By Jon Turk
Excerpt from: Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey into Deep Wild
Publisher: Oolichan Press
Release date: Sept 15, 2016
In this exclusive excerpt from Jon Turk's new book Crocodiles and Ice, Turk, then 65, and his 24-year-old expedition partner Erik Boomer are midway through a 1,495-mile circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island, pulling heavily laden kayaks across increasingly perilous ice. It causes Turk to think deeply about the nature of pain, and suffering.
June 24: "Travel into heavy rubble ice early in the day. At times, there is just too much resistance to pull the loaded boats forward while standing on two feet. So we crawl. There's more power that way. Both of us do it. Even Boomer. When you've got 750 miles to go and you're crawling through saturated slush and frigid melt-water pools, soaked to the skin, you've got to shut the mind off. Stop thinking, stop calculating miles versus food remaining. Don't even suffer. Just crawl. It's clean. Fundamental. Cathartic. Then we find smooth ice right against the shore and we stand up and walk again, as if we have just evolved from knuckle-walking apes to humans. Most of the snow has melted off the land and in the afternoon we find purple flowers lying low to the ground. No, I don't know what species they are; it is just wonderful that they are purple. We run out of smooth ice but find some meltwater pools a few hundred meters offshore that are so extensive that we sit in our kayaks, float along and push with our ski poles. Luxury. At river mouths, the sea ice has melted for a short distance and we paddle. It's warm today so melting and breakup are happening quickly. Boomer says that this is, 'The best day yet.' That's fine. I just agree. My small toes are quite gnarled and bloody. They hurt with every step. Throb when I go to sleep."
June 25: "Snow. Ice. Meltwater pools. Actually paddled a little. Drag, paddle, pole, paddle, drag, crawl. Rubble to the north is scary in its impenetrability. If we ran into that, it would be a show stopper. But we find flat ice near shore. We've always found a way."
June 26: "Very hot today and everything is melting. But there is a lot of ice to melt. A whole ocean of ice. Rubble, open leads. The pressure ridges are so formidable that we help each other, two men to a boat, walk back, and get the other one. Yet somehow we made 11 miles today. Is my GPS broken or did we really do that? My toes are oozing blood and pus but for some weird reason, I think they will be ok. I am fine. My toe is just a small part of me."
June 28: "Embrace the crawl. When you're trying to drag a 250 pound boat over a dune of ice and snow, and you're sinking crotch deep into slush, don't try to preserve your dignity. Dignity is a foreign concept from another cosmos. Crawl. The boats tip over a lot. Lots of walking back to direct the boat into the correct slot between ice chunks, because we are weaving around obstacles all day. We made eight miles, half of what we did on flat ice. That still seems a lot, given the conditions."
That day there was no energy left in my brain for subterfuge or posturing. I did what was necessary to drag my kayak across the ice. The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism starts with the observation that in life, pain is unavoidable. We stub our toe when walking into the bathroom, get old, watch loved ones pass away, suffer economic setbacks, and eventually each and every one of us, dies. No one escapes this reality. But suffering, which is an emotional response to pain, is a decision we allow ourselves to make, and is absolutely and unequivocally avoidable.
I'm not a Buddhist acolyte or scholar. But, from my own experience, suffering occurs when that pesky think-too-much-know-it-all brain takes a simple event--which started out maybe slightly negative, or maybe even positive or neutral--it doesn't matter--and twists that event up into knots, invents side-plots and intrigue, runs it around and around in feedback loops, like a puppy chasing its tail, until it grows, explodes, matures, overruns the castle, and emerges triumphant as true misery. Suffering. We've all done it. But out there on the ice, there is no room for that bullshit. No energy. Life is on too thin a line to allow the brain to indulge in its favorite pastime--the luxury of extraneous emotional misery. So a sore toe is just a sore toe. It hurts. Nothing more and nothing less. So simple. So liberating.
Jesus, Moses, and Buddha all wandered off into the desert to fast and find awakening. Most, perhaps all, aboriginal cultures embrace some intentionally induced pain, such as fasting or self-mutilation, as part of their religious and cultural rituals. The great Inuit shaman Igjugarjuk, once said, "All true wisdom is only to be learned far from the dwellings of men, out in the great solitude, and is only to be obtained through pain." I would disagree that this is the "only" way, but agree that it is one way. Thus, counterintuitive as it may seem, pain can lead to ecstasy, not suffering.
Ecstasy is one of those complex words with seemingly contradictory meanings. The party drug, Ecstasy, makes you feel good, which is the usual connotation of the word, to slide into a state of great rapture. But rapture is so much more complicated than dancing all night and joining sweaty bodies in the wee hours of the morning. The word ecstasy is derived, in part, from the Latin extasis, for "terror." Of all the many definitions of ecstasy, the one I like best is, "It is a subjective experience of total involvement." You are in an ecstatic state when you are terrified, enraptured, or otherwise "totally involved" with something, whether it is music, prayer, meditation, painting on cave walls, sex, running a Class V drop, or even pain.
All those words aside, July 2 was a hard day. But Boomer and I made our miles. Pitched the tent. Cooked dinner. And as I wrote in my journal, "For one more 24-hour period, we escaped total, complete, and irrevocable disaster because Boomer's piece-of-shit spoon didn't break."
— Jon Turk is C&K’s Expeditions Editor. Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey into Deep Wild, is available online via Amazon or your local independent bookstore.
Or order an autographed copy by emailing Jon Turk directly at: Jon@jonturk.net
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