip. I bought a tandem kayak and we tented on small islands on the Fjord of Oslo. Kayaking is an important part of my life; it's a recreational hobby that is a major contrast and balance between my career as a director for PR company.

Kayaking provides contact with nature and also a calmness, which is extremely necessary to balance other stresses and challenges in life. Really, it brings me as one with nature and allows me to experience water and the ocean in a completely different way.

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The Piece Prize makes a connection between humanitarian action and expedition sea kayaking. What's this mean to you?
Humanitarian action should be driven by an understanding of what it is like for people in need. Kayaking has given me an understanding of dependency, isolation, worry, fear, hope and thankfulness. Kayaking is a unique solution or instrument to create a good story, thus able to promote the message that together we are better in the 15 cities I will visit.

Tell us a bit about your route. Why did you decide on Oslo to Athens? What are you most looking forward to on this journey?
I chose the coastal route along Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Starting in April from Oslo, this was a very treacherous time with shifting temperatures, often zero degrees [Celsius] and freezing, and unstable ocean conditions. In Germany I started going through the canals (Kiel Canal) and have kept mostly to canal systems in the Netherlands. I will use canal systems all the way to Marseille, France then enter the Mediterranean. I will enter the Italian river called the Po and kayak downstream to Venice. In the Adriatic Sea I will paddle the coast from Croatia, Albania to Greece.

Oslo is noted for its Nobel Peace Prize and Greece is noted for bearing the brunt of massive amounts of boat refugees. I learned the story of an old lady and I was impressed with her action. I decided to paddle from Oslo to Athens and I want to give her a hug and some cash to help her in her mission.

I'm looking forward to working with students in the 15 cities I will visit and finding the Silent Heroes. I'm also looking forward to talking to people along the way and also the amazing scenery throughout Europe.

The other big thing is leaving all the stress and cares of this world behind me—escaping—but I've ended up getting a whole new bucket full of new challenges. Mostly I am looking forward to influencing and inspiring others to be an integral part of creating better and more peaceful communities and cities.

Camp in Norway. Image courtesy of Mark Fuhrmann

No doubt there will be quite the contrast between the physical act of paddling and stopping to meet locals in various centres along the way. Why are these urban stops a key part of your trip?
Urban centers are where the people are. I plan Peace Attacks and I locate Silent Heroes. I give these Silent Heroes around $2,000 to $3,000 to donate to local charities. People are happy and thankful. Cities put me into contact with students and partners to spread the message that each person through small acts of kindness can and will impact society and make better communities.

What's the response been like to your project so far?
Awesome. Random people give me coffee when I paddle by, others have put me up for the night, washed my clothes, given me a bed and supper. Silent Heroes are normal everyday people who impact others in small ways. I have worked with over 400 students. Together, we have created smiles and happiness and not terror. We need the good stories.

I have now paddled some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) and have had not one bad people experience. I have found that people care about other people regardless of race, religion and color. People want to create better communities and many think global peace is out of reach for them. But, they believe that they can make a difference in their local communities of which this project is all about.

— Follow Mark Fuhrmann's Piece Prize blog

— Connect with the Piece Prize project on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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