Riding out the swells 

Carrying on with Bitterroot adventurer Jon Turk

Montana has been home to some of the world’s great adventurers, and this week adventurer and Bitterroot resident Jon Turk comes to Missoula to sign copies of his latest book, In the Wake of the Jomon. A gripping story, the book details Turk’s hair-raising adventures crossing the fog-banked, rock-strewn and ice-bound seas from Japan to Alaska.

Though few would have the skill or stamina in their mid-’50s to even contemplate a 3,000-mile ocean crossing in a kayak, that’s exactly what Turk did, spending two long summers with a few companions, re-tracing the hypothetical path of the prehistoric Jomon, descendents of the Ainu people who inhabited the islands north of Japan, on their quest for the New World. In short, it is a tale well worth reading by a man well worth meeting.

I first met Jon Turk almost 30 years ago, when we lived in tiny miners’ cabins we had refurbished in the “ghost town” of Southern Cross. The swirling snows came early in the fall and, in those days, fell heavy throughout the winter, often completely shutting down road access to the community perched at 7,000 feet, high above Georgetown Lake.

Those long winter months gave us plenty of time to sit around the roaring woodstoves in our cozy cabins, telling stories, planning adventures and plotting logistics for upcoming expeditions as we shared our meals, our music and our lives. In many ways, it was a halcyon existence, free from the rat race of modern society, living at the minimal end of the scale, closer to the earth, to the elements and to each other.

Turk came into our little community following Christine Seashore, the woman he loved and eventually married, who just happened to live there. They seemed a physically mismatched pair. Turk is tall and dark, a PhD chemist by training but an adventurer at heart, given away by the wild gleam in his eye. Chrissy, on the other hand, was a tiny, Scandinavian blonde who loved to bake, and in most things, a strictly down-to-earth girl. While Turk wrote environmental science textbooks for a living, Chrissy spent the long winter knitting Peruvian-style wool ski hats that were much in demand in those days. Both Jon and Chrissy were expert skiers, smooth, in control, and able to descend virtually any slope in any snow condition.

Together, Turk and Chrissy were to share more than two decades of companionship, being in love, writing and adventuring around the world, doing things of which “normal” people can only dream, as in this passage from the book:

“Chris and I had been lovers for twenty years and partners on seven major expeditions. We’d kayaked Arctic waters, climbed a previously unclimbed Himalayan peak, bicycled across the Gobi desert, and skied remote mountains in central Asia. I remember the angle of her skis on a steep glaciated face; the dry, parched lips as we pushed our bicycles over a desert pass; and the broad smile as Inuit children gathered around the ‘kayak woman.’”

The “kayak woman” features prominently in Turk’s new book, earning that distinction not just as pilot of her own tiny boat in those treacherous waters, but even during stretches of the expedition when she was absent. Jon’s great love for Chrissy kept her ever in his heart and thoughts—and when he is re-united with her after the first summer at sea, the tenderness that spills from this tough adventurer is heart-rending:

“I flew home and Chris met me at the airport. She was standing in the crowd, short and square shouldered; then she moved toward me with the easy grace of an athlete. When we had first met, she wore her blond hair in pigtails, but now that her hair was gray, she had cut it short to minimize cosmetic maintenance. We embraced, then held back to look at each other. Her angular Scandinavian face, with its slightly raised cheekbones and gray-hazel eyes, was so familiar. When we first met I would kiss the crow’s-feet near her eyes to moisturize the skin and make the wrinkles go away. But twenty years of intense mountain sunlight had been stronger than my kisses. I held her again and kissed the weather-beaten skin near both eyes.”

Considering Turk had been swirled in 20-mile wide whirlpools, spent days and nights drifting in cold and endless fog, been stalked by enormous grizzly bears while camping on the rocky strand and threatened by AK-47s in the hands of young Russian soldiers, it is no surprise that the return to his forest home in Montana and the woman he so dearly loved would bring such joy.

For most men, one summer on the cold sea, battling the treacherous currents of the forbidding Kuril Islands, would have been enough. But then again, Turk isn’t “most men,” and the next year, he headed back out—this time with Chrissy along—to finish his quest to follow the path of the Jomon to Alaska. I’d say more, but the book is so engrossing, so beautiful in its descriptive power, and so detailed in its scientific background, that to do so would give away too much, too soon.

Perhaps, given the scope and range of the adventures they shared, it’s not surprising that one day death, ever a constant companion on cold oceans and wind-swept, snow-covered mountains, finally caught up with them. This spring, 12,000 feet up on a mountain in California, the white hand of a powerful avalanche put an end to my friend Chrissy’s adventuring forever. For what little consolation it provides, at least she died doing what she loved, which is more than most of us can hope for.

As Turk wrote me after Chrissy’s death: “Well, Chris has gone home, and I have to continue the expedition. Saddened, with a big void inside, but I have to paddle out into the ocean again. I’m a little bit scared.”

One of the great loves in his life is gone, but should you take the time to attend the book signing, to talk to Jon Turk, and to look into his eyes, you will know that he will, scared or not, as he has done so many times before, shove out through the pounding surf and take to the seas again—perhaps even some day soon.

Go well, my friend, into the continuing adventure of your life.

Jon Turk appears at Fact & Fiction for a reading and signing of In the Wake of the Jomon Tuesday, May 24, at 7 PM.

arts@missoulanews.com

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