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.
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 danced rainbows in the sunshine, while 10-foot-thick chunks rose
30 feet out of the sea and smeared against solid rock.
Trapped by ice on the east coast of Ellesmere
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.
Boomer and I were an odd couple, forty years apart in age.
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 40 days, depending on how much hunger we could
endure. But 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
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.
I had dreamed about a complete circumnavigation since 1988 when I paddled the east coast of Ellesmere with Chris Seashore.
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, 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.
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 temperature was well below freezing and the ocean was frozen solid when we left Grise Fiord at the start of our expedition.
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
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 were hard-fought on the North Coast.
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.
When crawling is the only way to move forward -- then crawl -- even if you 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
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.
The moving ice threatened to crush us. Boldness or caution? Caution or boldness?
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 within unimaginable forces.
Day after day we paddled through precarious channels between towering pressure ridges.
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
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,
hyperthermia, and, in one case, firing squad. Greely ordered the man shot for
stealing 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
“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,
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.
By August, the ice started to open up, revealing the other-worldly beauty of the Arctic.
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.
Was 'bad boy' polar bear thinking about eating us? Or was he just curious?
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.
After we completed our expedition and reached the village of Grise Fiord, my body shut down and I was flown to Ottawa by Global Rescue.
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
This story is excerpted from the book, 'Crocodiles and Ice'. Other books by Jon Turk: 'The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and their Remarkable Journey across the Siberian Wilderness', 'Tracking Lions, Myth, and Wilderness in Samburu', and 'In the Wake of the Jomon: Stone Age Mariners and a
Voyage Across the Pacific'. www.jonturk.net