December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

For Jon Turk the beginning of the story was nearly the end. He was attempting to paddle a sea kayak by himself, through the treacherous waters around Cape Horn. Navigating the roiling waters where the Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic oceans meet is hard enough, but when a storm blew in—and Turk miscalculated its force—the waves ejected him from his tiny vessel. “And there I was,” he says of that dark day in 1979, “hypothermic, my arm out of its socket with my boat beating against me, and being slammed up against the rocks.” He didn’t make it to the tip of South America, but was it fun trying? “Harrowing,” he says.

It may seem like a death wish, but to Turk, a sinewy, weather-beaten 52-year-old, testing his limits is the only way to feel truly alive. “I can only assume that when my DNA was mixed up, it created a person who likes to wander,” he says. So wander he does, bicycling across the Gobi desert, paddling from Canada to Greenland and climbing unconquered peaks in China. Often he travels with his wife, Chris Seashore, 49 (yes, that’s her real name), though as he writes in Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat and Dogsled (Harper Collins) their bond has been tested—at times fractured—by his stubborn need to cross the uncrossable.

Why do they do it? Richard Bangs, one of the world’s most daring wild-river rafters, says that everyone who challenges the raw edge of nature feels the same seductive rush. “When you step off the beaten path you can find wonderful truths,” he says. “It’s a narcotic. And very difficult to give up.”

Sitting at the kitchen table in the Montana cabin where he and Seashore spend the warmer months, Turk—who writes science textbooks for a living—describes the special process to conceive and then settle on the journeys that have taken him from Siberia to the islands of the South Pacific. “Random romantic images,” he says. “You think about it at night, and if the images are staring back at you from underneath the Cheerios the next morning, that’s when you go.”

That compulsion to keep moving, Seashore notes, makes Turk a particularly motivated traveling companion. “He’s never really laid-back about anything,” she says. Maybe he shouldn’t be. Consider how a windstorm in the North Atlantic nearly blew their kayaks out to sea in 1988. Or how they stumbled into the path of a charging polar bear while dragging their kayaks across broken ice floes in the Arctic Ocean in 1982. Seashore got them out of that scrape by running straight at the beast, waving her arms and screaming, “Go away, bear!” Still, Turk—who pulled his rifle on the bear only to have his aim blocked by Seashore’s back—was unhappy, even after the bear turned on its heels. “He didn’t think I had the right idea,” Seashore says. “But he’s come to appreciate it.”

These days, Turk tries to accept Seashore’s notion that the journey itself is as important as the destination. “Failure is a mind-set. You can fail and not think of yourself as a failure,” he says, adding with a smile, “I just thought of myself as a person with a very steep learning curve.”

The second of three kids born to Amos, 80, a retired chemistry professor still working as an air pollution consultant, and Regina, a child psychologist who died in 1973, Turk grew up in Danbury, Conn. Eager to follow his father into chemistry, Turk graduated from Brown University in 1967, then entered the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he worked toward a Ph.D. “But Vietnam was going on, and people were getting drafted out of the lab to make chemical weapons,” he recalls. Disenchanted, Turk dropped his career plans (though he earned his degree) and spent the summer of 1971 canoeing in Canada. Returning to civilization he collaborated with his father on an environmental-science textbook, the first of 21 science texts that now bear his name.

Turk’s personal life was a bit less stable. Married to Elizabeth Nolan (once his father’s student) in 1967, Turk had one daughter, Reeva, 28, now a veterinary student, before they broke up in 1969. A second marriage, to Debby Young, ended in 1975 after three years and two kids—Noey, 26, a physics student, and Nathan, 29, a computer consultant. Moving from Maine to Colorado to an oceangoing sailboat (he briefly thought of sailing around the world), Turk eventually settled in La Conner, Wash., where he worked on his textbooks—a lucrative pursuit that occupies him for only four months a year—and hung out with budding novelist Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). “Chaos” is how he describes the era. One damp day, however, inspiration struck: “I decided I wanted to be an adventurer.”

In 1979, Turk washed up on the shores of Cape Horn. But at least his romantic luck was turning: During a trip to Montana in 1980, he fell in ove with Seashore, then a soil-conservation student, and married her in 1984. And if the passage of their marriage has at times rivaled the tempest that nearly blew them to sea in the North Atlantic, Turk and Seashore remain expedition mates, both at home and abroad. “Jon can’t fit into a mold,” she says. “This adventure justification for life is where he’s at.”

It leads him perpetually onward. Next year, Turk and a friend plan to sail from Hokkaido, Japan, to Nome, Alaska—a 3,000-mile journey across the North Pacific. Which doesn’t mean he can’t feel the cool breath of fate on his neck. “I have friends in pictures who aren’t here anymore,” he says, and he knows he could be next. Turk found the time to write Cold Oceans only because he was recuperating from a separated pelvis he suffered in an avalanche. And he still thinks about the time he got sucked to the bottom of Canada’s Dean River by a hydraulic hole. “It took all my willpower to get out. My boat and paddle are still there.”

Turk, on the other hand, keeps moving. In 1996, 17 years after his first failure, he returned to those churning waters off Cape Horn and after a month of cold, wet labor surged into the calm water on the far side of the Cape. Paddling to shore, he writes, he spoke two words that say it all: Grand adventure.

Peter Ames Carlin

Johnny Dodd in Darby, Mont.

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