Jon Turk: Listening to the Spirits

A low, flat-topped, improbably purple island rises out of the middle of the river. You would have to be blind, deaf and insensitive not to know that this is a place of power in the landscape. As a First Nations elder from the Crow Nation once said: “If people stay somewhere long enough— even white people—the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming from the land.”

We drift lazily to the downstream side of the island to find a large eddy and join together, our little flotilla of Innova inflatable kayaks bumping softly into one another. The mystery is here, as I knew it would be, tactile and palpable before us— an eroded cut-bank full of caribou bones amid the fireweed. I look at the familiar faces in our little tribe: my wife, Nina; younger daughter, Noey; her boyfriend, Glenn; and my older daughter’s husband, Deryl.

We scamper up the 10-foot-high bank, walk across the small plateau, and find a collection of long-abandoned circular homes made with closely interwoven caribou antlers—the remnants of families not so different from my own. Families who had once hunted the giant herds that migrated across the river at this wide, shallow ford.

I have kayaked in the Arctic all my life, charging hard and hungry over tumultuous seas and dangerous, shifting icepack. At the end of my Ellesmere circumnavigation—on the medevac aircraft, racing time against death—I told myself, “I’m done. Finished. Sixty-five years old; too old for this harsh environment. I quit.”

Later, lying in the hospital bed, I recalled sites I had visited during my travels: ancient stone igloos, food caches and bleached kayak ribs lying, half buried, on the beach. I thought about our ancestors who had raised families on this barren tundra and hunted these frozen seas, stealthily moving across the ice with only a rock tied on the end of a long stick, pursuing two-ton, saber-toothed walrus and Nanook, the fearsome polar bear.

I am proud of my expeditions. But there has been a sterility to these endeavors—two men alone in the vastness, racing toward a self-defined goal. So, in my late sixties, I’ve decided to turn a page and approach the Arctic from a different perspective. Now, I am back in the land that I love, but this time moving more slowly, with the people whom I love—my family.

You don’t have to GO BIG to have a meaningful experience in the Arctic. After basking in the sunshine and the flowers, we float onward, toward the ocean. There are rapids to run downstream, fish to catch, mushrooms and berries to pick and grizzly bears to startle us. This is a gift and a legacy I can continue to enjoy and can leave for my people—“The power of the spirits coming from the land.” 

For more on Jon Turk, read his feature published in our Early Summer 2015 issue, and online here.

Screen_Shot_2015-06-15_at_3.44.39_PM.pngThis article first appeared in the Early Summer 2015 issue of Adventure Kayak magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print editions and digital editions, download issues on your device or view this issue for free on your desktop here. 

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