This past summer, in a restaurant in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, I asked a tall, grey-haired fellow with a bushy mustache if I could share his table. He agreed, and we began to talk. His name was Jon Turk, and besides being a fellow baby boomer, it turned out he was also a fellow writer. In fact, as I sat down, he gave the last few taps on his laptop. “There,” he announced. “I just sent off the manuscript for my new book.”
We were both members of the same Arctic cruise, he as a staff member and me as a media guest. And we soon discovered that we shared a lifelong interest in exploring the wildest, most exotic places on the planet. Over the next few days, he shared some of his experiences with the ship’s company – tales so wild and dramatic they seemed torn from the pages of a boy’s adventure book. Better still, many of the events had taken place when he was over 60.
When the cruise ended, Jon and I parted ways, expecting never to see each other again. But during our lunch together, I had offered to review his book when it came out. And a few weeks ago, an e-mail arrived announcing it had hit the shelves. Soon after came a review copy: what else to do but review it? So here is my attempt to share at least a taste of Jon Turk’s book, Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey into Deep Wild.
The book’s title hints at an adventure that spans the globe, from the Arctic to the tropics. And it doesn’t disappoint: his story takes us on a trip that stretches from Connecticut to Jerusalem to the South Pacific, China and the high Arctic, with stops in Idaho and British Columbia. And along the way, it delves into indigenous beliefs, the problems with modern life, and his search for solutions in the farthest corners of the earth.
With that much ground (and sea) to cover, the book doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc. It starts with Turk paddling a kayak through the Solomon Islands, one of the many parts of the world he has navigated in one of these flimsy craft. Landing on a deserted beach, he is menaced (though not attacked) by a huge crocodile. Luckily, he escapes without incident.
Travelling on, he ventures deeper into croc territory with a local islander who tells him the local reptiles are the spirits of his ancestors. They won’t hurt him, he explains, if Turk washes his face in the river water. Most Westerners would laugh at this jungle mysticism. But Turk, having deep experience with indigenous beliefs, knows better. “By this time in my life,” he says, “Grandfather Crocodiles no longer surprised me.” He follows the instructions, and paddles away safely.
From there, Turk spins the tales of a number of extraordinary trips, many taken at an age when most men would be satisfied with a brisk walk to the pub. The most extraordinary, and the book’s centrepiece, is a 2,800-kilometre (1,700-mile) kayaking voyage around Ellesmere Island, in Canada’s north, far above the Arctic Circle. Turk undertook the voyage at the age of 65, as the last fling in a long career of wilderness kayaking trips – and indeed, it almost turned out to be.
Setting out with a young companion (ironically named Boomer), he skied, walked and paddled around the giant island for more than 100 days, much of the time dragging his heavily loaded kayak behind him. Along the way, the two were menaced by polar bears, attacked by a walrus, stranded on shore for two weeks by pack ice, and occasionally, stunned by the peace and beauty of this remote piece of the world.
“And then the ducks showed up, out of nowhere it seemed, and they appeared to be as overjoyed as we were by the sudden appearance of open water. They swooped and tilted playfully until their wingtips skimmed the sea, and then they soared above the scattered icebergs. The sea was a mix of dark shadows, interspersed by the ever-changing sunlight now reflecting off the ice, now turning the ocean orange.”
And once again, Turk had a mystical animal encounter. Stopping to rest one day, he turned to find an Arctic wolf staring him in the face. Instead of attacking, it followed him and his companion for more than a day, even sleeping outside their tent at night. Drawing on ancient indigenous beliefs, he christened it the Spirit Wolf, his guardian on the dangerous path ahead.
The Spirit Wolf must have been powerful, because Turk’s 65-year-old body survived the gruelling trip – barely. The end of the voyage found him in a flying ambulance, headed for an Ottawa hospital after his entire system shut down. Happily, he survived to tell the tale, and send me a copy.
Turk goes on to detail a trip to the Middle East in his college days, where he was arrested and almost jailed for defending Israel in the vehemently anti-Semitic state of Jordan. Returning home, he finished a PhD in chemistry but rejected a regular chemist’s job for a life spent travelling and writing environmental textbooks.
And he takes us on a biking trip through the mountains in Qinghai, China, formerly part of Tibet, in search of the birthplace of the Dalai Lama. He found a region under renovation by the Chinese government, with ancient homes being knocked down and replaced by subdivisions where no one lived. Yet he and his companions — his girlfriend and a former member of Mao’s Red Guard — found kindness everywhere as they cycled their way around the sacred Snow Mountain. The world of humans is a complex place.
As well, there’s a hiking trip into the mountains of British Columbia to find the remote spot where his two hiking buddies, a hunter and a vegetarian, found the remains of a 300-to-500-year-old indigenous hunter, frozen in a glacier. “I left a piece of string on the cairn,” he writes, “because string is so useful in the Real World, and presumably in the Other World as well …”
Through it all, Turk maintains a constant internal dialogue about the clash between the materialistic world we live in and the wild, natural world we once came from. When humans lived by hunting and gathering, he notes, they typically spent 12 to 19 hours a week doing what could be considered “work”. Now, in the era of technological marvels, they spend 40 hours hurrying to jobs that leave them stressed and often miserable. And along the way, they destroy much of the natural bounty that has allowed the species to flourish through the millennia.
“Global petroleum consumption has increased 17-fold since I was born,” he notes; “tropical rainforests, which once covered 14% of our planet, have been chain-sawed and bulldozed until they now cover only 6%; and the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere has increased from 300 ppm to over 400 ppm.”
What’s the solution? “Over the past 20, or 50, or 100 years, science and education have simply not solved our problems,” Turk writes. “In fact, you could argue that our problems are becoming even more acute.”
What’s needed, he says, is a change of consciousness, which includes renewing our connection with the land we live on. And that need drives him to travel to the remote, untamed places, to connect with what he calls the Deep Wild.
Along the way, he runs into the indigenous spiritual beliefs that ruled the earth before the modern era: the Grandfather Crocodiles, the Spirit Wolf, and the Raven, the ancestral being invoked by a Siberian shaman who miraculously cured him after a serious accident on a trip through the tundra.
He also draws on the wisdom of Western experts, and Eastern thinkers like the Buddha, Lao Tzu and the Dalai Lama, who preaches that “this Spiritual Revolution must be based primarily on compassion — which arises only out of the ‘ethical value of our actions’.”
Some may find Turk’s ideas for saving the world fanciful or idealistic. And at times, his musings can be hard to follow. However, compared to some of the things people believe in these days – like perpetual growth and profits at any cost – they don’t seem that far-fetched.
But whether you believe in the Grandfather Crocodile or not, there’s no denying that Turk’s book takes us on an extraordinary trip to places we’ve never been. And as a fellow baby boomer traveller, I’m glad he got home safely.
Photos courtesy of Jon Turk
Crocodiles and Ice is available online and at bookstores. You can get an autographed copy at www.jonturk.net.