Writer, adventurer and part-time Darby resident Jon Turk began his adult life as a scientist, having earned a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Colorado in 1971. Almost immediately, though, he abandoned the laboratory for the wilderness. He has skied and run dogsleds across the far North. He has bagged multiple first ski descents in Asia, and he has twice kayaked around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. His most extreme expedition—the first circumnavigation of Canada's Ellesmere Island via ski and kayak, in 2011—resulted in National Geographic nominating Turk and his partner, Erik Boomer, as 2012 Adventurers of the Year. Turk was 65 at the time.
Turk, now 70, is currently promoting his fourth book, Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey Into Deep Wild, about the Ellesmere Island expedition. His audience is a curious mix. Engagements up and down the East Coast have Turk talking to high-level adventure athletes at outdoor festivals and to spiritual seekers at New York City's Open Center. The tour wraps up in April at the Whistler World Ski & Snowboard Festival, in British Columbia, where Turk will deliver the keynote address. He recently sat down with the Indy and answered a few questions about the intersection between outdoor adventure and spirituality.
You're best known for your exploits in a kayak and as a backcountry skier. What came first, paddling or skiing?
Jon Turk: They're different seasons, so there's not a direct conflict. I grew up on the shores of a wooded lake in Connecticut, and as early as I can remember we had boats. Then I got a canoe, and a little sailboat, and this goes way back to when I was six or seven and I hung out on the lake all summer long. But when the lake froze up, we put the skis on. And skates. I played hockey a lot, but I can't remember when.
How do you sum up Crocodiles and Ice?
JT: A lot of it is about the expedition circumnavigating Ellesmere Island. I tell people it's in the same vein as—I'm standing on the shoulders of these giants—Thoreau, or Aldo Leopold. Those guys, their books. I just come at the ideas differently.
The book has mountain biking in it, it has kayaking, it has skiing—we skied half the Ellesmere thing—it's got hiking. It's got dancing. So the point is, it's not necessarily whether you're on skis or in a kayak, it's approaching the wilderness on something of a spiritual journey. With a certain headspace. With a certain reciprocity, where you are learning from nature, you're not playing in nature. You have a reciprocal relationship with nature.
- photo courtesy of Jon Turk
- Jon Turk’s recent book Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey Into Deep Wild details his physical—and spiritual—expedition around Ellesmere Island.
How is that different from a spiritual journey found through other sports?
JT: If you find your passion in other sports, great. Fine. It's just important that you find it. I don't happen to get the same connection from other sports. In basketball and tennis, the environment stays the same. Every basketball court, every tennis court, is the same, and it doesn't change from millisecond to millisecond. In skiing and kayaking, you're reading the environment from millisecond to millisecond, and you're dealing with this extraordinarily complex environment. In the backcountry your life is dependent on your reading an environment that is infinitely complex. So skiing isn't just turning left, turning right. Backcountry skiing is surviving while you're turning left and turning right.
Do you find the book to be a hard sell for people because of its spiritual component?
JT: It depends on who I am selling it to. We sent the book in for foreign rights and it was rejected by some big publishing company in England on the grounds that it was "too spiritual" for the kayaking group. I think some of these people are missing what general audiences—what people—respond to. I talk to hardcore kayakers, and I give them the full spiritual thing and they love it. So I think that that editor was off base. It was #1 on Amazon for kayaking for a month.
This thing at Whistler, I'm talking in front of hardcore adventure athletes ... The same thing in Toronto at the Wilderness Canoe Association. I'm giving them the solid consciousness revolution [talk]that wilderness brings you to a special spiritual place—and people love it.
Why call it a consciousness revolution?
JT: The revolution is the idea that we can walk out of this expectation in society that we should have all this shit—more money, more possessions, bigger houses—in order to be fulfilled. Then when we don't get as much shit as [we think] we are supposed to have, we get pissed off. That idea, that change of consciousness, that change in idea about where and how our spirit is fulfilled, is what is happening.
The whole point that I'm trying to make about the consciousness revolution can be summarized in a single ski run, or a single run through a rapid, in that you're totally in the flow, you're totally immersed, you're totally in a walking meditation. Your soul is completely fulfilled in this relationship with an extremely complex environment. The natural world has all the joy and complexity and richness that we can conceivably want. And it's free.