By Conor Mihell
Published: February 28, 2011
This summer Jon Turk, Tyler Bradt and Erik Boomer will attempt to be the first to paddle around the ice-cloaked, 1,400-mile perimeter of Ellesmere Island. This icebound island in the Canadian high arctic borders the fabled Northwest Passage—its northernmost tip coming within 500 miles of the North Pole. The 100-day expedition is a logical one for Turk, a 65-year-old veteran arctic explorer who has already paddled the chain of islands from Japan to Alaska. For Bradt, 24, and Boomer, 26, however, the trip will be a new experience.
Bradt and Boomer are among the world's best whitewater kayakers, with Bradt having successfully run Washington state's 186-foot Palouse Falls in 2009, easily eclipsing previous records. But neither have spent much time in a sea kayak—much less on a committing expedition in which they'll spend as much effort manhandling their heavily laden kayaks across a frozen landscape as paddling them, and deal with hostile weather and polar bears.
What's the appeal of paddling around Ellesmere Island?
Tyler Bradt: I've grown up knowing Jon and always had a lot of respect for him and interest in what he does. This is really unorthodox as far as expeditions go for me. I'd say it has equal or more intensity than what I've done in the past. The appeal is in being out there for 100 days in a disconnected, remote corner of the world.
Jon Turk: I wrote a book about communicating with the earth, [The Raven’s Gift], and have been driving around on freeways and hanging out in cities talking to people about it. One day I thought, I gotta go communicate with the earth again. Ellesmere is a dynamic environment. There's solid ice, open water, moving ice and it's always changing. I really believe that the earth and its motions are aligned in a way that we often ignore. When we're out there on that ice, experiencing 100 days of trudging [and] boredom, our survival will depend on whether we listen to this moving environment. I think it's going to be so powerful.
This whole idea of communicating with the earth, Tyler, it sounds like something you would do in whitewater too.
Bradt: In a rapid you have to react accordingly to the energy that's flowing there. You can never go against those forces, and as soon as you try to power through it you get a beat down pretty quick. I'm in full agreement with what Jon said. We're going to really listen and pay attention to our surroundings—that will be everything to us in getting around the island safely.
What kind of challenges will you face up there?
Bradt: We'll be starting off in May on solid ice. We're going to be walking and dragging our boats for days and days—that's a huge challenge in and of itself. Everything up there is going to be dealing with the ice.
Turk: One interesting point is that the Ward Hunt Iceshelf [on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere] broke up in 2010 for the first time in 35 million years. We can read the journals of the old guys like [Robert] Peary and talk to more recent explorers and that's fine and dandy, but the situation that we're dealing with now is going to be very different. Essentially we'll be the first people to go into this environment in its current state, so we're kind of winging it as we go.
What about polar bears?
Bradt: Yeah, they’re up there (laughs). We're no doubt going to have encounters with polar bears. We just have to do all that we can to be aware of what's going on around us and deter them before they decide we might be easy prey. We're carrying bear bangers, bear spray and a 12-gauge shotgun. But we're absolutely adamant about not shooting a polar bear.
How did you sell Tyler and Erik on this trip, Jon?
Turk: I didn't have to persuade them…
Bradt: I grew up in the valley where Jon has lived for a number of years. He and my father are friends [and] I grew up doing rivers with Jon and always knowing what he's been up to. We've talked about doing an expedition together a lot. The thought crossed my mind again last summer and I sent him a message. He said 'Yeah, man, let's go for it.' I knew Boomer would be up for a challenge like this in a heartbeat. I suggested to Jon that having a third guy would be an asset and he agreed so we invited Boomer. He decided to join us immediately. Really, Jon didn't have to coax us at all.
What will these young guys bring to the expedition, Jon?
Turk: A sense of humor. When you're hanging out with these guys you're laughing all the time and everything is funny. That's what's going to keep us alive.
It sounds like this expedition will be as much dragging kayaks over the ice as it will be paddling.
Turk: At 83 degrees north, [Ellesmere Island] is about as far north as you can get on any land mass. We figure about one-third of the trip will be on solid ice where we're definitely going to be dragging, one-third on broken ice where we'll be winging it, and one-third on open water, paddling.
What boats are you paddling?
Turk: We're limited by what we can fit into the doors of an airplane so we're going with 13-and-a-half-foot Wilderness System Tsunamis. They're about three or four feet shorter than we'd like so we'll be jammed for space, but that's the best we can do.
As a whitewater boater, what are you looking to get out of this, Tyler?
Bradt: I've been to northern Norway, Iceland and the tip of Alaska, but this is unlike anything I've ever done before. I actually haven't ever sea kayaked before. This is very much going to be a new experience for myself. I'm looking forward to it, it's going to be an incredible challenge.
Bradt: One of the things that I am most excited about is creating an amazing film out of this. In many ways it's going to go much further beneath the surface than my whitewater expeditions. In whitewater it's all about immediate thrills. This expedition is going to have much more depth to it. Thrills are rarely going to happen instantaneously. It's going to be about experience this place and trying to connect with it and having fun while we're at it.