Jon Turk has spent 40 years wandering through remote landscapes from the high arctic to remote jungles. Born in Connecticut, he earned a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Colorado and then wrote the first environmental science textbook, which sold about 100,000 copies.
He then started traveling and going on adventures, kayaking across the North Pacific and around Cape Horn, mountain biking through the Gobi Desert, climbing on Baffin Island, and skiing off peaks in Kyrgyzstan.
He has written a number of books about his adventures and goes on regular speaking tours.
He is at the Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre on Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m., to give a talk called Crocodiles and Ice, about his recent trip to the South Pacific and his circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island with Erik Boomer in 2011 – a trip that earned him a number of accolades, included Expedition of the Year from Canoe & Kayak magazine and top 10 adventurer nod from National Geographic.
I spoke to Turk last week to learn more about him. Here are some snippets of that conversation.
What is Crocodiles and Ice about?
The crocodiles are the Salomon Islands and the ice is my circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island with Erik Boomer in 2011… At one level I’m a storyteller. I talk about high adventure in remote environments, in the jungles of the Salomon Islands and the polar regions of the Canadian Arctic. I’ve stopped giving the traditional adventure narrative slideshow 10 years ago. I don’t do that anymore. The talk, it’s about my new book and it’s about finding that space between aboriginal wisdoms on the one hand the corporate industrial consumer culture on the other hand…
My last book, the Raven’s Gift was about five years I spent in Siberia with a shaman named Moolynaut. My book was about Shamanic healing and about traveling to the other world to talk to Kutcha the raven god, and so on and so forth. It was about what she taught me…
I was talking with some people, going back into the shamanic spirit realm, I said, ‘Let’s not go there. Let’s start with what we know. Let’s start with facts. Let’s start with everybody.’ The civil engineer included can agree that aboriginal people with very primitive stone tools built ocean going ships and sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific. This is the potential of our humanity. This is who we were. This is fact. Let’s start from there and explore the wisdom of our ancestors from this perspective.
This talk is a talk about finding our meaning in aboriginal wisdoms and it’s place in the modern world through the eyes of the high adventure that I go on.
How do your adventures fit into this theme?
When you’re out in the wilderness for a long time, the wilderness will talk to you and it will help you find a place of peace that is not tied to how much money you spend.
I really believe that the way forward for us, for humanity in this crazy world, in this non-sustainable world we’re living in now, we have to seek that contentment and that passion within ourselves that we don’t buy by wandering down to Walmart. That is what these great adventures will teach you.
On nearly dying in after his trip around Ellesmere Island:
That experience of going into your own headspace and having a will that’s so strong that you can follow that route to the edge of death is a very powerful experience. It reminds you over and over again, we have an incredible depth that goes beyond what we buy and if we can accept that depth then we can tone down our wants. I’m not at any time ever suggesting that we all go back to the stone age and eats roots and berries. If I break my leg I go to the doctor. I drive a car and run a computer. At the same time the lessons that nature has to teach have a vital role in showing us a path forward.
On his recent trip to Venezuela and the connection between the Amazon and the arctic:
The high arctic and the equatorial jungles are the two most different types of eco-systems on the earth but they are very much connected by this movement and flow of heat and energy that goes from the equator to the poles and regulates these physical environments…
I think one of the important components of respecting nature is to feel its workings. It’s what I call terra incognito between knowing and feeling. To feel it, to sense its movements inside you. Part of the reason I went to the Amazon was just because there’s this interplay between the amazon and the arctic and I’d been in the Arctic a lot and I had to go to the Amazon to just breathe.
On the advance of technology in the Venezuelan jungle:
This guy, right at the beginning of our journey, he gave me this amulet that was supposed to ward off jaguars. It was a beaded, stone, hand-worked amulet. When I looked at what he wearing around his neck, he was wearing a flash drive. I kept wanting to say, ‘Is that a spell against memory loss?’
I talk about being this thatched hut and seeing a blow gun tucked into the thatch and asking them, ‘What is this?’ He says, ‘It’s a blow gun, dummy.’ I said, ‘Do you still use it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ They’re still using blow guns and at the same time I meet a teenage girl in the same village who’s at the community computer centre talking to her friends on Facebook…
I was born in 1945 so if I were still alive in the Venezuelan village, I would remember living in the stone age, walking around with nothing other than a penis strap around me and otherwise completely naked, hunting with blow guns and using stone tools. And now my granddaughter is on Facebook.
I talk about this to emphasize how very, very rapid this transition is, and it’s only a little less rapid for ourselves… We have this change that is so rapid and it’s so wonderful, it brings so many wonderful things to us, so many magical things, that we’re letting it get away from ourselves. I think the important lesson is to say we can pick and choose what we’re going to accept from this technology.
On age catching up to him (Turk is 67):
The Ellesmere expedition very nearly killed me. Every day I pushed myself so hard that I would start seeing double. I never told my partner, but towards the end of the day I couldn’t keep my skis in the ski track without feeling them because I couldn’t see… I could feel it but I couldn’t see it because my vision was so blurry. Every day I pushed myself to the point where my brain stopped functioning, I couldn’t see.
The end of it was I almost died. When we were flying into Ottawa they were talking to the physician team in Ottawa and they were openly questioning whether they would get me to Ottawa in time before I died. So I’m not going to do that again. That was a really dumb idea…
I think you can go and stay out for long periods of time and do long trips, just don’t push as hard. Just kind of sit. It just involved not making the goal as strenuous, or not having any goal. In the Amazon we just went, we never knew where we were going. We never had a goal. That freed us from a lot of things. If we wanted to hang out for a few days in a village there was nothing to stop us.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on this new book, which is called Crocodiles and Ice… It’s not a done deal but it’s moving along through the process. I have to velcro my butt to the chair a bit to get that done.
I do plan on going to the headwaters of the Tatshenshini with Bill Hanlon, to visit – there’s this Tlingit man who made a journey to the coast in pre-contact times and Bill found his mummy – and we’re going to go off into those mountains just south of the St. Elias.
We’re going to go onto this glacier where this guy died and in my book I’m going to review his lifestyle and his life and the equipment and clothing that he had. This is a rare opportunity because he was found mummified intact with his original weaponry and clothing. In the book I want to go back and forth. I want people to absolutely respect and understand the physical power that our ancestors had. That it’s not negating the shamanic power. It’s too easy to say, ‘I don’t believe in that,’ but you can’t say, ‘I don’t believe that these people survived,’ because they survived.
Crocodiles or polar bears?
Crocodiles, as far as I know, don’t have much of a personality. They’re hunting and eating machines and they’re very efficient at what they do. So efficient they survived the demise of the dinosaurs. A crocodile just thinks about one thing, and that’s how it can eat you.
If polar bears hunted people with the efficiency that they hunt seals, no one could travel in the arctic. They could kill you. They don’t kill you because there’s some mammal-to-mammal relationship and I don’t know understand exactly what the polar bear was thinking. We had a polar bear rip a hole in our tent and stick his head in while we were sleeping. If that polar bear had come at full charge he could have got us before we had a chance to grab the shotgun…
You have a chance through this mammal-to-mammal communication. You don’t have this mammal to reptile communication. You either get away from the crocodile or you don’t get away from the crocodile. I think my chances with polar bears are much greater than my chances with the crocodile.