Jon Turk, a Legend Before the Days of Wii
by Rob Schultheis
May 24, 2012 | 1806 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I am one of those antediluvian romantics who firmly believe that physical adventure is as vital to Homo sapiens’ “human-beingness” as language and the opposable thumb. Not adventure for the sake of fame, fortune or ego, but adventure for the pure existential joy of it.  

Read A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby’s wry account of his 1950s-mountaineering expedition to eastern Afghanistan, or Joshua Slocum’s turn of the century classic with the self-explanatory title Sailing Alone Around the World, or any of the books by H.W. Tilman (exploring remote ranges, mountaineering, sailing in extreme latitudes in small boats, etc.) and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. 

You’ll also realize, by the dates when these books were written, that true adventure is largely a thing of the past, and that our species is steadily losing touch with its own neuromuscular being and the world of anarchic un-human wildness that made us what we are.

We are becoming prisoners of our own gadgets, to the point that even our mildest physical games have to be neutered to make us comfortable. There was actually a television ad recently that showed a family of couch spuds gesticulating and hopping around their rec room “playing” something called Wii-tennis.

“Tennis, the way it was meant to be played, “a voice exulted. Funny thing:  when I learned to play tennis it was on a clay court, outside, under the blazing sun, with an actual racket, ball and net.

Thus the greatness of someone like Jon Turk, who has spent his entire adult life in the most remote, austere and arduous corners of the world, kayaking, canoeing, snowshoeing, dogsled mushing, skiing.

Neolithic kayaks, canoes, snowshoes and dog teams.

I first met Turk back in the early 70s, soon after I moved to Telluride; he was supporting himself writing science textbooks, and already making a name for himself locally as a climber, skier and whitewater boatman. One of his early signature accomplishments was a run down Snaggletooth Rapid on the Dolores river in a beat-up aluminum canoe, with a novice paddler in the bow; according to eyewitnesses the boat flipped as it emerged from the maelstrom, and when his partner made it to shore she swore she would never boat with Turk again. 

A year or so later he led a group of Telluride locals on a climbing expedition to Ladakh; when rockfalls began bombarding the area around their base camp and Turk shrugged it off and balked at shifting locations, the other climbers abandoned the expedition and flew home.

But these are really minor outtakes in the grand saga of Turk’s life as an adventurer; I only include them to show his human side, the Don Qixote aspect of this modern Ulysses. 

Over the last decades Turk, often alone, sometimes with one or another partner, lived on the outermost edge of the wild, in the Arctic and the Antarctic for the most part, playing with the limits of possibility. Alone, rounding Patagonia’s coast, a freak wave snapped his kayak in two and he barely made it to shore; almost all of his gear was lost, but he managed to save his camp stove, which saved him from hypothermia, and his satellite phone, which eventually brought rescuers. On his marathon sea kayak hegira from Siberia to Alaska, following prehistoric migration routes, he and a friend once found their boats gripped by a powerful current which threatened to pull them away from the shore south into the vast Northern Pacific.  If they surrendered to the surge for even a few moments they would have been lost, dragged out of sight of land never to be seen again.  They paddled frantically for hours and hours, just to maintain their position.  When they finally managed to beach, they found themselves on a narrow ledge with barely enough room to jury rig their tent and take shelter. The ledge was trampled with polar-bear tracks, from edge to edge; it was obviously the route the bears used every day to visit their seal-hunting grounds. Staying there for even an hour seemed like sure suicide, but they had no choice; they crawled into the damp, spray-soaked tent and passed out.  Somehow, no bears appeared while they lay there for hours and hours, unconscious. When their bodies had revived just enough to function again, they broke camp, boarded their kayaks and continued their voyage east….

Turk’s books aren’t really about Turk; there’s not a speck of real egotism on them. His concerns are broad, deep and selfless: the plight of Inuit and Siberian reindeer-herding tribes in a plundered, poisoned environment; the fate of oceanic mammals like narwhals, seals and walruses; the enduring wisdom of the ancients, like the century-old Siberian woman shaman who is the focus of Turk’s last book, The Raven’s Gift.  And a dark thread of sorrow and loss runs through them,

especially in the saga of Turk’s long, troubled love for a woman as wild and lonesome as he is; he joins up with her, loses her, finds her again, drives her away with his fierce, sometimes cruel intensity….

And they finally marry, only to have her die in an avalanche while they are skiing together in the wilderness. The territory Turk calls home isn’t for the weak or faint of heart. In one heartbreaking incident, the women of an Inuit tribe ask him if he was troubled by ghosts when he camped at the ruins of an abandoned trading post.  It turns out that in a famine year the tribe was faced with starvation, and to ward off annihilation, the women threw their babies over the cliff behind the trading post, sacrificing those they loved the most so that somehow life could go on. And yet when you hear Turk speak, he is one of the funniest men on earth, with a sense of the ridiculous that never wanes.  

There is really no one like Jon Turk, and nothing remotely like his remarkable books – Cold Oceans, In the Wake of the Jomon and The Raven’s Gift.
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