Turk ’63 Circumnavigates Arctic Island

Jon Turk ’63 was paddling along in Arctic waters when a walrus weighing thousands of pounds intercepted his companion. Though the kayaking pair had previously encountered nine polar bears in one day, this was the first time the two had come into close physical contact with an animal of such sheer size. “If all failed, we still had a 12 gauge shotgun. You can be a lot braver if you’re holding one,” said Turk. Fortunately for both men, not a single shot was fired. A whack to the snout with a paddle did the job. “Tough-talking a polar bear,” in Turk’s words, is one of many things he and his companion, Erik Boomer, discovered during their record-breaking, 104-day expedition circumnavigating Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost Arctic island. After surviving the life-threatening 1500-mile journey through some of the remotest and most desolate parts of the world, Turk cited his time at Andover as the source of his interest in science and the natural world. At first, the teaming up of Turk, a 66-year-old author and scientist, and Boomer, a 26-year-old world-class whitewater kayaker, for a joint Arctic adventure seems peculiar. “We both have a familiar madness. He recognizes the madness in me, and I recognize the madness in him. Really, what bonds us together is the love of the wilderness, and that love of adventure transcended any kind of generational gap,” said Turk. Turk has been going on these adventurous excursions for more than 40 years. The thought of circumnavigating Ellesmere Island first crossed his mind in 1985. After reading a story about an Inuit shaman from the late 1800s, who fled across Ellesmere Island as a murderer and madman, Turk decided to trace the shaman’s footsteps by kayak with his wife in 1988. “I fell in love with Ellesmere. It is the wildest, most pristinely beautiful place on the planet that I’ve ever been to,” said Turk. Inspired by this beauty, Turk spent five years with a shaman in northeastern Siberia, an experience he describes in his book, “The Raven’s Gift.” “I felt like taking this Siberian energy and power that she [the shaman] had given me and [translating] it into a really large trip into the ice.” Up until Turk’s expedition, Ellesmere Island had never been circumnavigated in a single season in the history of polar exploration. Tyler Bradt, the the son of Turk’s longtime friend Bill Bradt, agreed to tackle the journey with Turk. To travel to such an unpopulated area, they needed to raise enough money and secure the appropriate equipment, including kayaks, paddles, food supplies and a chartered aircraft to make food drops that could cost up to $38,000 per shipment. A rescue operation, if necessary, would have severe limitations. On Ellesmere Island, there are few airstrips and roads, and many places cannot be reached by helicopter because of short fuel ranges. “It’s one thing to high-five and say, ‘Yeah dude,’ but another to pick up the maps and start looking at the technical issues. Then you get scared.” said Turk. “We needed more firepower.” Boomer, a virtual stranger to Turk at the time, agreed to join Turk and Bradt on their adventure. However, before their scheduled departure, Bradt broke his back jumping into a waterfall. His injury left Turk on a two-man journey once again. Though Bradt did not participate in the journey, he did most of the fundraising. As a high-profile filmmaker and kayaker, he attracted donations from Polar Tech and Eddie Bauer: First Ascent who contributed $5,000 and $35,000 respectively. In addition, Wilderness Systems provided the boats and paddles. Despite their care the journey was dangerous. “People often ask, ‘Walrus or polar bear? Which one is more dangerous?’ It is actually the danger of moving ice that poses the biggest [threat] for us. Ice can be flat or rubbly frozen chunks, which is slow to travel in, but doesn’t present a kinetic threat,” said Turk. According to Turk, paddling in the middle of flowing ice is hazardous because the small pieces can compress and kill a kayaker very easily. This was the main challenge as the men approached the northeastern part of the island. However, the polar bears still proved hazardous. In one encounter, a polar bear bit off part of the tent the men were sleeping in. When men woke up immediately after, the bear was only two feet away. By shouting, they were able to scare the bear away. To fend off an approaching bear, Turk suggests either using physical or vocal aggression. “You want to be aggressive, but not to the point where the bear feels that he has to defend himself,” said Turk. “A bear is a mammal…At one level, it wants to eat you, but at another there’s a mammal-to-mammal communication that you have with this bear. You can tell him that it would be a really bad idea for him to eat you and that he would be way better off going about his business and leaving you alone.” Finally, on the 104th day, the men completed their journey. Only 39 hours after the journey, Turk experienced a catastrophic metabolic breakdown. His kidneys stopped functioning, preventing him from urinating and threatening his life. Dying, Turk was airlifted by a Medivac helicopter and transported by several planes to a hospital in Ottawa where doctors saved his life. Though his doctors say his survival was a chance occurence, Turk believes it was a result of his physical endurance. “My body was under incredible stress [during the expedition]. I paddled and walked to the brink of death. I don’t think [my survival] was a coincidence.” After accomplishing a lifelong ambition, Turk began giving talks about his journey. “I took this journey into the deepest wilderness when I was on the portal of being too old to do this anymore, to [have my] body and mind become part of the wilderness,” said Turk. “You are part of the whole movement, the ice, the seasons… I needed one last jolt of this, before I slide into ‘geezer-hood.’” Turk came to Andover at the age of 14 as a teenager intrigued by a “strange world of people.” He said that his mother encouraged him to leave his home in Danbury, CT to attend boarding school. Turk remembers taking biology with Harper Follansbee, former Instructor in Biology, who Turk said nurtured his growing interest in plants and living organisms. “It was drastically different [from home],” Turk recalls. “The whole girl thing was something [new]. We had tea dances that went from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.” After high school, Turk went on to Brown University. He then earned a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at the University of Colorado. However, he soon decided to abandon a career in chemistry and pursue something else: a life outdoors. In the final days of graduate school, Turk observed his dog digging holes in the ground covered in melting snow. Curious, he followed his dog and started sniffing the ground. “It was a profound moment. I felt this was where I had to be – not a chemist.” “I took all those lessons from Andover, Brown, and [the University of] Colorado and applied them to a different outcome.” Turk has been a writer for 40 years and has published 25 environmental science textbooks, including “Earth Day,” the first environmental textbook in North America. He also published three adventure books, the success of which he credits to his Ph.D. When asked about his future, Turk laughed, “There was no master plan, and there still isn’t one.”