Jon Turk and Erik Boomer recently completed a circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut—the first time this has ever been done, so far as published history tells us. It took them 104 days to complete the 2,400-km trip by ski, sea kayak and on foot. Boomer is a professional photographer; Turk is a science writer who’s lived in the North and now splits his time between Montana and British Columbia. Maclean’s spoke to Boomer, 26, in San Diego, Calf., and Turk, 66, in Fernie, B.C.
Q: Why Ellesmere Island?
JT: In 1988, I travelled there, and I totally fell in love with the place. Ellesmere is one of the most wild and pristine places on Earth. I thought, I would like to circumnavigate Ellesmere. I decided it was impossible, and shelved it. But something was nagging at me that I was just making excuses for myself, that it really was possible. Years went by.
Now I’m in my mid-sixties, and I said I have to go into the ice one more time. I was planning the trip with [professional kayaker] Tyler Bradt. He recommended we bring another person: his friend Erik Boomer. We plan the trip, ship food, get the boats, get the sponsors, and then Tyler breaks his back doing a waterfall jump in his kayak. [He has since recovered.] So it’s just me and Boomer. There was a big question: do we go or do we wait? And I say, I can’t wait. I’m pushing the age barrier, and if we push this off a couple of more years I’m out, so we’ve got to do it now.
EB: I wrote down the pros and cons—the worst case scenario of being rescued, starving, not making it, failure. I wrote out the pros and after looking at it, it was pretty obvious I wanted to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity I was given.
Q: How did the trip begin?
EB: We took off for Ellesmere Island at the beginning of May and headed out on the circumnavigation [leaving from Grise Fiord, Nunavut] May 7. We headed out on completely frozen sea ice, and we were pulling sea kayaks over that ice. Our kayaks were packed with all our gear: sleeping bag, stove, fuel, tent, water, lots of food. You’re skiing on cross-country skis, and pulling this 220-lb. kayak. You basically become a hauling machine.
The 24-hour Arctic sun was something I wasn’t used to, and allowed you to have really big, full days. Ellesmere Island has some of the highest mountains in the Arctic Circle. Along our right the whole way, there were these 3,000 to 6,000-ft. peaks reaching down into the ocean. It was quite amazing. At times, you’re weaving through this maze of these deep blue icebergs.
JT: It’s not flat ice. You have currents and wind and the ice starts to freeze, and then buckles. You have chunks of ice that can be two metres thick and 10 m high, and vertical, or near-vertical. It becomes very important to your mode of travel what the ice is like, and what the seascape is like—how smooth it is, how much you’re going to have to drag your boats over 10-m-high chunks of blue ice. The mountains were pretty background scenery, but I remember the intimate moment-by-moment structure of the ice.
Q: Did you have any close encounters with the wildlife you encountered?
JT: We had lots of beautiful moments with wildlife, and some intense ones. This one day, we were sleeping, and the wind was blowing, and the tent had a billowing motion in the wind. You learn to sleep with that; it’s soothing. All of a sudden there was a different motion. A polar bear had bitten a hole in our tent and stuck its face inside.
EB: When you encounter a bear, you’re such a foreign object that they’re extremely curious. I always had the gun ready when they were within attack range, just in case. And we would do everything in our power to let them know that we were a potential threat, and if they mess with us, they’re going to get hurt. When that bear put its head in our tent, we looked it in the eyes and yelled and screamed, and luckily we convinced him we were tougher than he was. I never thought I’d be tough-talking a polar bear.
Walruses are also really big and aggressive, and they know how to use their tusks. Another day, in the early morning, we were paddling through a really beautiful iceberg area, it was so serene and monotonous. Literally in the snap of a finger, this walrus exploded out of the water and I found myself bracing. It charged me multiple times and I couldn’t get away—it was incredibly scary, and I felt really vulnerable. I had about a 15- to 20-second struggle, and then, just as quick as it came, it was gone. It was almost like a dream.
JT: That was scarier than any of our polar bear encounters. With bears, you have time.
Q: How did the conditions change?
JT: We started out on solid ice. And then went to melting ice, where there’s meltwater on top and you’re pulling through slush. When we got to the northeast corner, where Ellesmere and Greenland are just 12 miles apart, it was early July, and summer is progressing, and the ice starts to break up. To the north there’s no more land, it’s just the North Pole ice cap. And you have this old, multi-year, roughed-up, banged-up ice flowing down from an ocean full of ice, pushed into a strait that’s 12 miles across, smashing into these cliffs. This is the kind of compression that sunk many, many ships. You get into that kind of compression and it breaks things. Certainly it will kill a kayaker.
We get here and go, ‘How are we going to get through this?’ By working the tides and momentary lapses in the wind, staying very close to shore, we eked along the coast about 17 miles in 17 days, going really short distances, working really hard. Sometimes we paddled at high tide, and then a big chunk of ice would come in and leave us a channel, and we’ll paddle a few hundred yards to a mile. Sometimes we unloaded our boats and carried them on land to the next spot. During that time period, we were getting frustrated because we weren’t getting anywhere. One day we said, this is crazy, we have to make a move. So we went out on the ice floe.
EB: We went out to the ice and hopped on, and literally sailed a massive ice chunk through the channel. We had our GPS out, and we’re moving one mile an hour south, feeling like we’re on a huge cruise ship, and we’re about to get around this point we’d not yet been around. So we set up tent [on the ice floe] and decided to let her go. We were startled to wake up in the middle of the night to find we’re going three miles an hour, and when we checked our heading, we were going three miles an hour north, and we were blown into the ocean from where we’d begun this ice journey.
Q: What happened?
EB: We were once again humbled and scared by the power of nature and the power of the ice. We hightailed it back to shore in this lull period between tides when the water doesn’t move much for an hour. We had to work our way back up the coast to get back where we were. It wasn’t until the wind blew from the southwest, which didn’t happen that often, that it pulled the ice off and created a channel for us to paddle through.
JT: The ice seemed to be dispersing. So we got up at nine in the morning, we paddled out, looked at the ice, got terrified, and ran back to camp. We went out again in the late afternoon, and the same thing happened. And then, at nine at night, it really seemed like the wind was holding the ice off, and we had room to paddle in. So we paddled out, looked at each other and said, we’ve got to go for it.
Q: How was the finish?
JT: The last two days of the trip were easy paddling. We had a good time of it. We cruised in. But my body had been fighting so hard to stay functional that once it was no longer imperative to function, it let its guard down. Thirty-nine hours after completing the trip, I went into total metabolic shutdown. It was really scary. The clinic in Grise Fiord contacted the global rescue we had an insurance policy through, who contacted a medical team at Johns Hopkins University. They said, ‘Go get him, he’s dying.’ They flew me to Ottawa General hospital. I was met there by a team of nine doctors. And they whipped me back into shape. I just needed to be jump-started.
EB: It was really amazing that it didn’t happen out on the land, where it would take even longer to get him evacuated.
Q: How did it feel to complete a circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island, something that had never been done?
EB: I just feel honoured and lucky I was able to be a part of it. The most powerful thing out there is this overwhelming sense of freedom, and a sense of knowing you could kind of go anywhere. And there’s nothing out there to distract you.
JT: This is something that’s been on my mind since 1988 and I’ve completed it. But that sense of accomplishment is the least of my feelings. I’ve had a lifetime of adventuring, and I set out to go into the ice, and to live in this landscape one last time. It’s not like I’m going to retire and never go outside again, but I’m never going to push my body this hard again. And so for me, there was this wonderful feeling of accomplishing this goal, and also this, not really a sadness, just it is what it is. You get old. This is what happens. But just the fond reminiscing of this life I’ve lived, and to realize that I’m not going to go there again.