Lifelong adventurer Jon Turk has written a lot of paddling books, including “Crocodiles and Ice,” “In the Wake of the Jomon” and “The Raven’s Gift,” detailing sea kayaking expeditions from Siberia to paddling across the Pacific. This time, though, the adventurer once named National Geographic’s Top 10 Adventurer of the Year, sets his sights someplace where there’s not a dop of water in sight: the sand-riddled savanna desert in Kenya.
Published by Rocky Mountain Press, his book, “Tracking Lions, Myth, and Wilderness in Samburu,” is set in the desert savanna in Kenya in the midst of a three-year drought. No rivers, oceans, or lakes. And no paddling. And sometimes, he says, not even enough water to drink.
“That said, it’s the strongest statement I’ve made so far about the value of wilderness, wild places and time in nature,” he says.
In a nutshell, the book follows Turk as he tracks a lion with a Samburu headman and then, later, eluding human assailants who may be tracking him. Throughout it all, Turk experiences people at their best and worst. As the tracker and the tracked, he reveals how the stories we tell each other, and the stories spinning in our heads, can be molded into innovation, love and co-operation—or harnessed to launch armies. Seeking escape from the confusion we create for ourselves and our neighbors with our think-too-much-know-it-all brains, Turk finds liberation within a natural world that spins no fiction.
Paddling Life catches up with the longtime paddler for more on his latest work:
Paddling Life: This book is set in the desert savanna in Kenya…did that teach you more about the value of wilderness than the many waterways you’ve traveled?
Turk: Long-distance expedition sea kayaking has been a hugely positive component of my life. When I am sitting in a rose garden in an old folk’s home, I will reflect on my kayak of rounding Cape Horn, the two-year crossing the North Pacific, and the Ellesmere circumnavigation with Eric Boomer, all with great fondness. But the paddling has been only one component of these expeditions. During the Pacific crossing, I met Moolynaut, a 96-year-old Koryak shaman, and then spent a big chunk of time, over the next five years, in her village, on a lonely sandspit, on the eastern edge of the eastern world. Moolynaut introduced me to Kutcha the Spirit Raven, and ever since then, every raven sitting on a power line or soaring overhead, takes me to a special place, whatever you want to call it.
To answer your question directly: The desert savanna isn’t more wilderness or less wilderness than the Pacific Ocean or the Arctic icepack. All are wondrous. Wilderness, wherever we find it – on the ocean, in the desert, or in our own backyards – tells no stories. Wilderness is “presence,” and that is the great take-home lesson from all these journeys.
Paddling Life: How do you equate such a desert environment to, say, crossing the Pacific like you did in Jomon?
Turk: To survive in any wilderness, you must clear the extraneous and distracting stories from your head and live in the Present. Be aware, alert. FLOW. And when that happens, this wondrous cleansing catharsis overtakes your soul. It makes no difference whether you’re tracking a lion armed only with a wooden club, as I did in “Tracking Lions, Myth, and Wilderness in Samburu” or threading your way through the swirling Arctic icepack as we did on Ellesmere…the fundamental essence of all wilderness adventure is the same.
Paddling Life: How did it feel not having a drop of water in sight anywhere, when it’s been such a big part of your life?
Turk: The lack of water was a huge component of the African expedition, as much as an abundance of water defines any sea kayak expedition. The details change from expedition to expedition, more of this, less of that, ice or tropical heat, water or no water. But if you strip away the physical details: the fundamental essence of all adventures is Presence. Wonder. Catharsis.
Paddling Life: What’s the take-home from the book?
Turk: When I was tracking a lion, armed only with a wooden club, I asked, “How did our Stone-Age ancestors survive on this savanna, with inadequate weaponry, when they were weaker than the lion, slower than the cheetah, with inadequate teeth and claws?” Looking into the anthropological literature, I discovered that we found the power to survive through wonder, art, cooperation, storytelling and ceremony; not tools and armaments.
The problem is that these soothing and loving ideas have been hijacked and distorted within this modern, consumer-oriented, oil-soaked world. The kindly elder storytellers around a campfire have been replaced by divisive and powerful people in this modern world, convincing us to buy too much, consume too much, and hate too much. Perhaps it is a Pollyanna perspective, but I believe that the path forward, toward a just and sustainable world, is to find our way back through nature’s healing.
Paddling Life: You’re more of a paddler than a desert crosser…how do you think you would have turned out had you been raised in a desert environment?
Turk: At a young age, I was raised in Brooklyn. My mother tells me that as soon as I could walk, I would escape to a vacant lot down the block. She would race out to find her lost (or escaped) son and see the tall grasses bending as I wandered, on my own, in what was, to me, a great and mysterious wilderness. Later, we moved to a wooded lakeshore in Connecticut, and I spent my childhood playing in my wooden rowboat and exploring the forested New England hillsides. I don’t think it matters where I was raised, as long as I followed my DNA, I would have ended up spending my life in wilderness.
Paddling Life: Any other big paddling trips planned?
Turk: No big trips planned whatsoever. And at the same time, a huge trip planned. I am 76 years old. I don’t have the long-term strength and stamina needed to survive an arduous expedition. I refuse to go out there and then need to call for a rescue that endangers others. And I don’t want to die out there by being foolish, or worse yet, by attempting to fuel my ego. So, the next trip is the journey into old age. Gracefully. I am totally content exploring that ‘vacant lot down the block’ as I did when I was two years old. If I can spend my years living in my van with my wonderful wife, Nina, riding my mountain bike, backcountry skiing, hiking, short kayak trips, exploring, and hanging out in the deserts, mountains, and coastlines of the Western states and British Columbia, that’s all I need and want.
Bio: Jon Turk grew up on the shores of a wooded lake in Connecticut, and he attended Phillips Academy, Andover and then Brown University. Jon earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Colorado, in 1971. The same year, in honor of Earth Day 1, Jon co-authored the first environmental science textbook in the United States. It sold 100,000 copies and speaheaded the development of environmental science curricula in North America. Jon Turk has written over 27 books in his lifetime. Jon began wandering the globe, visiting people and places that were so far from my childhood upbringing. Over the decades, Jon has kayaked across the North Pacific and around Cape Horn, mountain biked through the Gobi desert, made first climbing ascents of big walls on Baffin Island, and first ski descents in the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzia.