Trained as an organic chemist, Jon Turk realized early on that he wasn’t cut out for the buttoned-down life of a research scientist. So in 1971 he put his PhD in a drawer and a canoe on his 1964 Ford Fairlane. He floated down the Mackenzie River, carried over to the Yukon and never worked a day as a chemist.
He took whatever odd jobs gave him the flexibility to pursue his passion for the outdoors—framing houses, working on fishing boats, raising chickens and co-authoring the first college-level environmental science textbook in North America. Eventually he wrote 35 more science texts, a fortuitous gig that afforded him the luxury of New York wages without having to live anywhere near a city. For the last few decades he’s split time between a Montana cabin, the backcountry around Fernie, British Columbia, and expeditions from Cape Horn to Kamchatka and the Canadian Arctic. He mountain biked the Gobi desert, made first climbing ascents on Baffin Island, and first ski descents in the Tien Shan Mountains.
Turk has also written five books rooted in his lifelong pursuit of deep wilderness. That quest has been the impetus for a number of groundbreaking expeditions, including a two-year kayak crossing of the North Pacific, a healing journey among the Koryak people of Siberia, and a 104-day circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island by ski and kayak, which he completed in 2011 when he was 65 and his expedition partner Erik Boomer was 26.
As a scientist with impeccable expedition credentials, Turk gets his share of bizarre invitations, and in 2017 he was asked to come to a remote part of northern Kenya to track lions and live among the Samburu, a herding people besieged by modernity, climate change and hostile factions both within the government and outside the law. Soon enough, Turk went from tracking lions to eluding potential human assailants. That experience is the framework for his latest book, Tracking Lions, Myth and Wilderness in Samburu (Rocky Mountain Books). On the scaffolding of this travel-thriller he constructs a uniquely Turkian vision of human evolution, in which the shared myths that make us human have brought us to the brink of catastrophe, and also contain the seeds of our salvation.
Adventure Journal: You’ve said this is your last book but you wish it had been your first, because you finally figured out what you want to say. It covers so much ground, from evolution to climate change and our intractable human nature, all wrapped in an engaging travelogue. If you could boil it down, what is it that you had to say?
Jon Turk: That our way forward, whether as an individual or as a society, is not only based on reason and science—all of that is good and necessary—but the really important thing is an ability to face the world without anger and with a trust in basic human kindness and compassion.
Are we wired for that?
Well, you see, that’s the thing. We are wired for compassion, and we are also wired for anger and war.
You can make an argument for either and both of those, and I talk about this in the book. It was compassion and cooperation and love and the group identity that gave us the power to survive back in the Stone Age. But then, the group identity—and the other word for that is tribalism—got tweaked to also create the warfare and all of the commotion that has been going on for the last 10,000 or more years. So we have we have conflicting wiring systems within us.
From an evolutionary point of view, conflicting wiring systems can sometimes give you a broader range of possibilities. But in the human experiment, part of that broader range is causing the chaos right now. Robert Sapolsky argues at the end of his book on neurophysiology and evolution [Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst] that the bottom line is we have a cerebral cortex, and because of that we can make decisions and we can change. We have the genetic ability to change, and we have the cultural means of making change very fast, much faster than biological evolutionary changes in our DNA. So it’s possible that we are wired to take a good journey. I’m not going to bet the farm on what’s going to happen.
We’ve already pushed the farm into the middle of the table though, haven’t we? To use the poker metaphor, we’re all-in as a species and we’re going to have to play these cards we’re holding.
Basic Buddhism tells us I’m not responsible for what you do and for what you think. I’m only responsible for my reaction to it. So if X number of millions of people decide not to get vaccinated and throw the whole country into chaos, in a sense I’m not responsible for their actions. But, yikes. All I can say is that I find my responsibility at least is to be a spokesperson for what I consider a more sane way forward.
The book is a deep dive into the science of human evolution and human nature, woven into the story of your visit with the Samburu people in northern Kenya. Could you have written this book based on your experience with any indigenous group?
I started writing this book without a narrative–as an idea book like Guns, Germs and Steel. I titled it Mythologies We Love And Kill For. I put that energy out and basically the response I got from the publishing world was, You’re not an academic. You have no credentials. You have no authority to speak on this subject. And I got rejected. So I went back to my roots and I said, Okay, I’m a storyteller. I’m an adventure traveler, so I’ll wrap it around the narrative that I have.
I needed a convenient narrative to engage my audience in a journey and then fit the book I wanted to write within that narrative. Once I started doing that, I found that while this wasn’t the only narrative that would work, it worked pretty darn well. I had the opening chapter in which I’m journeying on the savanna near the Olduvai Gorge where humanity evolved, and I was facing the same kinds of situations that our Paleolithic ancestors faced.
So in 1971 he put his PhD in a drawer and a canoe on his 1964 Ford Fairlane. He floated down the Mackenzie River, carried over to the Yukon and never worked a day as a chemist.
I was facing a lion holding a wooden club, which is not a metaphor, which is a reality, which is what they faced. That gave me a springboard to jump into the anthropology, the archaeology, the human history of how our ancestors survived on the savanna facing lions with wooden clubs. That gave me the start of the origin of mythology. As the narrative progresses I run through all the scenarios that we’re facing now—global climate change, drought and water scarcity. All of this really happened to me, and the book kind of wrote itself. Then at the end, we run into tribalism—the tribalism that gave us the power to survive and now, because of exactly the same tribalism, there are people with AK 47s who would like to capture me, take me back to their camp, cut off my head and post the video up on Facebook. This really happened. So all of a sudden, I did have a very unique and special narrative to carry my basic theme.
I certainly would have read Mythologies We Love And Kill For—that’s a great title—but the adventure gives the book added context and personality. It’s a delightful bit of travel writing, even without the science layered in. I think a lot of AJ readers will identify with the situation you found yourself in. You were a foreigner at this tourist tent camp you call The Hotel At The End Of The World, but you brought an openness and stayed there long enough that you became almost a bridge between two very different worlds.
It was, in a way, a made-for-order journey to express my theme, and I didn’t see that right away but once I started delving into it, the whole thing just dropped into my lap. There are many aspects to the book and one of them—I’m going away from your direct question a little bit—but when I did the Japan to Alaska paddle I ended up in a Koryak village in Siberia with the shaman Moolynaut. The basic question that I was addressing with Moolynaut over the years was where does our power come from? And it got answered in many ways. One woman told me that if you lose the magic in your life, you lose your power. Other people told me that basically the power comes from the triumvirate—the shaman, the hunter and the tundra. The spiritual journey, the practical journey and your relationship with the Earth.
After five years visiting Moolynaut and the Koryak people, I wrote the book The Raven’s Gift. Then I started saying to myself, if I really believe what I’m saying, I have more power than I think I have. And if I believe what I’m saying, I have to put it to the test. So I dreamed up the Ellesmere expedition, which was way harder than anything I thought I could do. I went out there and, excuse the expression, put my life on the line to see if I could do this. And Boomer and I pulled it off.
So then I’m walking through the savanna with this wooden club and the lion close in the bushes, and all of a sudden I’m back to the power question. The wooden club by itself is not that much power against the lion, right? And so I’m back to this question, which is really the fundamental question that we have to ask ourselves: Where does the power come from? Where does the magic come from? And that really launched the book into another theme I’ve been working with: Big Brain, No Tools.
We evolved a big brain before we invented sophisticated tools and weaponry. People today assume that our power comes from our tools. I’m not putting down the tools, but the real power is behind the tools. When you’re facing a lion in the bush with a wooden club, you realize that you have to find this other power. That’s been the journey of the last twenty years of my life and it’s been quite wondrous. This book, I hope, is an examination into that. And then the bad thing, as you said earlier, is how that power can get hijacked into evil. It’s such a slippery line. As soon as you find the power, you find other people hijacking the power for evil, and that’s the tragedy of the human race.
That’s a lot to unpack, and before we do I want to come back to the fact that we humans evolved big brains tens of thousands of years before we developed sophisticated tools. It was a real revelation to me that stories—art and myth and even religion—came before innovations like the bow and arrow. I’d always assumed, or maybe I was taught, that once people invented the bow and arrow, it became easier to get meat and they had more time to sit around the fire and tell stories. But as you describe in the book, it’s actually the opposite. The stories came first, and they’re what make us human.
I gave a TED talk called Big Brain No Tools some years ago, and that was sitting in the background as another one of these ideas that I knew had to feed into a book, along with all these other themes that were running around in my head.
A moment ago you said you undertook the 1,500-mile circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic in order to find your power. Can you elaborate?
Way back when, I don’t remember the exact date, Chris Seashore and I paddled from Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island over to Greenland following the journey of this ancient shaman, murderer and madman named Qidtlaq. It was 600 miles and we did it in 60 days. That was an average of 10 miles a day and we were totally spent. I was much younger and at the end of that expedition I was done. That’s all I had.
And then Jerry Kobalenko puts up on his website that one of the last great Arctic journeys is to circumnavigate Ellesmere Island. To do that, you have to average 15 miles a day, one and a half times what we averaged previously, for almost twice as long. And I thought, That’s impossible. That’s not within the realm of what I have. And I shelved it for 20 years. Then all of these things happened in Siberia. I stood on one leg naked in front of the old woman, and my old avalanche injury somehow got healed. Now I don’t understand that and I never will, but it jolted me into thinking that I was putting limitations on myself.
There are limitations of course. I could not now train to be a ballet dancer. I could not train to be an Olympic skateboarder. But it started bugging me because what I can do is long-distance expedition sea kayaking, and I was really limiting myself.
I’d finished my five years off and on in Siberia. All of my sponsors dropped me because I was hanging out with the shaman woman and not doing the next big thing, and now I find myself 65, and I can’t really explain it to you, but I knew I had to do this. It was just running around in my brain rattling around.
Then I was at the Salt Lake trade show and [extreme kayaker] Tyler Bradt comes up to me. I’ve known Tyler since he was, I don’t know, four or five years old. And he says, “Hey, man!”—you know Tyler, big grin, big cheery, big guy—he says, “Hey dude, hey man, let’s do a trip, the old and the new, the passing of the torch! Let’s do something big, man! Let’s go for it!” I was caught up with his enthusiasm, his big laugh, his boundless enthusiasm, and I say, “Yeah, man, let’s go around Ellesmere.” It just jolted out of me. It was totally initiated by Tyler Bradt’s laugh, by a hug from Tyler, by his enthusiasm, by his belief that anybody can do anything. And Tyler said, “Yeah, man, go big! Yeah, let’s do it, dude!”
Tyler unfortunately broke his back hucking a huge waterfall and missed that trip, but you did it with Erik Boomer, a friend of Tyler’s who was 27 at the time. It became one of the great May-December bromances in expedition history, and you and Boomer were nominated as National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2012. You got that recognition for a groundbreaking expedition, but did you also find your power?
I think I did. That trip was transformational for me in many ways. I’ll give you two instances. One is when Boomer and I crossed the 80-degree latitude line. This white wolf showed up at four o’clock in the afternoon and stayed there till maybe nine the next morning. It bivvied up right next to the tent, like I could have reached out through the tent and touched it. It was that close. And I told Boomer it was the spirit wolf, and it had come to welcome us into the Arctic. Not to promise us safe passage; it wasn’t the fairy godmother wolf. It was the Earth coming to speak to me.
Now you can say whatever you say. You can call me a crackpot, but it was the Earth, nature, coming to speak to me. There is this power from the Earth that if I listened to it, it will transfer to me. It will make me a stronger person if I listened to the Earth.
So then we travel over the north coast and blah blah blah, ice and pulling and dragging and crawling through the slush and all that. Then we get into the Nares Strait and we’re trapped. You have an entire ocean of ice moving through the Nares Strait, moving through the bottleneck, the compression. And it’s being pulled by the spin of the Earth and big, big forces—the difference in temperature and so on. Big floes are blasting into the air and groaning and moaning and smashing crystals into the sunlight. And man, we are not strong enough to get out there in our little plastic kayaks. If we go out in this in this water we’re going to get dead right away.
We were trapped for 17 days, and during that time we’re running out of food, we’re getting closer to winter and things aren’t looking very good. And a friend of mine texted me—he’s a world class endurance athlete in his own right—and he says if you treat this problem as a barrier and try to overcome it, you will fail. You’re not strong enough. You have to pretend it doesn’t exist. That became the great wisdom that we were not going to go out there and fight this thing. It was going to open up, or it wasn’t.
Acceptance means that maybe we would die out there, and that was okay too. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to succeed at everything, but it means that your power comes from something other than frustration and anger. It comes from a deep contentment and a deep acceptance of what the Earth has to offer you.
it’s what I need to go into this next expedition, this next lion in the bushes, this next Nares Strait, which is old age. And in this one, I know I’m gonna die.
That came back so often when I was tracking the lion armed with the wooden club. My first reaction when I realized the situation that I was in was anger. I was pissed off at all the people in camp. They had guns, they had machetes, they had stronger weaponry than a wooden club, and they put me out there with the wooden club to face the lion. And my first reaction was I was pissed off. It was a barrier, and I was going to react to the barrier with frustration and anger. And then I have this overwhelming emotion, this cathartic emotion come through me that went, Anger is not my friend. This is not a problem. This is what is happening right now, and I have to communicate with this lion and I have to communicate with myself. I have to communicate with [my Samburu companion] Dipa and we will get through this. Or we won’t and the lion will eat me—and that’s okay. It’s exactly the same situation that Boomer and I were in at the Nares Strait. So I’ve forgotten your question already. I’m off on a rant.
The original question was whether you found your power in Ellesmere, and what I was digging for is whether we all can find power in the wilderness. Does it fill you up with power, magic, awareness—an ability to go through life with a perspective that wilderness gives you, and that we’re lacking in our Twenty First Century western world.
Just yesterday, my wife and I and a couple of friends hiked up Trapper Peak, which is the highest peak in the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s the peak that rises right above my house if I walk out the back door and just start walking up. So it’s my home ground and I’ve been up there many, many times. And you get up on the ridge and it’s so beautiful. I’m 75 right now, and there’s no question that I’m coming up against the biggest expedition of my life, which is real old age. And I hobble along up there. There are more aches and pains than I used to have, but I get up on that ridge, and . . . it’s what I need to go into this next expedition, this next lion in the bushes, this next Nares Strait, which is old age. And in this one, I know I’m gonna die.
It’s not, Maybe I’ll die, and maybe I’ll get through it. I’m not getting through it. I’m going to die. My goal right now, my expedition, is to face this journey with peace and equanimity. Maybe I’ll fail. You fail on some expeditions; you blow it. I know that I’m going to need a lot of power to do this. It’s not an easy one.
But I know—it happened yesterday on Tapper Peak and it happened this morning when I walked down here in the moonlight—that you reach out to the earth around you and you draw from its power and that gives you the strength to go on. I’m absolutely certain of that.
Top photo: Portrait by Erik Boomer