In 2008 John Turk and Eric Boomer did a circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island.
courtesy © Jon Turk and Eric Boomer
Erik Boomer & Jon Turk traveled 1485 miles in 104 days on bad ice around Ellesmere Island.
courtesy © Jon Turk and Eric Boomer
ExWeb interview with Jon Turk: "Whatever you do, its going to be hard, so prepare to endure"

Posted: Sep 09, 2011 06:22 am EDT
(By Correne Coetzer) Physically his body shut down after the expedition, but timing and endurance led to a successful Ellesmere Island circumnavigation.

The 104 days were his retirement party and knowing that this was his last big expedition, 65-year-old Jon Turk told ExplorersWeb he needed to savor every last moment of the rigor and intensity. Here a debrief and some of the wisdom gained over decades.

ExplorersWeb: How did you feel the last day(s)? Physically and mentally?

Jon: It was a mixture of strong emotions, to be sure. On one level, I was physically exhausted, near collapse, and eager to find rest, warmth, and solace. On another level, however, being 65 years old and knowing that this is my last big expedition, I needed to savor every last moment of the rigor and intensity of the arctic and polar environment.

As an aside, my feeling of near collapse was not hyperbole, as my body did shut down after we completed the expedition, and I was hospitalized for six days after we returned to Grise Fiord.

ExplorersWeb: Jon, you have been to Ellesmere kayaking in 1988. How was it then, compared to now?

Jon: There were many differences. In 1988, I was traveling with my wife and our total journey was under 600 miles, compare with nearly 1,500 this time. Also, in 1988 we did not attempt to navigate the upper Nares Strait, which was by far the most difficult part of this expedition.

So in short, this current expedition was a quantum level more demanding, arduous, and dangerous. Ellesmere Island has also passed through some changes, due to ice melting as a consequence of global warming.

ExplorersWeb: How did you experienced the polar bear attacks?

Jon: It is impossible to determine what is in a polar bears mind. If a bear runs in your direction, what is its intent? To eat you? To scare you? To check you out because you are a curious new creature in its environment? Perhaps it is naïve, but deep in my heart, I never felt that we were going to be killed and eaten by a bear.

At the same time, obviously, we were scared and developed a pattern of yelling, body language, and the use of bear bangers (firecracker-like noise devices) to communicate to the bear that we were the baddest critters on the block.

ExplorersWeb: How big is the danger of polar bears on the Island? What precautions did you take?

Jon: In the entire circumpolar north, there are only two or so deaths from polar bears every year. So there is some mysterious component in the bear/human interaction such that bears do not actively hunt humans, as they hunt seals, for example.

We tried to be careful and alert, obviously, and we carried bear bangers and a shotgun, but you have to live with the knowledge, every moment of every day, that you are in the bears turf, and they are incredibly clever, stealthy, and powerful animals. It was a great honor to share the ice, the water, and the land with these amazing animals.

ExplorersWeb: Where there times that you felt like giving up?

Jon: What does giving up mean? Saying I quit and I want to go home? Huh? During 99% of the journey, there was no way to quit, no airstrips where we could go, sit down, and call for a flight back to civilization. Erik and I were totally committed to completing this expedition from the onset.

ExplorersWeb: You seem to get along well. What made you a good team?

Jon: There was just a chemistry there. We started this expedition as near strangers, 40 years apart in age. Boomer is an incredible person, and I spent 104 of the most wonderful days of my life with him.

ExplorersWeb: High points of the expedition?

Jon: Perhaps the highest point was the night we finally found a passage through the complex and dangerous ice in the upper Nares Channel, after being stymied for 16 days during which time we were barely able to move.

We finally saw a weakness in the ice late in the evening, and launched at 9:15 PM, rounded the corner of a big rock cliff, evaluated the situation, and said, Lets go for it. There was considerable danger that the ice would close in a crush us, but we both knew that this was the moment, and paddled off into the night.

This is the high moment on any adventure, when you paddle out of the eddy in a whitewater situation, or clip a piece of gear and move upward on a rock wall. When you decide you can do it, push fear aside, and turn your whole mind and body into total commitment.

ExplorersWeb: Low points?

Jon: Oh, you know, the human body and mind are weak enough. I whined and complained internally a number of times, and externally a few. Sometime I felt that I was just not strong enough, or too scared.

But those were just passing moments; the overriding emotion was exhilaration that we were in this powerful environment together, with just the two of us to rely on each other -- and that we would pull this thing off.

ExplorersWeb: If you could give advice to anyone who wants to circumnavigate Ellesmere Island, what would you say?

Jon: Two words come to mind: timing and endurance. Whatever you do, its going to be hard, so prepare to endure. Technically, you must travel over many different seascapes with many different types of ice. The big game is to time your journey to be in each location at a time of the year that makes passage through that environment possible.

If I were another team, I would study the Boomer/Turk expedition and the journals of the great explorers of past times, and then make a plan.

Im not saying that Erik and I picked the best time to make our passage, all I can say is that we succeeded. And Ill be there cheering the next team to come in under 100 days.

ExplorersWeb: If you think about the more than 100 days out there, what come to your mind?

Jon: Ive spent a lifetime involved in long and arduous expeditions. This is my last big one; my retirement party. I am so happy it turned out the way it did and so happy to have shared those moments with Erik.

Erik Boomer and Jon Turk traveled 1485 statute miles in 104 days, skiing on rigid fast ice, jumping from flow to flow on moving pack ice and finally paddling through ice choked water. They started out from Grise fjord on May 7; pulling 220 pounds and fished on August 19, 2011.The team received one resupply.

Jon Turk, 65 years old, lives in Darby, Montana. Over decades, Jon have kayaked across the North Pacific and around Cape Horn, mountain biked through the Gobi desert, made first climbing ascents of big walls on Baffin Island, and first ski descents in the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzia among many other adventures.

He has written 25 environmental and geoscience textbooks and several books related to his adventures. His latest is The Raven's Gift, which outlines five expeditions to northeast Siberia and my deep friendship with Moolynaut, a 100 year old healer and shaman who lives in the small village of Vyvenka. For more, see at http://www.jonturk.net/About-Me.

Erik Boomer, 26, from McCall, Idaho, has been white water kayaking for the past 17 years. He accomplished the triple crown of expedition kayaking at age 18, descending the Alsek, the Susitna and the Stikine rivers in the same season. He has numerous first descents to his name, and has appeared in award winning whitewater films such as Haymaker (http://vimeo.com/10736337), Wildwater (http://www.wildwaterfilm.com) and Frontier (http://vimeo.com/18556134).

Erik works as a professional photographer. Voted Photographer of the Year by fellow paddlers for the 2010 Rider of the Year Awards, Boomers talents extend beyond the river to portraits and documentary work, including living as a homeless person last winter in Washington, DC.


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