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On thin ice

The first circumnavigation of the Arctic's Ellesmere Island is Jon Turk's victory in a lifetime of pushing the limits

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The photos of the first complete circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island by Jon Turk and Erik Boomer don't show the true picture. Those freeze-frame moments of the glass-like Arctic ocean with the azure backdrop were captured as circumstances permitted, and not when the two kayakers were trying to make their way through the narrow bottleneck of rumbling, grinding, smashing ice between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. It was at those moments Turk and Boomer weren't sure they'd make it, let alone pause to take a photo.

The 104-day journey logged almost 2,400 kilometres around the world's 10th-largest island. It was probably the last great polar expedition to be completed — and no one had attempted it until the 65-year-old Turk and 26-year-old Boomer took it on.

For Turk, it tested his depths.

"I had to go way deeper than I — even in my fondest imagination — believed I had the power to do," he says.

It is light years from any award or recognition. It is drive, urge, and need. It is the gnawing, or the dream, or the curiosity to push the limits to see what happens, and that which may never be satiated or silenced.

And getting there is terrifying.

DON'T DO SOMETHING STUPID

Some days the duo managed 24 kilometres by dodging ice ridges while pulling kayaks loaded with more than 90 kilograms of gear, food and supplies. Other days they managed only 100 metres while curious polar bears tracked them — at one point one of them biting a hole in their tent then peering in.

From Grise Fiord on the southern coast, Turk and Boomer headed west through some of the smoothest ice in the Arctic.

"You have a really good confidence level and if you can just maintain your sanity and your health and not do something really stupid, you're going to make it up the west coast," says Turk on the phone from his home in Darby, Mont.

"But then when you get up to the north coast, that's where the North Pole ice pack converges against Ellesmere. And you have all these winds and currents driving the ice into solid land and it buckles up into huge pressure ridges and impenetrable arrays of jumbled ice. That's where you run into the nastiest ice in the polar zone."

Turk had what he calls a "hair-brained theory," that the ice ridges wouldn't form close to shore due to the depth of the water, and the fact that some of the ice is underwater. Turk figured that there would be a good 20 metres of flat ice to work with as they travelled toward the north side and traversed parallel to shore.

"So I shared my theory with everybody and people laughed at me," he says, adding that Boomer's partner, Sarah McNair-Landry — who at 18 joined an expedition to the South Pole, then went on a year later to dog-sled to the North Pole, becoming the youngest person to complete both trips — told him he would get "stopped cold," which means no rescue.

Turk laughs at the memory. Turk is a world-renowned ocean kayaker. He attempted a solo paddle around Cape Horn in Patagonia in 1979, and as he says, "smashed up and failed." He returned in 1996 with Mike Latendresse and completed the journey. Two decades later, he kayaked almost 5,000 km from Hokkaido, Japan, along the Kuril Islands of Siberia and crossed to Alaska's St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait. His adventures and pursuits are chronicled in several books: Cold Oceans, The Raven's Gift; and In the Wake of the Jomon. Decades ago, Turk relinquished the trappings of a PhD in organic chemistry for adventure, exploration and endurance. The Ellesmere trip is chronicled in Crocodiles and Ice, which was just published last month.

MAGIC PASSAGES

"The iceberg drifted lazily in the current, surrounded by a phalanx of smaller floes and basketball-sized bergy bits, compressed into a daiquiri-thick slurry. Then, as if the Himalayan Mountains were rising from the sea, the iceberg slammed into the cliff, stalled, shuttered, cracked with a loud groan, and smeared vertically against solid rock.

Boomer and I were trapped." *

The opening lines of Crocodiles and Ice capture just one of millions of moments where logic and pragmatism must eclipse fear.

Will nature co-operate? How fast can they travel to the next food drop? What if something goes wrong?

"We leave the weather station at Eureka (on the west coast) with a certain amount of food knowing that there's a food drop near Ward Hunt ice shelf (on the north coast), but how do you plan? Are we going to be able to make 24 km a day, or 50 metres a day? And Boomer, to his credit, sort of didn't believe me and didn't turn back either," says Turk.

"And it's also so many factors — such as the moment the ice freezes, what was the point of the tide, what was the direction of the wind — to see whether you get these magic passages through the ice.

"So we went out there, really, on a prayer and a hunch."

Add to that the dilemma of knowing when to move forward, or stop.

"I can't tell you how many times your mind is running through the scenario: If we run into rough ice, how far do we push it? Do we turn back at the first sign of really rough ice, or do we keep going for 10 days, at which point we're really trapped — we can't go back or forward."

DON'T MAKE A MISTAKE

Mining the depths of ability, or stamina, or determination is an exact science — there is no room for hubris.

Twenty-four years ago Turk partnered with Conrad Anker for a kayaking trip to Baffin Island. A shared tragedy brought about the trip — they were both friends of Terrance "Mugs" Stump, a famous rock climber who perished in a fall into a crevasse on Denali in Alaska in 1992. Aside from being one of his closest friends, Stump was Anker's mentor and at the time they shared a house together in Utah.

Turk and Stump had planned a trip to Sam Ford Fiord on Baffin — a trip that would combine kayaking and climbing. But Stump died before the dream became a reality, so Turk invited Anker to undertake Baffin Island to honour their friend.

"We had a great time," says Anker, who also wrote an introduction for Turk's Crocodiles and Ice. "Jon is very well respected. It's the one and only trip I did with him and it's a highlight of my life."

Adventure is never without thrill — or terror, and Anker recalls the two of them sitting in their tent fearful that they would be cartwheeled out of it during a windstorm, or when they were kayaking as the ice started to shift, threatening to pin them.

"You have to get along, dig deep, be resourceful," says Anker. "You can't go into it with a sense of arrogance."

Anker is on the phone from the airport in Denver, after which he will head to the Museum of Nature & Science to present a lecture. The 2015 film Meru chronicles the climbs as Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk grapple with pursuit, abandon, and then the successful summit of the Shark's Fin on India's Mount Meru. In the last 30 years, Meru has seen more failed climbing attempts than any other peak in the Himalayas. The award-winning film utterly reverberates with sacrifice and trust — but it also arcs to a darker side as it tracks the toll the pursuit takes on all three men.

Turk says the adage that 'when the going gets tough, the tough get going' is "total bullshit."

"That's the ego — thinking you can overpower it out of sheer toughness. And that doesn't work," says Turk. "And that's what Conrad is talking about. And when you're up on Meru with two other guys, your ego isn't very powerful against the force of gravity."

Anker says adventuring can take you to a different place in your head, but caution is always present.

"Sort of underlying everything is that you can't make a mistake," Anker says. "Something as simple as spraining an ankle, cutting your thumb with a knife — you need your hands. It's not that you're thinking of your reaction, it's more you know that you have to be sure of what you're doing."

ALWAYS A PLAN B

Turk and Boomer made sure the rescue plan was in place before they headed out. They met with the pilots who would rescue them if it all went to hell. There is no landing a plane on pressure ridges, so the pilots gave a couple of GPS co-ordinates for smooth-ice locations on glaciers.

"They said if you're in real trouble, abandon everything and take off for these spots. We could hightail it up to the glacier and wait for a pickup. That was our fallback." The only catch was that they had to have $30,000.

"They asked if we had someone who could wire them $30,000 — and we said: 'Sure!' Of course, we would have had to borrow the money."

Still, it was a reassuring plan and, as Turk says: "We didn't lose those GPS co-ordinates."

And then they had to get through Nares Strait, where the polar ice is funnelled into a 19-km wide bottleneck between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Turk says at this point they could only manage a few kilometres a day: they couldn't kayak as ice chunks threatened to crush them and they had to be ready to scamper to shore.

"It was impossible to paddle in," says Turk.

And then they hit the vertical cliffs that seemed to devour any flat stretch of shore. They could no longer scamper to shore when threatened by ice-floe chunks. The cliffs went on for more than 20 km. And then they were in trouble.

"Everybody was starting to get worried about us because we're running out of food. And how are we going to get through this mess?" says Turk. The Canadian Coast Guard offers a solution.

"They say what we have to do is go out and find a big mother of an ice floe that's big and thick and with a big pressure ridge on the front of it that acts like a battering ram — and get on it and ride that puppy all the way through the narrow strait," says Turk.

After a few days, the mother of all mother-of-ice floes comes by and Turk says it takes them three hours to go 300 metres to get to it through the most dangerous moving ice you can imagine. Once on the floe they relax, letting the current carry them south through the strait.

"And then the current stops and everything starts going north," he says. "We're charging ahead on this mother of all floes toward the North Pole!"

But they need to go south. They are stuck. It is the middle of the night and, all of a sudden, it all begins to close in on them.

"It's like we're being sucked into a black hole and now our island of ice is shaking and groaning and it's like 200 earthquakes. And cracks are running through the ice, and everything is closing in and ice floes are crashing up against it and it's like jumping up and down like we're riding on a rubber band," Turk says.

They threw all their gear into their kayaks and made what Turk describes as the most treacherous, dangerous and panicked race as they jump across moving, tipping, crushing floes, pulling their kayaks behind.

"And then we got back to land."

The 2011 expedition was recognized by National Geographic as one of the Top Ten Adventures of the Year, and Expedition of the Year by Canoe and Kayak Magazine. The story was front-page of the New York Times, and won a Northern Lights Literary Award. Four years later, two soldiers of The Royal Gurkha Rifles attempted a similar undertaking, but Nares Strait was impassable, which meant they could not complete the circumnavigation.

It is dangerous. Turk says he thinks he's lucked out several times.

"Conrad's still climbing mountains. I still ski avalanche-prone backcountry. You know, the only thing I can say is that I can't imagine not living my passion," says Turk.

Anker says: "It's a different set of rules. I always think that you get humbled, you get beat down. It gives you a different perspective."

"To die a slow death of not living my passion, or die a faster death of getting killed in an avalanche or taking a chance: I would die a faster death," says Turk. "To do that once in your life, then you shut the door because now I'm so much weaker and have so much less endurance than what I had at 65. So that was my last window to do it. And the fact that I did it – I will carry that to the grave with me."

*Excerpt courtesy Oolichan Books.

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