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Following The Less-Traveled Path: World-Class Adventurer Jon Turk
Montana Senior News, February/March 2013
Nothing summarizes Jon Turk’s life better than three lines of poetry penned by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Considering that Jon trained as a research organic chemist but chose instead to become a professional adventurer and storyteller, these famous lines seem especially apropos despite having been written in 1916.

“From an early age, I was drawn to wild places but it was expected that I’d become a professional scientist, like my parents,” says Jon, who was named in 2012 as one of National Geographic’s Top Ten Adventurers of the Year. Jon received this recognition for completing the first circumnavigation of Canada’s Ellesmere Island. For his 27-year-old paddling partner, Erik Boomer, it was an incredible feat. But it was an even more extraordinary triumph for Jon, who is Eric’s senior by 39 years.

The 1,485-mile circumnavigation took them 104 days on skis, in kayaks, and on foot. Aside from dealing with unpredictable polar bears and treacherous winds, the twosome also had to pull 220-pound fully loaded kayaks 800 miles across ice. This Arctic expedition capped off a career for Jon that many dream about but few pursue and even fewer succeed at accomplishing.

“Each person has an inner path that makes them happy. It’s an individual path. All paths are different. You have to listen to your inner voice and sort them out,” says Jon, who makes his home in Darby, MT and Fernie, B.C. when he’s not climbing Asian mountains or skiing down Bolivian volcanoes. “We all have expectations coming at us. The way we manage the struggle defines if we’ll be happy. We have the choice: to live magically or chained to technology.”

Originally from Connecticut, Jon moved to Montana three times and finally settled here in 1984. Initially, he wrote scientific college textbooks (25 total) to earn his living and support his yen for wilderness exploits. Eventually, though, Jon acquired corporate sponsors. That gave him more freedom to travel to more places and enabled him to write about his travels instead of test-tube experiments.

“The combination of landscape and people brought me here each time. It’s a wild landscape with lots of opportunity to interact with unpopulated natural environments. The people are friendly,” observes Jon. “We have divisive political views but on a one-on-one basis, it’s an extraordinarily warm open place. There’s a special combination of community and individuality here.”

Reflecting back on his decades as an explorer, Jon can count among his numerous achievements: the first ascent of China’s Lamo-she Peak, kayak passage around Cape Horn, mountain biking across the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, big-wall ascents on Baffin Island, as well as paddling a kayak 3,000 miles from Japan to Alaska. And that is just the short list.

Growing up, Jon loved to read adventure books. Classics such as We by Charles Lindbergh, Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure by Admiral Richard Byrd, and South by Ernest Shackleton did more than capture his young imagination. They left him with a legacy of believing that it was possible for him to do anything he really wanted to do. At the age of 17, Jon put that belief into practice and embarked on his first wilderness adventure. In spite of the hardships, he was smitten.

“I bought a beat-up canoe for $40 and took my 12-year-old brother with me. We paddled the Allagash River system, which goes from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to the Canadian border. We were gone three weeks and had no tent. We brought fishing poles but didn’t buy a fishing license so a game warden took them.  Then we ran out of food,” recalls Jon. “On every trip you engage in a certain level of suffering. Suffering hurts but it takes you to a wondrous space where everything is cleaned away—all the frills are removed. The wilderness teaches us to find an inner space that goes beyond the commotion of Western civilization.”

Of all his adventures, it is Jon’s Siberian expeditions that have left the deepest imprint on him. His book, The Raven’s Gift, tells of how he came to reside for most of the time between 1999 and 2005 with an aboriginal group of former reindeer herders, the Koryaks. And it tells, most importantly for Jon, how one Koryak, an elderly shaman, healed him of a painful pelvic disorder resulting from a skiing accident. That healing changed his life course yet again.

Part history, adventure, anthropology, and good old-fashioned story-telling, The Raven’s Gift chronicles how Jon and his Russian paddling companion, Misha, ended up in the Siberian village of Vyvenka and how Jon later returned with his wife to learn more about—and from—these hospitable people.

“Misha and I were trying to get to Alaska before winter when the ice would freeze. We were paddling past Vyvenka when a storm blew us to shore,” remembers Jon. To his surprise, a woman awaited them on the shore.

“Jon and Misha, it is good to see you. We were expecting you,” she told the two men, who had no clue who she was. “Grandmother created the storm. She wants to talk to you.”

As it turned out, grandmother was Moolynaut, a spiritual healer who said to Jon during his first visit, “Please come back. It will be good for you.” After Jon returned to Vyvenka a second time, Moolynaut told him that he must believe and if he did, she could heal him.

“Aboriginal wisdom is relevant to us in North America. It teaches us the importance of our human connectivity to our natural environment. That makes us feel whole and peaceful,” says Jon. “Magical things are happening around us all the time. We must see the wonder and run with it. Recognize the inspiration and let it take us over.”

In an unusual turn of events, a modern-dance choreographer living in Massachusetts, Jody Weber, happened to buy a copy of The Raven’s Gift. Inspired by reading about what happens when a Western man of science encounters something he thinks cannot happen, Jody contacted Jon.

“The story was interesting, the way Western civilization has taken over everything. So much wisdom and knowledge have been pushed underground because of that,” says Jody. “How people have survived in such a harsh climate shows what is possible when living in a bold way and paying attention to the earth and what it’s telling us.”

“She asked if I’d like to share my message through a joint storytelling-dance performance,” relates Jon, who immediately saw the possibilities of melding these two artistic mediums. The first performance of “Synchronicity & the Sacred Space,” which Jon takes part in, was held in Boston a year and a half ago. Since then, it has been performed in Alaska, California, and the Northern Rockies.

“So far, the response has been great,” says Jody, who took the spirit of what happened to Jon and created the dance. She tells her story through movement while Jon speaks his through words.

“It’s a conversation about something larger than ourselves. People want to hear and talk about the message. I hope it will touch people and open our communication with the natural world and older wisdoms that we’ve ignored. We need to remember what these cultures have to teach us,” says Jody. “Chemistry is important but there’s more. We have to let go of the arrogance that we know how to manage the world and pay attention to see what’s working or not and make the needed changes.”
 
For more information, visit www.jonturk.net or email jon@jonturk.net. You can also visit www.weberdance.com or email weberdance@rcn.com.