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Be First Recipient Jon Turk Recaps his Epic First Circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island
Posted on November 17, 2011

Last summer, Be First recipients Erik Boomer, a 26-year-old photographer, and Jon Turk, a 65-year-old writer, successfully became the first people to circumnavigate Canada’s Ellesmere Island, a 1,485-mile expedition by kayak. The months-long effort delivered endless challenges, including a polar bear tearing through their tent on the final week. Are you in pursuit of your own “first?” Our Be First program is an opportunity to get sponsored when you go for your own summit, whatever that may be. To learn more, visit Be First.

Story by Jon Turk and photos by Erik Boomer.

The wind was blowing out of the north and it was well below zero, way colder than I had expected or prepared for. I was wearing every stitch of First Ascent clothing I had, and my PFD over all that for additional insulation. I was skiing aggressively and pulling a 250 pound kayak—and I was still cold. Yeah, I should have brought more clothes, but weight and volume were such a priority that we cut all corners when we packed. And summer would come soon. Just not today. A cut bank offered some protection from the wind and it was late in the afternoon, so we quit an hour early and dug in. Musk oxen were grazing 500 yards away, Pleistocene–like in appearance, surviving on the most minimal forage imaginable in a polar desert, silhouetted against the storm, their outlines blurred by blowing snow.

We had already traveled 125 miles, first westward along the south coast of Ellesmere Island, and now northward toward the true polar region. This part of the journey was straightforward enough, dragging our kayaks, as if they were arctic polks. Sure, it was cold, but not arctic winter killer cold and safe enough because the ice was a firm foundation, like solid earth. We saw lots of polar bear tracks every day, but we also found numerous seal dens that bears had ravaged, and the partially eaten seal carcasses splayed out on the ice. I figured that if the bear wasn’t hungry enough to eat the entire seal, it wouldn’t be desperate enough to attack humans, a more dangerous prey. Happy bears make for happy campers.

So everything was fine, as spindrift pattered against the tent and Boomer got the stove going. But then my mind started to wander. To complete our planned circumnavigation, we had 1,375 miles to go, about the distance from New York City to Grand Island, Nebraska, in case any New Yorkers want to drag their kayak to Grand Island. Soon the 24-hour sunlight would melt this continent of ice and break it up into independently moving floes, driven by winds and currents, and capable of crushing a stout wooded ship of the 19th-century British navy, to say nothing about our puny plastic kayaks. I couldn’t think about that. I could only think only about the moment, the next few seconds or the next minute. The water was boiling and Boomer was getting out the tea bags and the sugar. Soon I’d have a hot brew in my hands.

National Geographic has nominated Erik and Jon for the 2012 Adventurer of the Year award for their bold circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island. The grand-prize winner will be chosen by popular vote. You can vote for these amazing adventurers once a day, every day, between now and January 18. Stay tuned on this Born Out There for additional stories and photos covering this remarkable expedition.

Author: - Thursday, November 17th, 2011

  1. Reggie Crist

    Good to see my old high school teacher hard at work… Nice effort Jon!!!

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