This story is featured in the May 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.
Words by Jon Turk Photographs by Erik Boomer
An ice floe the size of a football field drifted slowly toward the cliff, rotated, and buckled. The air filled with a human-like groan, followed by a sharp crack that echoed off the nearby mountain. Ice crystals exploded and threw rainbows in the sunshine, while 10-foot thick chunks of ice rose 30 feet out of the sea and smeared against solid rock.
Boomer and I were trapped.
An ocean current was driving the North Pole ice pack into the Robeson Channel, a 12-mile wide constriction between Ellesmere Island and the northern coast of Greenland. Behind this floe, a seemingly infinite reservoir of polar ice was moving southward under compression of tectonic magnitude. Our path was blocked.
We were an odd couple to contemplate spending eternity together. Erik Boomer is 40 years younger than me, closer in age to my grandchildren than to my children. He is a world-class whitewater paddler, who before this expedition had never sat in a sea kayak. I was 65 years old, and though I hadn't paddled a Class V river in a number of years, I'd rounded Cape Horn and crossed the North Pacific in a sea kayak.
Despite, or perhaps because of our differences, we had already traveled 750 miles across the arctic icepack, dragging our loaded kayaks over the snow and tortured ice, wading through melt-water pools, and occasionally crawling in heavy slush and ice. We had learned to work together and rely on one another. We were a team now, and we both felt it deep down, where it counts.
We were in this predicament together: Between our two little selves and the first output of civilization lay more than 750 miles of hard travel. We had food for days, and for 17 days we had gone nowhere. We were trapped. If we ventured into dangerous ice, we could be crushed. But if we waited for optimal conditions, we could sit here until our food was gone and winter descended. In order to survive, we needed to find that razor thin edge between boldness and caution.
Bill Bradt is an old river-running buddy. When his son Tyler was 6 or 7 years old, we sat him in a kayak and launched down the West Fork of the Bitterroot, near our homes in Western Montana. He looked so tiny in that cockpit, elbows raised so he could dip his paddle in the water. Over the years, I watched Tyler grow into that kayak. Then suddenly, it seemed, as Bill and I became progressively older and slower, Tyler was testing his extraordinary talent on the most difficult whitewater on the planet, including a record-setting plunge over 186-foot Palouse Falls in 2009.
Then, one day, an email popped up. "Hey, maybe we should do an expedition together?"
Age was creeping up. Sixty-five feels significantly older than 60. Yet I had one big expedition dream left to fulfill: a 1,500-mile circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island by ski and sea kayak. I'd thought about it since 1988, when Chris Seashore and I had paddled from Ellesmere to Greenland. The towering glaciers, moving ice, and stark exposure of that vast and uninhabited seascape had captured my imagination. Incredibly, no one had attempted the circumnavigation, one of the last great prizes in the Arctic. Tyler and I agreed to attempt it together.
We would use two food drops and carry provisions for 100 days, meaning that we'd need to average 15 miles—half a marathon—every day for more than three months. Experienced polar explorers warned us that rough ice on the North Coast would slow our passage to a mile a day, or a few hundred yards, or nothing at all. And once the ice broke up in late summer, we would be paddling overloaded boats through open water exposed to Arctic storms. Over coffee in Duluth, Minn., Lonnie Dupre, who had circumnavigated Greenland in 2001, advised me that our bodies would simply not withstand the torture of 100 continuous days. We'd need to rest along the way, he said. We wouldn't have enough food or time to rest, yet for no rational reason, the circumnavigation still seemed possible to us.
The advice did convince us to add more muscle to our team. Tyler suggested Erik Boomer, a whitewater charger revered for his physical strength and clear-headed optimism. When we described the trip's many challenges and the experts' warnings, Boomer smiled casually as if we were discussing a trade run of a local river. "Sure," he said. "I'm in."
Eddie Bauer-First Ascent became our major sponsor and we won a Polartec Grant. Wilderness Systems provided boats, and AT donated paddles. Then, on March 21, less than six weeks before our planned departure, another email popped up. It was from Tyler, and the subject line read "Bad News."
"Hi guys, I really fucked up. My boat flattened out halfway down a big falls and I broke my back. I’ll know a lot more in the morning when I talk to the neurosurgeon."
Tyler would eventually make a full recovery, but if Boomer and I were to attempt the Ellesmere circumnavigation, it would be without Tyler. He was the force holding us together, the apex of our human triangle. Now Boomer and I were two strangers, 40 years apart, preparing to travel together in total isolation, for more than three months, with the assurance that we would face life-and-death decisions.
Many people have insisted that I must have had reservations about traveling so far and so long with a stranger, a generation younger than me. We had no music, no books, no playing cards, just eight rumpled, torn out pages of the Tao Te Ching. What would we talk about? How would we resolve differences in the face of tense situations? We had plenty to worry about in the days before flying north, but I always trusted Boomer. Previously, I had kayaked 2,000 across the North Pacific Rim with Misha Petrov, a Russian who had never been in a kayak before. I think you can trust a person by recognizing the madness that propels them, and in Boomer's madness I saw my own.
In 1971, I had stuffed my Ph.D. diploma in the glove box of a ratty old Ford Fairlane, lashed a canoe on top, and headed into the Arctic. Boomer had also experimented with possessions and jobs. He put them aside to go North and run the Stikine, and the Susitna, and Turnback Canyon on the Alsek. We'd miss Tyler's magnetic personality and booming laugh, but an even stronger thread would hold Boomer and I together—the mischievous grin of the Arctic wilderness.
Boomer and I set off on May 7 from Grise Fiord, the northernmost hamlet in Canada and the only civilian settlement on the island. This would be my retirement party–one last journey into a world that had shaped my life since I dropped out of research chemistry 40 years ago. Boomer was seeking a new vision of adventure, expanded from his already formidable accomplishments as a world-class whitewater boater.
The temperature was in the mid teens when we skied out of town, pulling our kayaks as sleds across a frozen ocean. We were carrying 25 days of food, and our total loads, including the boats, weighed 225 pounds. Everything was a compromise because every piece of gear, from kayaks to underwear, had to function in three radically different environments—winter on dry snow; break up and slush; and open water arctic paddling. The Wilderness Systems Tsunami 135, advertised on the company website as "ideal for female and small-framed paddlers," was clearly smaller than we would have liked, but it was the largest boat that fit into the airplane that flies to Grise.
The first leg of the journey was 400 miles to the Canadian weather station at Eureka, on the west coast of the island. In the frenzy of preparation, I'd glued and screwed my skins on backwards so now I hobbled along like a skateboarder with square wheels. Boomer's boots didn't fit well and after a few days he constructed new footwear out of silver tape and scraps of shoe-like material he scavenged from an outlying hunting cabin.
The temperature dropped to below zero, and the north wind blew the snow into rock-hard drifts. We pulled our hoods tight against frozen faces and trudged past polar bear tracks and herds of muskoxen. One day we disagreed on whether to take a short cut overland, and on another day we argued about whether we should take a short cut across the sea ice. But, very quickly, we learned to trust each other. It wasn't a verbalized emotion, but like the eight water-stained pages of the Tao, it just was. And anyway, as the Tao teachers reminded us, no one knew the answers to the most pressing questions, such as, "How far can we push our bodies today, and still travel every day for three and a half months?" "How many miles can we maintain on will-power alone, and when do we tickle the dragon of basic metabolic limitations?" We had no idea, at the start, how perilously close we would come to answering that question.
We resupplied at Eureka weather station, which is distinguished for having the lowest average annual temperature of any weather station in Canada. It squatted on a hillside like a space ship out of time: gleaming stainless steel kitchens, hot water, internet, and television. We rested for a day and a half and packed for the next leg of our expedition, to a food cache on the north coast, 350 miles away.
We'd been travelling on the west coast Ellesmere, in the lee of nearby Axel Heiberg Island. Protected from the currents and waves of the open ocean, the sea ice here forms a relatively smooth surface, making travel easy. In contrast, the North Coast is exposed to the continuously churning, moving, colliding, North Polar ice pack. We heard reports of nearly impenetrable pressure ridges, formed from colliding multi-year ice.
So, did we need food for 20 days, or 50? Or was the passage impossible? Should we turn back and abort the mission at the first encounter with rough ice? Or push on into the mayhem, risking the unpleasant possibility of starving to death in the middle of it—unable to move forward, and too far along to retreat?
The line between courage and foolishness is drawn only after the fat lady sings. If you make it, you were courageous. If you die, all the Monday morning quarterbacks can puff up their chests and call you a fool. We set off with 50 days of food, which was as much as we could carry, mandating that we average seven miles a day.
All along the northwest coast, Boomer and I found magic passages through potentially jagged ice. On many headlands, mini glaciers flowed into the sea, providing smooth snow and seamless travel over land. Thus, we continued onward into the summer solstice, feeling lucky and clever, yet always apprehensive that tomorrow would be the day that our path was blocked.
The miles passed underfoot, but they didn't come easy. Our feet became blistered and swollen, and our bodies ached. Every day, by late afternoon, my brain was too tired to process the input from my eyes, so I saw double and blurry. I relied on Boomer's younger vision and incredible strength to find routes through the ice.
By mid-June, the summer sun had melted the previous season's snow cover, revealing sharp chunks of pressure ridge ice. Boomer's skis broke. He moved his bindings and pushed ahead on the stubs. In this way we crossed the 350 miles in 22 days, found our cache, and celebrated with Pringles and rum. Now loaded to 300 pounds, we set out again, still dragging our boats. Near Cape Hecla, we finally encountered the feared maze of pressure ridges. Rock cliffs lined the shore and the sea had metamorphosed into a kaleidoscope of jagged ice, deep slush, and frigid freshwater lakes that pooled on the surface. We walked, paddled, or pushed along with ski poles through the meltwater pools, helped each other over the steepest ice, and crawled across the slush on hands and knees because we couldn't get enough traction using just our feet. When you're soaking wet and crawling across super-saturated snow, it doesn't do any good to remind yourself that you still have 800 miles to go.
On the afternoon of July 4th, we rounded the northeast corner of Ellesmere into the Robeson Channel. Here, the sun and current had fractured the ice into independently moving floes. Some were many acres in size, while others were as large as a house, or a tent, or a baseball. A current was driving ice from the North Polar Sea southward, into the narrow constriction between Ellesmere and Greenland. As a result, all the floes were compressed together, churning, spinning, and threatening to crush anything in their path.
We climbed to a rocky headland and watched the ice parade along the coast, imagining the despair that turn-of-the-century explorers must have felt as their stout wooden ships were crushed in the mayhem. We discussed the unpleasant option of walking to Grise Fiord, overland and half starved, after the ocean froze again in the fall. But when we tried to imagine a route over the mountains, with no climbing gear and not even adequate backpacks, we realized that it was impossible. We had to get through the ice.
The days ticked by. Occasionally, we made a mile, or two, or three. For nine days we sat in our tent, going nowhere. Every day the sun settled lower in the sky, reminding us that even though we still enjoyed 24 hour daylight, winter would soon descend upon us with Polar speed and ferocity. Our food supply dwindled. Boldness or caution? Caution or boldness? Too much of either would kill us. We sat on the shore and watched the parade of ice. Think out of the box. There must be a way. Finally, we convinced ourselves to risk a treacherous passage across moving ice onto one of the large floes. Our theory was that if we chose a floe strong enough to withstand collisions with the rest of the ice, we could ride it southward with the current.
On July 13th, a large floe, about five to ten acres in size and consisting of thick, multiyear ice, floated to within 400 yards of shore. We reasoned that this floe would survive the ravages of continuous collisions and provide a safe "ship" to carry us south. The current slowed at slack tide, giving us a narrow time window to cross from shore to the floe. The intervening distance was choked with small pieces of ice floating in a watery matrix. Some of this ice was large and stable enough to stand on, but other floes were small and tippy. We attached a long line to the boats and jumped from one unstable fragment of ice to another, until we reached the safety of the first large chunk. Then we pulled the boats across to join us. But now our continued passage was blocked by a small open channel wider than we dared jump across. So, Boomer bridged the gap with his kayak and crawled across the deck, in a gymnastic tightrope act. I followed. Next, we seal-launched into an even wider passage, paddled a few boat lengths, and climbed out of the boats and back onto the ice. Moving in this eclectic manner, we traveled a quarter of a mile in three hours.
Once we reached the large floe, we high fived, and set up our tent in the warm sunshine. We were determined to stay aboard this enormous ice shard for a week or more, if necessary, through all changes in tide and weather, as it carried us effortlessly toward Grise Fiord. Initially our GPS told us that we were heading south at 0.3 to 0.4 knots. That's not much, but if sustained, it would multiply to 4-5 miles a day, which is significantly faster than nothing. Boomer stood on a pressure ridge and held an imaginary steering wheel in his hand, grinning with joy and pretending he was the captain of a massive diesel-munching ice breaker.
At the next slack tide, the floe stopped, and then, in the middle of the night, began drifting north with the ebb at 1 knot. We were traveling the wrong way at more than twice the speed of our earlier southward passage. The ice compression relaxed and open water stretched all around us. Then, the ice started squeezing together again. I couldn't tell whether we were drifting north and the ice to the north of us was stationary, or if we were stationary and the ice to the north was crashing into us. In any case, in the semi twilight of the Arctic night, the surrounding water became smaller and smaller as if it were being sucked into a black hole. The collision occurred with a slushy, wooshy sound, not a metallic clang. The edges of our floe crumpled and fractured, shooting ice splinters into the air, while the center, where we were huddled together in fear and awe, rippled, as it were impacted by an earthquake. There is no metaphor to describe what was happening. This wasn't like anything. It was the arctic icepack compressing and fracturing into rubble.
At the next slack water, we reversed our tenuous and terrifying passage across small floes and returned to terra firma, having traveled a net distance of one mile away from our goal.
For the next week, we inched southward, averaging about 1,200 yards a day. In places where the shoreline was still covered with winter snowdrifts, we dragged overland. Occasionally we paddled short distances between giant pressure ridges, and once we portaged over talus and rock. Several days we waited, going nowhere. Finally we reached a zone where steep cliffs dropped sharply into the sea. We could no longer travel a mile or two and return safely to land. If we were caught in the strait when the ice closed in on us, we would be crushed by unimaginable forces.
A good friend, Paul Attalla had advised us, "Be patient. Don't do anything stupid." We broke our bags apart, counted our food, and then grimly packed everything up again. Don't do anything stupid? Fine. It would be stupid to paddle into the ice and get crushed, and equally stupid to wait and starve.
We needed a south wind to push the ice out of the way, and hold it clear for the five hours it would take us to race past the cliffs and reach the next safe landing. On the morning of July 21, the compression seemed to be easing up, and we had a weather report of favorable wind. We paddled into narrow channels between the floes. A 20-foot iceberg collapsed moments after I paddled past it. "Ok, no worries," I told myself. "Nothing bad actually happened." But I couldn't stop worrying any more than I could stop breathing.
In whitewater, the current is flowing, but at least the rocks stay still. Here, everything was moving, so there was no stable reality. Our open-water channel slammed shut, so we dragged our boats onto a large floe, and started hiking toward the south edge, where a remnant of open water remained. Boomer was ahead and urged me to move faster, but I was going all out. There was no "faster" left inside me. No, this wasn't right. We couldn't continue if our survival constantly depended on split-second timing.
We traveled another mile, until just offshore of Cape Union, fear overpowered desperation. Reluctantly, we retraced our tenuous steps to our old camp, elated to be unscathed.
We slept to let the adrenaline drain away. When we woke, even more open water presented itself, so we paddled out for a second time that day. But after about half a mile, we got scared again and retreated. Discouraged, we pitched the tent and ate dinner. It seemed as if we would never leave this place. After all, when Adolphus Greely set up camp to the south of us in 1881, he was isolated for three years before a resupply ship could break through. Nineteen of the original 25 men died of starvation, drowning, hypothermia, and, in one case, firing squad. Greely ordered the man shot for steeling food, after which his comrades may have eaten him (no one knows for sure). I wanted to close my eyes and stop thinking about our predicament, but Boomer took one last scouting mission to watch the ice. He returned breathlessly.
"Looks good out there. I think we can go for it."
For the third time that day, we paddled southward toward the rock-bound coastline. The summer sun had swung into the northern sky to cast a subdued grayness across the seascape, offset by the soft white glow of the ice. We were already exhausted from our previous two ordeals, but this is the moment you live for as an adventurer. It is comparable to pulling out of an eddy into a big rapid, or turning skis into the fall line and dropping into a steep, snaking couloir. It is the moment when you must trust yourself and your partner absolutely and completely. A trust earned by traveling across the arctic, alone together. It is the glorious moment when fear vaporizes because you have decided to commit, and fear is now a needless distraction.
A major league baseball player reaches the Hall of Fame if he connects once out of every three times at bat. An NBA basketball player draws a multimillion dollar salary if he hits 50 percent. An adventurer must have a lifetime batting average of 1,000. Nothing less. I had a gut feeling that we would make it that night, but don't remind me how much we were depending on blind luck.
It was July 21. For us it was the first day of summer because, after 76 days, it was the first time we paddled our kayaks as if we were on a sea kayak expedition. And, in true arctic fashion, it was the first day of winter as well, because in the wee hours of the morning, as we were battling the fatigue of an all-night ordeal, a thin film of ice formed on the sea, emitting a tinkling sound as we dipped our paddles and moved southward, toward home.
As July slowly morphed into August, the sea ice was fractured, moving, and sometimes thick, but not impenetrable.
Most days, we paddled in narrow channels through an infinite maze of glistening floes. Occasionally the floes compressed together and blocked our passage, but after the Robeson Channel, these compressions were short lived. When we could go no farther, we hauled out on land, or onto a large floe, and waited for a change in tide or wind. Sometimes we dragged on the closely packed ice, jumping across small tippy floes.
One day, Boomer was attacked by a walrus—a ton and a half of awkwardly graceful skin, blubber and muscle, its gleaming ivory tusks rearing above Boomer's head. Or maybe he wasn't attacked after all; maybe the walrus was just curious, getting a better look. In any case, whack, whack, Boomer smacked the monster in the face and paddled away ferociously. On another day, a polar bear slobbered over the vestibule and gently bit a small hole in our tent.
Was he attacking, or like the walrus, just visiting in his polar bear way? We'll never know, but we do know that the Arctic and its creatures showed us their power, and then turned their gentle side to grant us safe passage.
Boomer and I paddled into Grise Fiord on August 19th, after 104 days and 1,500 miles. We celebrated by sautéing up some potatoes, cabbage, and onions, and binging on chips and salsa. Then, 39 hours after arriving in town, I woke in the night and discovered that I couldn't pee. It's a body function that you normally take for granted, like heartbeat or digestion. But when it failed, my blood pressure and potassium levels shot sky high. The nurse at the local clinic listed my condition as "life threatening." Pilots from Global Rescue flew their jet through a fast-closing weather window to carry me south. They saved my life.
Now I am safely home in the mountains of western Montana. My urologist tells me that it was merely a coincidence that my system shut down immediately after the expedition was complete. But endurance athletes, trainers, and naturopathic doctors tell me that in that wonderland of sea and ice, my body was on the brink of collapse and the brain said, "Not yet, old friend. We're in this together, you and me, brain and urinary tract. Hang on. You can shut down after we get to town."
There's no way to know. But I can tell you that out there, surrounded by walrus, storms, polar bears and ice; I felt a cathartic oneness of all things, animate and inanimate. If it were somehow possible to internalize the essence of a landscape into ones being, I would become the Ellesmere coastline.
Jon Turk is the author of many books, including In the Wake of the Jomon: Stone Age Mariners and a Voyage Across the Pacific and The Raven's Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and their Remarkable Journey across the Siberian Wilderness. www.jonturk.net