Interview by Jeff Moag
Trained as an organic chemist, Jon Turk realized early on that he wasn’t cut out for the buttoned-down life of a research scientist. So he put his PhD in a drawer and worked whatever odd jobs gave him the flexibility to pursue his passion for the outdoors. He framed houses, worked on fishing boats, raised chickens and eventually wrote 27 college science textbooks, a fortunate gig that afforded him the luxury of New York wages without having to live anywhere near a city. Turk has also written four books rooted in his lifelong pursuit of what he calls Deep Wild. That quest has been the impetus for a number of groundbreaking expeditions, including a two-year kayak crossing of the North Pacific, a healing journey among the Koryak people of Siberia, and a 104-day circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island by ski and kayak. The latter, completed in 2011 when Turk was 65 and his expedition partner Erik Boomer was 27, is a central theme in his thoughtful new memoir, Crocodiles and Ice (Oolichan Books), which makes a strong case for living your passion, whatever it may be.
At a very early age, as early as I can remember, I would just disappear into the forest. There was a deep peace when I went into the forest. I found something there that’s indescribable.
I just love the feeling of remoteness and that feeling can come in many ways. It can be way out there in the middle of Ellesmere, it can be in the middle of a Class V rapid, it can be climbing a big wall where you just have to suck it in and go, ‘Okay, I can’t screw up.’ I love that feeling.
We had a day on Ellesmere where we’re sleeping and all of a sudden there’s a polar bear’s head inside the tent. Why didn’t that polar bear eat us?
My PhD work was trying to envision how electrons behave. You can’t see an electron; no one has seen or ever will see an electron, but the behavior of these electrons affects everything—how you cook an egg or how you build a rocket ship, everything.
I had instrument time from 10 p.m. until dawn and I’d be down in the basement by myself, vaporizing molecules and blasting them with electrons and trying through my instrumentation to visualize something no one will ever see. I had a lot of fun down there.
So now you get into adventuring at a high level and there’s the physical element. You’re pushing yourself into this world that you can’t see, a dimension that you can’t really pin down.
You can go into the desert and fast for 40 days and seek it, but I’m not that kind of guy. I really like having fun.
I’m kind of a preacher about this, but when you get into the fancy house you have to realize that it’s so expensive it’s going to cost you your freedom.
I literally had my car packed and my canoe on top and walked out of my PhD exam. We floated the Mackenzie River and then carried over and went down the Yukon. I never worked one day as a chemist.
My first big trip was around Cape Horn. Nobody would do it with me and I wasn’t really experienced enough to attempt it, but I did. I smashed up right at the end of Tierra del Fuego and walked back to civilization and went back when I was 50 and repeated the journey and actually got around Cape Horn.
Extreme athletes talk about this ‘second person’ — some other spirit that gives them a power and focus beyond the ordinary. But as soon as you say, ‘spirit,’ people think about fairies and goblins, and I don’t want to get into fairies and goblins.
Nobody had to die that day. Two of us skied and lived. Will and Chris, my wife, took more aggressive lines and they died.
Sometimes I blame Chris for skiing the boldest line and sometimes I blame myself for being there at all.
A lot of my friends are dead and a lot of the dead ones were better than I ever was. There’s no magic, only luck that kept me alive.
You have things happen that you could interpret statistically and mathematically as a probability function, or could interpret as some kind of deep communication with the cosmos.
Why does the polar bear not eat you? Your brain and the polar bear’s brain, basically 98 percent of the DNA is the same, and there becomes this communication and the polar bear decides not to eat you and you decide not to shoot the polar bear. That’s really cool.
You know, I’m 70 or something now and I look at things other people have an incredible, deep passion for. For us it’s skiing powder or boating or expeditions. For some people, it’s music or gardening. I don’t want someone to think that our way is the only right way.
I’d like to have a lot of faith in the human race that we’re going to pull this out, but there’s a lot going against us right now. We know technically how to solve our problems, but we’re not solving them. In spades, we’re not doing it.
The big problems of climate change and overpopulation and over-extraction of resources are kind of scary, but the theme of Crocodiles and Ice is that there are ways to live a sustainable life and maintain some kind of sanity.
It’s okay to ignore 99 percent of what culture tells you and live your passion. I think that by itself is an important contribution.
Or order an autographed copy from Jon Turk directly at: Jon@jonturk.net