“What do you do when a polar bear charges you? We found yelling colorful language was more effective than gentle talking,” says 66-year-old writer and Arctic explorer Jon Turk. “The right tone could communicate, ‘You’re bad. We’re just as bad.’”
Turk and pro kayaker Erik Boomer discovered this when, during the final week of their 1,485-mile circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island, a polar bear ripped a hole in their tent—while five other bears looked on.
The journey around the world’s tenth largest island, which took Turk and Boomer 104 days on skis, in kayaks, and on foot, was considered by polar experts to be the last great unattempted polar expedition, so daunting due to its remoteness and dangerous ice conditions. No one had attempted it before this summer.
For Turk, who pioneered big-wall climbs on Baffin Island and engaged in five Siberian expeditions to study shamanic culture, this was his “retirement party,” his last expedition. For the 27-year-old Boomer, who made a name for himself kayaking into the world’s wildest white water, this was the first of what he hopes will be many journeys to the Great North.
“I’m used to taking risks in short bursts, like in a single rapid or waterfall,” says Boomer. “This trip was so long, the risk so sustained and impossible to plan for. Jon is rare. He’s willing to do something where the outcome is unknown.”
In May, the duo began by dragging their 220-pound, 13.5-foot kayaks 800 miles across flat ice. As the ice broke up with the spring thaw, they were forced to jump over cracks and between unstable ice floes. By midsummer, they were able to paddle through slivers of open water.
Though the bears proved to be an ongoing danger—on one day they saw eleven, nine of which were aggressive—unfavorable winds were the greatest threat. Offshore winds pushed sea ice up against the sheer cliffs of Ellesmere’s rugged coast. Getting trapped between the two would mean certain death.
A text message Turk sent during the final leg of the trip summed it up best: “Bears scare us. We scare bears. The wind scares us. We don’t scare the wind.”
Adventure: The Ellesmere circumnavigation hadn’t even been attempted prior to your expedition. The conditions were a deterrent. You had to drag your boats. You had to paddle, to leap between ice patches. How did you prepare for all that?
Erik Boomer: You couldn’t. There were so many unknowns. Every day there was a new obstacle. There was no way we could have prepared for all of it. We had this saying, “The next 300 yards look problem-free.” We focused on every step. Sometimes if we looked 10 or 20 steps ahead of us in the ice, we would get overwhelmed.
Jon Turk: The ice on the north coast. If it’s smooth you make 15 miles in a day. If it’s rough, you make 100 yards in a day. We each went way beyond what we were capable of doing, or what we had the experience to do.
A: Originally your mutual friend Tyler Bradt was a part of the trip, but he broke his back kayaking and was unable to go. You two had only met once before you set off. That’s putting quite a bit of faith in each other’s reputations.
JT: There was a little bit of, “Oh my God, what are we getting ourselves into?” Boomer and I were near total strangers, but I think we were both committed to the adventure. It was too much to pass up. We got along beyond comprehension immediately. Of course we had some arguments; it would be ridiculous to say we didn't. But very soon we learned that we had to trust each other’s confidence. That was all we had. Boomer is one of the strongest people on the planet.
A: Jon, you are 65. Erik, you’re 26. Each of you are at different stages in your careers. What made your partnership work?
EB: We talked about personal changes a lot. We were both maturing. I wanted to grow into adulthood in my own way. Jon is in the same shoes. He’s 65. This is one of his last trips. He doesn’t want to grow old like anyone else. He doesn’t want to retire to a chair. A circumnavigation at 65 is proof that Jon is growing old in his own way. We had that in common.
A: Jon, you lost your wife Chris in an avalanche in 2005, and have since remarried. You said this trip was, in part, a way of saying goodbye. Chris had traveled Ellesmere and it was a place that meant something to her. Did you find closure?
JT: You never find closure to that, do you? You get closer to it. I felt I honored her memory. On this trip I wore the skis that I got married in. I left the skis up there.
A: Did luck play a role during the trip?
JT: I felt like we got lucky a few times on this trip. We got beat up. Yeah, we got held up by the wind for 17 days, but in critical points when things were really on the line we got lucky. At almost exactly 80º N latitude, a wolf came into camp. This wolf stayed in camp for about 15 hours. It followed us. It slept right next to us. In the morning it was right there. I felt like that polar wolf was there helping us when we really needed it.
A: The polar bears were a constant threat. How did you protect yourself?
JT: The polar bear situation was ongoing. One bit a hole in our tent and stuck its head in. We had these things called bear bangers, like firecrackers. They didn’t seem to scare the bears. We learned later that there are two types of bear bangers—one that whistles and one that cracks, which is what we had. Unfortunately they sound like breaking ice. The polar bears are used to that. We found that our voices were more effective than the bangers.
A: Did you have a contingency plan if something went wrong?
JT: You’d have to get real creative to save your life. On the rough ice, there is no landing strip for an aircraft. You’d have to go overland, over mountain ranges. You’d have to spread out the map and say, “Oh my God. We’ve got to pull all the plugs. We don’t want to die.”
A: What’s the next great expedition?
JT: I got home and was thinking I didn't want to do this to my body again. But that was a month ago. I just got an opportunity to do something in Tibet that's really cool. So I'm doing it. Retirement from something this hard? Yes. Retirement from remote places? No.
EB: I'm thinking my next adventure will be a warm one. I want to keep combining things I love with kayaking for long, remote trips. I have some ideas for sea kayaking in the north, but there's only one window where you can do that each year. Jon and I talked about some expeditions during this trip. Jon was like: “Don’t invite me. I’m too old for adventure, but I can’t say no to adventure.”