In 2011, Jon Turk and Erik Boomer spent 104 days circling Ellesmere Island by ski and kayak. They were an unlikely pair. At 65, Turk was 41 years older than Boomer, who he met just weeks before embarking on the 1,495-mile Arctic expedition. The hardship and joy of expedition travel laid bare their kindred spirits, and a May-August bromance blossomed under the midnight sun.
Five years later, Turk and Boomer reunited in the Idaho backcountry for three days of skiing and an extended conversation about Ellesmere, their friendship and the importance of living your passion, no matter the cost.
(Photos by Erik Boomer and Jon Turk)
Jon Turk: I drove 500 miles to come down to do these interviews and that was three days ago and all we’ve been doing is back country skiing and we haven’t done the interview yet. Is there any message in that?
Erik Boomer: (laughs) One thing that I’ve heard you say is really valuing your time to do what you want to do and not to be pressured by society to change or swerve your path. If you want to ski powder, you need to make sure that skiing powder is your priority. If you follow that passion, it seems like things really fall into place. I’ve heard you say that.
JT: Yeah, somehow it seems that both of us in our way have someone managed to ski powder or boat big lines or whatever as a lifestyle. How does that work?
EB: Well, I think it’s kind of interesting because when we were first getting to know each other I was eating Ramen noodle and my friends were getting real jobs and buying houses. Everyone else older than me seems to be buying a house, getting a good job. That was one thing I thought was pretty interesting from our time together, you said you’ve been freelance for how many years?
JT: 45 years.
EB: And you said it’s been pretty terrifying every year because you don’t know exactly what it will take to get through the next year.
JT: Yeah, it’s terrifying, but at the same time, it’s the most fun thing in the whole world. I wouldn’t live any other way. For many, many years, it was kind of like, ‘I know how I’m going to make a living in the next three months or six months, but beyond that, I don’t have the foggiest idea of what’s going to happen.’ But after three or four decades of that, you learn to trust that something’s going to fall in place.
EB: Since that trip that we did together on Ellesmere, that advice has been ringing true, so far, in my life. I’m passionate about some of the things I do and I want to do those things whether it’s sports or expeditions or being in the wilderness, and it seems that everything is falling into place, so far, somehow.
JT: It seems like you’re doing great right now. We’ve talked about this before, but I remember when we were on Ellesmere, you had like $200 in the bank and $10,000 in debt, and no job.
EB: Yeah, I was a little stressed on money on that trip.
JT: There were times when you would say, because you have your photography skills, ‘I guess I’ll do some wedding photography,’ and whenever you’d say that, your whole spirit would drop and you’d kind of look into your soup or tea or whatever, and I didn’t have the heart to say anything about it. It never seemed like that was what you wanted to do.
EB: Yeah, it’s pretty nice having someone with an outside perspective because I didn’t see how resigned and melancholy that made me.
JT: So, how do you make a living right now?
EB: Right now, I’m making a living with photography and following some advice that somebody—you—gave me, which is that if you want to do a trip, but you don’t have the money, sell your house.
EB: So I don’t have a house, I’ve never had a house. I haven’t paid rent in about ten years. I’ve cut those costs. I’ve sold a lot of things and I try to stay minimal, but then money does come in from work, from expeditions, and I figured out some ways to monetize these things—for now and next year. There are no guarantees. (laughs)
JT: Right. Well, the thing that does blow me away is that you’re able to do these things and you are getting a house now and that you’re able to monetize getting a house. You’re getting paid for getting a house. Now, how does that work?
EB: Well, I don’t know that I’m really getting making money on building a house. We are building a house on a trailer and we’re looking at it the same way we look at an expedition. We’re trying to make it like something that no one has ever seen. We’ve worked this deal onto a TV show and we’re getting there. Eventually, we could hit the road with this thing and use it as an office and for presentations.
JT: How big is this house?
EB: It’s about 20 feet by 8 feet.
JB: It’s 160 square feet, about as big as a bathroom in a regular modern house.
EB: I kind of wonder if people are going to wonder how we live like that, if that’s where all the interest and the views are going to come from—you know, ‘how the heck do you subject yourself to this?’ But it’s really comfy.
EB: All we really want to do is ski powder and that’s a good analogy for getting the goods, for doing something other people are wanting to do, whether that’s into the wilderness for 30-40 days, for a 100-days like our Ellesmere or hiking 4,000 feet in one day to the tops of these little peaks and then skiing an amazing line down. I think it’s good to simplify what you want. As we were walking up, there’s all this noise and I asked you Jon if we should turn left or right and you said, ‘I just want to ski powder.’
JT: (laughs) Yeah, that’s nice. We’re talking for Canoe & Kayak magazine and skiing powder is a metaphor. Today we’re skiing powder because it’s the middle of winter. In the spring and summer it could be boating rapids.
EB: Exactly, yeah.
JT: You know, I’m 70 or something and I look at the alternatives what other people do. I mean, if I were a musician, it’s not just skiing powder, but having an incredible, deep passion to do something that may or may not be economically viable and for us, it’s skiing or boating or expeditioning. For some people, it’s something else. I don’t want someone to think that our way is the only right way.
EB: You have to ski powder to find enlightenment. It’s the only way.
EB: It’s not fun. It’s really just a spiritual journey.
JT: If you disagree with me, we’re going to have to go out into the parking lot and duke it out.
EB: Well, I don’t know. You’re tougher than most. We have already skied 2,000 feet, which means we had hiked 4,000 feet through fresh snow to the top of this peak and skied this big line. Our legs are burning and most people are ready to go home after that line and you said, ‘Boy, I think I got one more line in me.’ My legs are burning and you’re 70, so I know it’s got to hurt for you even more, but you’re so willing to follow your passion, that you’re choosing to be uncomfortable, to ignore the pain, and to do precisely what you want to do.
JT: Well, thank you. That’s very complimentary. It’s not really ignoring the pain.
JT: It’s that somehow the pain is part of that journey. It really is. It hurts to go uphill, but there’s some joy in it too. There’s a lot of joy in it. The Ellesmere expedition hurt. Did it hurt for you?
EB: There were parts that definitely hurt, yeah. My feet were sore for a good week or two afterwards.
JT: But the thing that always got me was we’d be at the end of a day. We were trying to do 15 miles a day. So, at the end of eight hours, we would stop. I would stop. I would not move a muscle and you would just go running around like you had excess energy. That always blew me away.
JT: I was jealous.
EB: Well, you know, there were some days that I had that excess energy, but I remember some other days where we’d done about 12 hours and I remember thinking, ‘Well, this looks like a good place to camp. I know it’s not our full 12 hours,’ and I’d see you mosey up and I know it hurt because I hurt and you might even stumble around a little bit and I’d mention, ‘What do you think about camping here?’ And you’d go, ‘How about one more hour? Let’s do the full hour.’
EB: One of the conversations that I remember best, that really impacted me is when you asked me, ‘Well, you came out here to walk all the way around Ellesmere Island, you must want something else than just a good trip. If there was one thing that you could learn or kind of get out of this trip, what do you think that would be?’ I had to kind of scratch my head because that we such a good question, such a thoughtful, interesting question, that I thought, ‘Okay, if there’s one thing that I want to learn or take away from this, what is it?’ For me, at that point, I wanted to mature, but not like all my friends and not like society says I needed to. I wanted to mature into my freelance job of photography and adventure and get taken seriously and hopefully, someday, get out of debt.
EB: I wanted to reciprocate, so I asked you, ‘Jon, you’re 65, 66 years old, what do you want to get out of this trip?’
JT: Are you asking me now?
EB: I remember what you said, so I could paraphrase, or you could throw it out there now.
JT: Oh, I don’t know. I could come up with a lot of fancy reasons, but it all comes down to, ‘I know it’s going to hurt, but it’s fun to ski powder.’
JT: I spent five years, back and forth, hanging out with the Koryak people, and they talked a lot about where power comes from, where your human power comes from, and they talked about this mix of drawing power from the land—the hunter, the pragmatist—and the shaman, the spiritual person. And, you know, I wrote a book about this and after I wrote the book, I started thinking, ‘Well, it’s easy to write the book, but it’s harder to actually live the life that you just wrote about. If I was not to be a bullshitter, maybe I should put my theories to the test and do something that was really hard.’
JT: So, there is that element there, but the other element is 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 IV or 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 have to, I can’t be stupid today and I have to dig deep.’ I love that feeling.
EB: We definitely got some of that on Ellesmere and we got a little bit of that yesterday. There was some heads-up skiing going on and at least I did or maybe it didn’t challenge you that much.
JT: Oh, yeah, it challenged me. We were skiing steep stuff and there was snow moving and gullies and yeah, it was grippy.
EB: Yeah, I find it’s pretty interesting that you’re older than my dad, I’m younger than your kids, and somehow we’ve had all this common ground and have had this awesome union together and all these experiences. In some ways, I feel like we’re going through some of the same things at the same time and in other ways, you’re also blazing the path and kind of showing me the way. It’s a cool relationship that we’ve been lucky to forge.
JT: Thank you. I value your friendship immensely a million, zillion times. A special bond came between us after being in the tent for 104 days. You could have walked away saying, ‘I never want to see that motherfucker again.’
JT: But that’s not what happened. Not at all. Not even close. Yeah, I feel in the last three days that the friendship has kind of renewed itself again. We hadn’t seen each other for a couple years.
EB: It’s been five or six years since we said hello to each other and decided to jump into a tent for 120 days.
JT: Did you have doubts about going on this long trip with this old geezer?
EB and JT: (both laugh)
EB: Not necessarily about this old geezer. I think I have an original worksheet where I listed off all the pros and all the cons of going on this trip. I think it was after Tyler broke his back. [Tyler Bradt is the friend Turk and Boomer had in common. He was to be the third member of the Ellesmere team, but had to withdraw after breaking his back on a waterfall.]
EB: You know it was an easy out. It was a time if I wanted to back away, I could. I remember going back and writing down all the positive things that could happen, all the negative things that I thought could happen…I think it would be really funny to look at those things now.
JT: Give me a couple of the negatives. I think that we could die, right?
EB: Yeah, it would have been getting rescued and having the cost of a rescue come in to get us. For me that would be pretty embarrassing. I wouldn’t want to get rescued on a trip. It wouldn’t be good style, so to speak.
JT: Right. Dying isn’t good style either. That’s what Jon Krakauer said. Dying is bad style.
EB: Yeah, there was the fact that it was a very risky deal and there wasn’t any guarantee was the biggest con and in another way, was also the biggest pro, because I really value something that isn’t guaranteed. You know it’s really, really rewarding when you accomplish something that you weren’t positive could be done.
JT: I remember we talked for hundreds of hours about what the ice was going to be like on the northwest coast and the difference between good ice and bad ice is fifteen miles per day versus 150 meters per day.
EB: (laughs) Yep.
JT: And we have to figure out how much food we’re supposed to carry and everything and I had this crazy theory that we would find good ice, close to shore, and that was kind of like a guess.
JT: A hopeful guess, but yeah, we did it. We did it.
EB: Yep. We were stuck, watching the natural TV of the ice moving there for 17 days, pondering about a lot of the same stuff.
JT: Right. And during those 17 days, did you ever feel way discouraged, like we were going to fail?
EB: Oh, yeah. (laughs) There were times and it was a roller coaster, I would say, every day.
EB: You’d get your hopes up that things would be good and then it wouldn’t change and your hopes would go down. Somewhere towards the end of that wait, I feel like I evened out a brief bit. For a few days, I felt very in the middle. I stopped the swinging and I felt pretty content to just be there. I felt like I kind of learned to chill after we were forced to sit there. And I need to relearn that lesson all the time. That was just a pretty good forced chill out lesson. (laughs)
JT: Well, one of the first things about the expedition, the trip, that totally blew me away was we had agreed we were not going to take any books or music, any extra weight, just to divert our minds and you said kind of sheepishly, “Well, I bought eight pages of the Tao, just to read. Is that too much extra weight?” Well, we had 250 pounds of junk. Eight torn little pages of wisdom didn’t seem like an overkill.
JT: That really impressed me. Did those eight pages help out during our journey?
EB: I felt like it really did. I felt like the writing of the Tao is so vague and so non-naming of things that it gave me time to really ponder some things. I’ve got those eight pages tucked back into that original book.
JT: Yeah, I saw it the other day. Speaking of which, you have been engaged in these extreme sports where things happen in a very short period of time. You jump a waterfall and the whole thing is over in X number of seconds and it’s very intense and very athletic. You are very well known as an extreme world class kayaker and now you’ve been doing a number of long expeditions since Ellesmere. You’ve done at least two, big Arctic expeditions, correct?
EB: Yeah, that’s correct.
JT: And to a lesser extent, I do the same. I’ve been a rock climber and a whitewater kayaker, but not of your caliber. So, let’s talk about the difference between those so-called extreme sports and the long trudges.
EB: For me, it takes more balls to commit to those longer trips, at least for the first few times. It was really hard for me at first to think of being gone for this entire Ellesmere expedition and saying good-bye to my summer, good-bye to my spring. I think it really marked a little bit of a maturation point in my thinking where I was looking more long term instead of just instantaneous thrill-seeking.
JT: Well, that’s interesting, but let’s face it. Walking around Ellesmere, walking around Baffin…
JT: …are most of the time is pretty darn boring, or is it. Let’s talk about whether it’s boring or not.
EB: That’s a good question. I didn’t feel bored, not one time.
JT: That’s really interesting. What do you feel you were doing in your head when we just walked for eight hours and then we walk for eight hours tomorrow and the next day?
EB: Even today, as we were walking up the hill, it reminded me of our trip on Ellesmere, this odd couple, on skis, just trudging away, and I find my mind gets into different states. When I’m at home, I’m reacting to the computer or I’m reacting to the radio or I’m reacting to the people I run into. But when you can just focus on your goal, I find that your mind can run a little bit differently. Nothing is fighting for its attention, so you can really pay attention to the things around you and you can let your mind run to places it wouldn’t run otherwise. I kind of get lost in my mind often and the time flies by.
JT: I found myself on Ellesmere spending a lot of time thinking about the efficiency of my steps.
EB: I remember you saying that.
JT: I felt that if I could get a little more glide with each step, maybe an extra two feet, that could add up to maybe a mile a day.
EB: Oh, yeah.
JT: Then that’s, in a hundred days, maybe a hundred extra miles just by being efficient. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about the efficiency of my ski step. I mean, day after day. And when you go into that space, it’s a beautiful space because there’s no think-too-much, know-it-all brain going on. You’re just thinking about the next step. I found that to be a really beautiful space to be.
EB: I think you really hit it on the nose there by saying—well you didn’t quite say it—but in a way that you’ve turned your brain off.
JT: I think that’s what long expeditions do for you. They’re meditations in a way. I mean today, I was really tired today and I was working through that pain, which is the same as working through the efficiency of the next step.
JT: You say, ‘Okay, pain, let’s have it. I want to see you right up front, see your ugly face.’ And then you get through the pain and the next thing you know, you’re looking at the trees. There were some beautiful trees up there today.
EB: Oh, yeah.
JT: Those big old Doug firs, those gnarly old Doug firs up on the mountainside.
EB: I was asking you about shamanism and animism one time and the way that you explained that philosophy and way of looking at life is kind of like every little thing has its own life and story to tell. Even today, I found that as we were skinning up that hill and looking at inanimate objects as if they have a life is very fulfilling. You look at that tree and think, wow, all the storms that tree has withstood and all the rock fall around it, the summers and the winters, it’s pretty cool and you can see all that character on that tree.
JT: That was pretty cool. You know, on Ellesmere again, we spent a lot of time on route finding. We didn’t always agree on route finding, but we got around the island.
EB: Ultimately, we just wanted to ski powder, metaphorically.
EB: We could go right or left but ultimately as long as we’re moving around this island, we’re on the same page.
JT: Okay, where do we go from here?
EB: It’s really awesome hanging out with you right now. When we were on Ellesmere, I was wanting to mature into an adult and you were wanting to mature into old manhood and you were saying you don’t want to mature like everyone else and watch TV, and I was saying that I don’t want to mature like everyone else and buy a house. And here we are, five, six years later, still skiing powder. You’ve managed to wear me out yet again. You’re 70 years old now.
JT: No, you wore me out.
JT: I was tuckered.
EB: I have the energy reserves where I can get in there and go. But you have this undying passion that motivates you to keep going, and that’s something that I value because I get to keep skiing the powder with you.
JT: We had a good time. We got to ski some cool lines. So, do you think it’s difficult to alter your life in such a way that you get to live your passion?
EB: (laughs) Yes and no.
JT: Is that a stupid question?
EB: I think that’s a good question and in some ways, it’s incredibly hard. But if you really want to alter your life in such a way, it’s incredibly easy. It just takes letting go of things that you don’t care about as much and just focusing on that passion, right? I remember a quote that you told me once. You had someone come up to you after a talk and say, ‘Man, how do I live my life more magically like you and take these trips? I stopped buying coffee at Starbucks and I’m saving, but I still can’t get the money or the time off to do these kinds of things.’ And you replied to him, ‘Well, what about your house? Do you have a house?’ He said yeah, and you said, ‘Well, why don’t you sell it? That would be great.’ And he said, ‘Ah, well, my wife would never let me do that.’ And you said, ‘Well, if you want to do this stuff and your wife doesn’t want you to do it, you probably should divorce your wife.’
JT: (laughs) I didn’t say that.
EB: The point that you were trying to make isn’t that you should just divorce things, but that if you have passion and you want to do things, you shouldn’t have any excuse not to do it. You should just do it.
JT: Well, thank you, yea-a-a-h. (laughs)
EB: We can strike that from the record.
JT: We can keep it on the record. Well, I think you personally, you have style. You’re building a house and all of sudden, you have all these people, it’s a different house, it’s a house on a trailer, it’s an enlarged bathroom of a house that is a piece of art and also, a trailer home, right?
EB: (laughs) Essentially, it’s a trailer home.
JT: You’ve said ‘we’ a bunch of times. Let’s bring Sarah into the conversation. She’s a big part of your life.
EB: Yeah, Sarah [McNair-Landry] is my girlfriend and we’re building this tiny home together and she’s pretty darn awesome because she’s got that same passion for following your heart and doing these things that don’t necessarily make sense. And she supports me in all of that and I support her, and that has been really good for me in the past few years.
JT: And she has a resume a mile long in Arctic exploration.
EB: Yeah, she dwarfs me in Arctic exploration.
JT: Although, I’ve heard it said that you’ve gone longer without a shower than she has.
EB: I would have, except for that shower at Eureka [a research base on Ellesmere where Boomer and Turk spent a night]. She has actually gone 99 days without a shower, so she’s got me on that one.
JT: And you’ve only been about 75 or 80.
EB: Yeah, pretty weak.
JT: So, she wins again.
EB: What a woman!
JT: Well, I’ll talk about my wife Nina a little bit. Nina and my daughter, Noe both love, honor, and respect my adventuring. But they also have a view that all these things we’ve talked about can be had by staying home and growing a garden.
JT: So, at the same time that we talk about all these running around on the ice things, that I look at Nina with great respect and I look at Noe with great respect. I have two daughters, but Noe is the one that I’m mentioning because she has this vision of the world. She used to be this really good rock climber. She still is, but she just hasn’t climbed recently. She’s just a natural, but all these things that we’ve talked about—about following your passions—can also be attained by staying at home and growing your garden.
EB: Mm-hmm, yep. All we want to do is ski powder, but we could say that all we want to do is tend our garden or all we want to do is kayak on expeditions. But they’re all the same thing, which is following that passion
JT: I remember when I did the biggest ice climb of my life to that date and I’d been focusing on this ice climb and training and finally did it. We didn’t really do a good job of it. There were some falls and mess-ups, but we got to the top and my partner said, ‘We weren’t both falling at the same time.’ We were really tired and we came back into town and someone said, ‘Taj Mahal is in town playing music.’ And they handed me a fattie and a ticket to Taj Mahal and I smoked the fattie and went in to the music and I realized that every bit of energy that I put into that ice climb, those guys were putting into music.
EB: Whatever it is, there are just so many awesome things to do. I think what I’m getting from this conversation is living a life of passion and love and not living a life of fear.
JT: Here’s what I want to talk about briefly. I think some people can think that we’re just scamming on society—that they just pay us to ski, paddle, and have fun at everything. I don’t believe that. I believe that we’re contributing something, and I think it’s important to talk about that.
EB: It’s a lot of work and it isn’t necessarily easy. If it were easy, then everybody would be doing it.
JT: So, people pay for photographs, for books, and whatnot, so why do they pay us? Why do they give us money to go ski powder and go boat and go walk around Ellesmere? What is it that we give back to society? I’m going to ask you and then I’m going to give my answer too.
EB: Well, just off the cuff, without any thinking about it, I think that we’re giving inspiration. It’s kind of like a work of art when you step back. Ultimately, we’re making stories. I’ve always been inspired by stories and to be able to create some of them out of my life is a big honor and I feel lucky to be able to do that.
JT: Great. Well, my answer is going to be the same as yours and you know, you put it in your words and I’m going to put it in my mine.
I think that there are so many elements of society that are convincing us to buy more stuff and live a life of consumption, and I think that the concept of living a life where you’re living your passion is really important. Well, I don’t want to say that we’re that important (laughs). That’s the theme of my new book and that’s how it ends. It ends with me and the dancers in this prison, dancing for these youth offenders. It’s the first time in their life they saw people living and valuing their passion, and they lit up.
EB: I couldn’t have said it better. That gets right to it. It’s a little scary when you don’t know when the next check is coming, the fact that if you get hurt, that can affect your whole career. It’s hard on your body too. We’ve been hungry…
JT: When we were on Ellesmere, we were out there on the ice and you were going back to no home, a beater car, $200 in the bank and $10,000 in debt and no job.
JT: And just facing that reality is the biggest expedition that anyone could be on. Knowing that you’re coming back to that and to have the courage to go away for three and half months or four months.
EB: Yeah, in some ways, it sums up what we’ve been talking about. It actually gave me a lot of belief in our expedition on Ellesmere because we had some food caches pre-placed and the 100 days of food was like $10,000 dollars of food and I thought, ‘We have to keep going because there’s more value in food out here than I have back at home. I need to hit these next food caches.’
JT: The easiest way to find food right now is to go another 500 miles across the ice.
JT: I’ve been lucky in that my writing, mainly my science writing, has given me a cushion so that I’ve never been in that situation where I have $200 in the bank.
EB: It doesn’t feel real great.
JT: How did you get out of that hole? Where did the first money come in after I dropped you off and Sarah was waiting for you and I went to the hospital. What was the next step?
EB: Man, I was able to get a couple hundred bucks doing a couple quick talks about our trip and sharing the story and I was actually able to do a commercial photo shoot with Kokatet Watersports and that really helped me out a lot.
EB: And that really just propelled everything because I was creating good media and came back with some really good stories to tell.
JT: So, you were able to monetize the Ellesmere.
EB: Yeah, some. At the end, we were able to make some. I don’t remember the final amount, but by the time we sold all the articles and whatnot.
JT: Yeah, I think the Ellesmere story, my new book being ‘Crocodiles And Ice,’ the ice being Ellesmere, I’ve been passing around some early copies and this guy named Henry Pollock, a Nobel Prize winner and climatologist, I sent it to him for a pre-read and I just got this email six hours ago: ‘I’m finding the book a fascinating read. I was, of course, aware of your Ellesmere journey, but never heard the story in such detail.’ So, yeah, we’ve both been able to monetize that at some level. And we lucked out. We got paid to it. Let’s close it with that. Thank you.
EB: Thank you, Jon. It’s good we got this work out of the way so we can go ski some more powder.
— Read an exclusive excerpt from Turk’s new book Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey into Deep Wild
— Related | Unfiltered: Jon Turk