William Daubney Holmes
Adam Shoalts wants you to know that he is not an adrenaline junkie. It’s a claim that may be tough to believe, coming from a man who spent the summer of 2017 on a 4,000-kilometre solo canoe trip through some of the most remote, dangerous, and forbidding landscape on earth.
Billed as a celebration of and nod to Canada’s 150th birthday, Shoalts decided to spend four months traversing the Canadian Arctic with only his canoe and the stuff he could fit into it. He knew he would go weeks at a time, maybe longer, without seeing another human. He knew there was an ever present danger of bears — both grizzly and polar. He knew he would face huge lakes with blocks of ice that could smash his canoe in the blink of an eye. And yet those are not the things that scared him most.
Shoalts started his epic journey in Old Crow, a tiny community in northern Yukon with a population of 245. From there, he paddled and dragged his canoe over a meticulously planned meandering route of rivers, some of the biggest freshwater lakes in the world, and along windswept, treeless terrain, eventually ending up in Baker Lake, Nunavut. The only outside help he got along the way came in the form of pre-planned deliveries of food, dropped from an airplane.
“It’s just in my nature to do these kinds of expeditions. To a certain extent, it’s pretty universal — the human urge to explore, to probe the unknown. We’re attracted to mysteries,” says Shoalts.
Shoalts has done this sort of thing before. He styles himself as a modern-day explorer. He goes to places where the land is largely unknown, where the natural features sometimes have no names. Dark spots on the map; where if it weren’t for satellite imagery, there would be no map at all.
“At the end of the day, the only way to satisfy your curiosity is to put your boots on and go to the place,” says Shoalts.
It’s easy to think there aren’t many spots on earth left like that. Shoats finds them not just in Canada, but in Ontario.
It’s just in my nature to do these kinds of expeditions. To a certain extent, it’s pretty universal — the human urge to explore, to probe the unknown. We’re attracted to mysteries.
“There’s just so many surprises in the natural world,” he says. “Every time I’d come around a bend or I’d reach a new river on my journey, I’d always feel like, well this is nothing like I’d pictured it.”
In 2013, he went to the Hudson Bay Lowlands in the massive, northernmost part of Ontario, far beyond where any roads go. He found a river on a satellite map that he wanted to explore. After combing through historical government records, reports of previous explorations and journeys, and talking with locals in the nearest towns, he couldn’t find evidence that any human had ever been there. The river was called the Again, but there seemed to be no information anywhere on its features. And so he paddled the river solo in his canoe (it was to be a team effort but his partner dropped out partway into the trip, before they had reached the river).
It’s possible Indigenous people had seen and even paddled the river before, but no one could be sure. Shoalts shed light on the map of Canada that had been shrouded in darkness. He even discovered a waterfall. The story of his trip is the subject of his 2015 book, Alone Against the North.
It’s easy, in this light, to cast him as a daredevil. One reviewer of his book on Amazon said, “This guy flies by the seat of his pants. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him gone missing [and] presumed dead.”
And yet, Shoalts tends not to return from his adventure with tales of miraculous survival, escape from danger, or otherwise horrific circumstances. His dramatic trips are oddly free of drama. His solo trip across the Arctic this summer followed that pattern. Before he left, Shoalts immersed himself in research. For months, he pored over hundreds of trip reports from those who had previously gone through the areas he was planning to cover. Some were written as recently as last year. Some were written in the 1700s. No one, as far as he knew, had done the whole 4,000 kilometres solo. But most of it had been travelled by one group or another at one time or another. From all that, he compiled a detailed route that was both ambitious and cautious.
“If you just tried to do it in a straight line from A to B, the distance would be far less than 4,000 kilometres,” says Shoalts. “I mean, it would be almost half that. But the problem is you can’t actually travel in a straight line, especially on large lakes, without exposing yourself to tremendous danger.” In a canoe, 15 feet long, even modest whitecaps can swamp the boat. An inability to reach shore quickly in that scenario would be a death sentence.
“Because if you go really far from shore, which would be the most efficient route on a map in a straight line, you’re putting yourself at the mercy of the wind and the waves, which are very dangerous north of the Arctic Circle,” he says.
His trip is a case study in the nature of risk-taking. It is obviously risky. The dangerous nature of the environment, the remoteness, the difficulty of rescue, and the fact that he was alone all added to it. But that lack of drama, that absence of life-threatening moments, all came down to meticulous preparation.
“I like to think that when I do my expeditions they’re carefully and methodically planned and that any kind of risk is as minimized as it can possibly be,” says Shoalts. But it’s a balance. “If you’re really risk-averse, then obviously you’d stay home on the couch and not try to cross the Arctic, because the entire journey is just riddled with dangers and hazards that are out of your control.”
His single biggest fear was the wind. In particular, that scenario of paddling down a huge lake in a tiny canoe, when the wind picks up and the waves suddenly get big. As he neared the end of his trip in early September, that risk grew bigger and bigger, to the extent that most others don’t subject themselves to it.
“The expert consensus is don’t canoe beyond mid-August in the Arctic,” says Shoalts. “After mid-August, things get really stormy and it’s common to read about groups of canoeists who get windbound and they literally can’t move for weeks at a time.”
Next scariest on his list was something he had little power to mitigate. Mostly he just had to hope it wouldn’t get him. Not bears, but lightning.
“The odds aren’t terribly reassuring if you’re alone on the Arctic tundra where everything is pretty flat and you’re inside a tent that by necessity has metal tent poles.” Shoalts says he was always cautious, making sure to pitch his tent in low-lying areas, even on days with clear skies. But in a landscape with nowhere to hide, the fear was ever-present. “That’s pretty stressful, and there’s really not a whole lot you can do to minimize the risk of getting struck by lightning.” By the middle of September, he had made it. Paddling down the Thelon River into the small Nunavut community of Baker Lake, his trip was over. He hadn’t seen anyone in a month. And most townsfolk didn’t take a second look at him.
“They didn’t really know who I was or what I was doing there. Just a canoeist who came really late in the season, so probably not a very smart person,” says Shoalts. “They didn’t know where I came from.”
Read more about Adam Shoalt’s adventures in his latest book, A History of Canada in 10 Maps, his national bestseller, Alone Against the North, and on his website, adamshoalts.com.