Big Finish: Boomer Details the Ellesmere Adventure

'This walrus with foot-long tusks coming at me was something very new' -EB

By Tim Mutrie
Photos and captions by Erik Boomer

Discounting Alert (pop. 5) and Eureka (pop. 0), Ellesmere Island in the high Canadian Arctic has one settlement that might be called a community, and that’s Grise Fiord (pop. 141), according to 2006 census figures. Located on one of Ellesmere’s southerly tips, Grise Fiord is home to at least one nurse. It’s also where Jon Turk, 65, and Erik Boomer, 26, launched their 1,495 statute-mile circumnavigation attempt of the island, on May 7.

On Aug. 19, 104 days later, the duo paddled back into Grise Fiord, having completed the island’s first circumnavigation. They skied and walked, towing their boats, about 850 miles, and paddled the remaining 600 or so. The finish, though, was strangely anti-climatic at the time, according to Boomer. “There was no hooray moment, ‘we made it,’” Boomer says. “And 36 hours after finishing the adventure, the adventure kicked back on again with Jon’s renal failure.”

Major organ failure is a serious situation no matter where you are, but it’s ever more dire in Grise Fiord. Three days after the onset of his kidney failure, when fog cleared and enabled a medivac jet to fly in, Turk was flown to definitive care in the U.S. And while Turk’s condition has stabilized—he is now resting at home in Montana—he said it’s not clear yet whether he will make a full recovery. In separate interviews, though, it’s clear both Turk and Boomer’s sense of humor—that hard-to-quantify, yet essential ingredient for success on far-flung, out there expeditions such as this one—remain in tact. Said Boomer, with a chuckle: “Jon should be getting the catheter out anyday now, and he should be fired up for that.”

Boomer made it back home to Boise, Idaho, on Sept. 2. And in an extensive interview with C&K, on Sept. 9, he went deep in detailing the one-of-a-kind adventure with Turk, a guy he hardly knew beforehand and a guy he now describes as, “like a brother… a 40 year age-difference brother.”

Stay tuned for more from Turk in a coming issue of the magazine, and here at CanoeKayak.com. Meantime, find our earlier coverage of the “odd couple adventurers” here:

• June 17: On the Phone from Ellesmere Island
• May 31: Ellesmere Island Update: Eureka!
• May 12: Boomer, Turk Off to Ellesmere Island
• Feb. 28: An Unlikely Union at Ellesmere Island

C&K: Let’s start at the end. How did things play out with Jon’s health situation? “It was about 36 hours after we completed the expedition. We stayed a night in a house where we began the trip. And he woke up in a lot of pain, without being able to pee. We zipped him over to a health office—they have one nurse for the entire community—and they ran a bunch of tests, and they found out his kidneys weren’t working.”

“So we called in Global Rescue, which is an awesome, awesome rescue insurance company by the way. We had to wait three days before a jet was able to get in there, because of the fog, and once he got further south they ran all the blood work. And they were all pretty appalled at how bad his blood was, and really glad they got him down there when they did. … Right when they went to hook him up to the dialysis machine, his kidneys kicked back on and started working. So he was in the hospital for six days, but he’s home now in the forest of Montana.”

Do you miss him? “Yeah, [laughter], but you know, it’s nice to do your own thing after being in such a tight and intense relationship. But I’ll be over there soon to see him, and I’ll probably have a big smile on my face when I do.”

As far as medical emergencies go on Ellesmere Island, your timing was pretty good there. “I don’t know what we would’ve done if it happened a week earlier or whatever, because there are no other landing strips. Who knows how long it would’ve taken to get a rescue up there. So we were extremely fortunate it worked out the way it did. But we had a whole lot of that kind of luck the whole way. Things couldn’t have worked out any other way.”

The last we talked, you were on Day 38, staring down the crux of the route. Take us along from there. “Within that week, we made it to our food cache, and that week went pretty good. But then we picked up this food and we became the heaviest of the whole trip, with 60 days of food and fuel. And that made it much more difficult—headlands, bays, more headlands, and every single headland after our cache got significantly tougher.”

“We kept up a pretty strong pace of mileage given the conditions and the problems; pressure ridges and broken up pieces of ice. But we were able to work through that, and utilitze the edge of glaciers or land, so if we were able to travel 10 or 12 miles a day, maybe it’d be three miles of really rough stuff.”

“The ice was melting really quickly though, so our options on land were running out, and everywhere else it was really deep, wet slushy snow. The skis didn’t work. My half ski became a third of a ski and I tried it for about a day and just gave up on it. So we just huffed it for 150 miles.”

Ellesmere Island Map

How did Jon’s skis hold up? “They had significant cracks, but they never quite gave out. And to be honest, it’s really fortunate that Jon’s renal failure happened when it did, but other things were like that too. When my skis broke, they broke at the perfect time, because they weren’t working anymore, it was just as effective to walk.”

What’s the difference between statute miles, nautical miles and regular miles? “[Laughter] Statute miles are like American miles, but we were calling off miles in nautical miles, because for maps and navigation, it works smoothly. But a nautical is 1.18 regular miles. … My brother always gives me sh**: why don’t you talk in normal miles, man?”

So how much time did you spend in the boats? “Having said what I said about the difificult travel conditions, we hit a point where we litterally were not able to travel in the style we were traveling. We hit a point where the ocean was all these pieces of broken ice. … It was just huge cliffs and bad ice, and the ice was traveling four or five miles a day, so a lot of movement. One idea we had was to jump out on a large piece of ice and sail it through a strait. So we hopped on some ice, set up camp, and joked about being on a big ice breaker ship. Then we woke up in the middle of the night and had drifted four or five miles north—the wrong way, and up against these cliffs.”

“We were there for 16 days, on the corner of the island trying to round the corner and go south. There’s a funnel between Greenland and Ellesmere, and all the ice funnels through there, and it’s also a real cliffy section of land. So we were stuck.”

“The transition was very difficult at first—just being stuck there—but once the winds shifted and pulled the ice off shore, it created a channel of water for us to paddle in. So we hopped in our boats and paddled 22 miles in probably 20 hours or so. It was about 9 o’clock at night when we set out. So that was a real abrupt, quick change considering all we were dealing with.”

So what happens if (when?) you fall in the water. “I slipped in, Jon slipped in, we both slipped in once—into the freezing cold Arctic Ocean. But we made sure we always traveled real tight together and helped each other when we were seal launching off of a piece of ice, or climbing a piece of ice, because there was always danger. And there was also danger of being squashed by the ice. Sometimes we’d have to make a decision to get on top of ice or else we’d be squashed by it, or the channel we were taking would be closing up.”

Firewood doesn’t seem to be much of an industry, so you can’t just build a fire ala Jack London, right? “That’s a great question. [Laughter] First, right, there’s no wood to build a fire. But we did have the stove. Fortunately for us, when we did fall in, the sun was still high in the sky, so if you kept moving, exerting a lot of energy, and couple that with the sun, it dried the clothes right out. Later in the trip the sun wasn’t out that often, so we were just really cold the whole time.”

What about your photos that show Jon strolling through pools of water? “When the ice began melting we started wearing neopreme socks instead of wool. So we were getting wet but we stayed warm.”

Seriously though, these are real dangers. “We were prepared to end up in Greenland sometimes. [Laughter]. But we were pushing it on the hypothermia thing. I didn’t think about it at the time, but we were definitely shivering and cold on the whole last month of the trip. Because of the complexity of the expedition, everything we brought had to have dual purposes, so we didn’t bring paddling pants or really warm boots, so we’d be wearing ski pants with long underwear underneath and everyday they’d drenched through when we were in the boats.”

What was it like to experience an Arctic summer in the intimate style you guys did? “Jon and I talked about that quite a bit on the trip. And Jon may have some good things to add, but one thing that we observed and talked about is how we were watching the ice change and the seasons literally go through these transitions—from frozen to open and then at the end it was starting to freeze again. And one way we were looking at it was, ‘Well, how do we hope to change on this trip? Do we hope this expedition changes us?’ We’d be watching the ice and its changes and also looking at ourselves about changes in our life.”

So, how so for you? “For me, it was awesome. And it’s actually just what I’ve been wanting to do since I’ve been a little guy, since I decided I wanted to be a professional kayaker, in 8th grade or something. I had no idea what that would look like, just that it was being on adventures and kayaking. And to be able to spend 104 days on one adventure and let my kayak be my craft of choice, it’s just been more of what I’ve been wanting to do—instead of driving in a car to some run and then driving back. Just more time in my boat on more extended trips.”

“Watching the ice change and melt and how we moved through it, it gave me a different perspective on changes and transitions. Changes and transisitions are always difficult, you have to literally change your method working through it, but they’re bound to happen. And sometimes they move more slowly or more difficultly than you’d like, but it happens. And when you look back, those transition times can seem like the most fun times of the whole deal.”

Please describe your relationship with Jon. “Almost like a family member. You share some of the greatest experiences of your life with this person. You go through a variety of emotions and deal with a variety of challenges and, because of that, we both learned a bunch about ourselves and sometimes at the expense of each other. And that’s part of the deal of getting to know somebody some well. But we sure came off as better friends, galvanized in that way—like a brother… a 40 year age-difference brother. It can’t be compared to any other kind of relationship. Something so intense; you’re always working together, always making decisions, and because of that you’re getting the best, and sometimes the worst. And I certainly learned about being a better person in those kinds of intense situations and relationships, and I think Jon feels the same way.”

Were there any defining moments in terms of changes in the ice? “One example: On the southeast coast, as we were coming up to a particular set of glaciers that come down to the ocean… and it was a set that Jon had been to in 1988—from Jon’s book, Cold Oceans. Jon was like, ‘When we come around this corner, you’re gonna be blown away—cliffs coming down to the ocean.’ But we could’ve paddled right up onto the thing. It had lost literally hundreds of feet of ice, and in fact we took a picture so you could compare and contrast what it used to be.”

At any point did you think of, or discuss, pulling the plug? “Good question. But because we left ourselves very few options, there was no point on the trip where we could say, ‘This sucks, let’s pull the plug and go home.’ The only option was serious injury and a multimillion dollar-type rescue. So that wasn’t really in the picture. But when we were stuck for those 16 days, we certainly had some conversations if the thing was even doable. We didn’t really know how difficult it was gonna be to move through that constriction area. But we also said we’d be willing to wait another three weeks to move through it. We had enough food and time in the year. We would’ve been burning emergency rations, but we would’ve had to play the ‘Hey we’re starving, we’re not gonna make it, we really need help card.’”

“But we had to laugh at ourselves because we were finishing the trip three to four weeks after we made that decision. … The perspective is so low being in the ocean. If there’s much ice at all, it completely fills your field of vsion. You can’t see the forest for the trees sorta deal. But at one point, we’d say, ‘Hey buddy, it looks like our issues with ice are over. Here we go.’ And then we’d run into more ice. But then again within four or five hours of working through the ice we’d be back into the open water again. So that was the cycle. The ice kept it interesting just like that just about every single day.”

“And then you’d get out of the water, freezing cold, making these hops, and it was just really, really mental, and you’d have to move for an hour or two before you’d ever hit the end of it.”

What was coming home like? “It was great. I wrestled around with my dad a bit, and it was amazing to see my mom. I still haven’t seen my brother and niece and nephews, but I’ll see ‘em in a week… But it’s been awesome. You get away from friends and family and you have time to think about priorities in life, and who cares about me and whatnot, and it’s fun to come back with a fresh perspective and spend time with important people.”

The nature of this trip is interesting—there was no metaphoric summit to climb, except perhaps for finishing back at Grise Fiord. How did this factor into the mental game out there? “Psychologically, I got pretty commited to being on that trip, and toward the end I started thinking about being home and some things I wanted to do. But because of the nature of the trip and the constantly changing environment, as soon as I’d do that, we’d get chased by a walrus or a polar bear and that’d snap me back to reality. So it just sorta became normal life. There wasn’t anything else, and that’s really what life is. You’re there. And I think in working through those challenges, I’m hoping to bringing that into my everyday life—the adventure, the excitement, the specialness of every single day, and continually taking on challenges and having fun with them.”

“So, no, other than pulling into that town that we began from, there was no hooray moment, ‘we made it.’ And 36 hours after finishing the adventure, the adventure kicked back on again with Jon’s renal failure. And that’s life too; there’s always unpredicabilty to it, always unknowns in front of you, and making the most of it and having fun.”

What gear do you wish you had brought? And what gear did you bring that you wish you hadn’t? “I had one day where I went through all my stuff. I pulled out some extra gloves, extra socks, extra underwear, and I poured a little gas on them and set ‘em on fire to lighten the load. That felt really good, sorta like cleaning house.”

“For the most part, we had what we needed. But once we got paddling, I wish I would’ve brought a full body dry suit, instead of just a dry top. I love to just keep my feet dry, if possible. But it was like we were soaking in a bucket of ice water for that last month. … We were as close to freezing as you could be without freezing. My feet are still numb actually.”

Frostbite? “Definitely no frostbite. I think it’s just pretty standard after skiing 800 miles, and then the fact we were soaking them in that cold water. I heard it may go away after a month or two. The blood flow is good, the movement is good, but the heels and the toes are a bit tingly. If it doesn’t go away, I’ll get ‘em checked out.”

Wildlife. Any close encounters? “We had about 20 close encounters with different bear. And I got attacked by the one walrus, which was really scary. We’d been paddling by a lot of walrus and they minded their own business, so we’d kind of gotten used to ‘em. But one particular day, this walrus surfaced 30 yards ahead and then went down. We were just paddling along, not even talking. But then I felt my boat lift and drop down a bit. And it was him swimming underneath me. It happened really fast, in 10 or 15 seconds, and he came out of the water right behind me. Male walruses are 2,000 to 4,000 pounds, so really big, and we’d probably seen 40 or 50 walrus, and the behavior this one was exhibiting was something we’d never seen.”

“But the walrus came clear out of the water—his head was over my head—and I could’ve literally poked him in the eyeball with my finger. So I stuck my paddle in his face, sorta like a Heisman stiff arm. There was a large wake. I lost my momentum, and I kinda stalled and spun out. Jon said later he was surprised I stayed upright, and I sorta had to brace. But I’m pretty used to being in boily water and skipping down rocks. But this walrus with foot-long tusks coming at me was something very new. So I turned and hit it the face and just tried to feed him my paddle to keep him off me and my boat.”

“Then he came at me again. I started paddling and I think we outran him or he got bored with us. … If you’re bored, you should Google walrus vs. bear, or walrus fights, because they’re supposed to be more dangerous than the polar bears.”

Did you ever capsize in your boats? “We never did capsize. That would’ve been another level of danger, because there were some times when we were really far from shore, and that would’ve put us into another level of danger in terms of hypothermia. And if that had happened there, I think the walrus would’ve sucked my guts out.”

“The legend is that if a walrus kills somebody, the way they feed, they dig around on the bottom of the ocean and get clams and mussels and they suck all the meat out. So, if they get a human body, they suck out your intestines and stomach. I don’t know if you want to put that in there, but that’s the rumor.”

Any plans for a book? “I’ve got my photos, and we want them to document the trip, and I know Jon is planning on using a lot of the examples and stories from the trip, but last I spoke to him he didn’t have specific plans for a book. But he did always say, ‘Man, there’s enough that’s happened on this trip that could write a darn book on the thing.’ So who knows.”

“Our orignal plan was to have a documentary film, and Tyler [Bradt] was going to be doing that, so not having him made doing video tricky with just two of us.”

How much weight did you guys lose on the trip? “I know I came in at about 185, and at the end I weighed 169. I think it was about the same for Jon. At one point, I know we were down 20 pounds.”

What are you craving now now that you’re back, food-wise? “I love maple syrup, especially Quebec maple syrup. But really anything greasy and fried, and vegetables, is my ticket. Mostly, I’m just eating a lot. I’m gonna have to either increase my activitiy or decrease my diet here pretty soon, or it’s gonnna start showing up.”

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  • Becki Parsi

    Amazing!

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