Across the Arctic Alone With Adam Shoalts, “Canada’s Indiana Jones”

Adam Shoalts
Courtesy Adam Shoalts

Canadian adventurer Adam Shoalts first captured the media spotlight in 2013, when The Guardian reported on his obsessive quest to canoe the remote Again River in northern Ontario. It was an auspicious ascent to stardom: News outlets around the world latched on to his accidental descent of an unmapped waterfall. The Toronto Star called Shoalts “Canada’s Indiana Jones” and his book about the Again River saga, published in 2016, quickly became a bestseller.

His follow-up canoe expedition was far longer and significantly more ambitious, conceived to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. Shoalts says he was inspired by a canoe journey organized to mark the country’s centennial, involving teams of paddlers traversing Canada from Alberta to Quebec. “I figured I could probably re-do that route nowadays and stop at a Tim Horton’s every third day,” says the 33-year-old, Royal Canadian Geographic Society explorer. “So, I figured, why not shift the canoe route north? Say, a couple thousand kilometres north, beyond the trees to the Arctic tundra. That would take me right across the greatest road-free wilderness left in North America. I hoped in paddling across that vast, amazing wild, it would give me the opportunity in some small way to show the value of wild places, and why we need to find ways to preserve them.”

Shoalts’ new book, Beyond the Trees, launched just in time for the armchair adventure season. It provides an in-depth glimpse of what went through Shoalts’ head in completing one of the most audacious solo canoe expeditions in recent history, spanning May through September and the entire breadth of the Canadian geography north of the 60th parallel. Shoalts is at turns questioning (concerns regarding wind and weather delays occur on repeat) and determined, as he pushes himself and his equipment to its limits in completing the 2,600-mile epic. Beyond the Trees is essentially a travelogue of Shoalts’ journey, its simple prose paralleling the ardor of the expedition: There’s little space dedicated for self-reflection. Shoalts is at his best when he delves into nature and historical vignettes, but these diversions are rare as the narrative and the author paddles, poles and portages toward the final goal.

We caught up with Shoalts in the wake of his book launch, to learn more about how writing about the expedition galvanized his experiences in the Canadian North.

Beyond The TreesMen’s Journal: Starting out, did you have any doubts of whether or not your route was possible?
Adam Shoalts: I certainly had doubts whether it would be possible for me to pull it off, but I figured you only live once, so I ought to give it my best shot. Reflecting back, I learned two things: You can accomplish a lot, even what seems impossible, simply by putting one foot in front of the other and just keep going; two, and more importantly, that wild places are simply irreplaceable and critical to the well-being of everyone.

What was your main objective in pursuing this journey?
To reiterate what I said earlier, I hoped in paddling across that vast, amazing wild, it would give me the opportunity in some small way to show readers the value of wild places, and why we need to find ways to preserve them. Beyond that, I simply wanted to experience truly wild places hundreds of miles from other human beings while it’s still possible in our fast-growing world.

What did you think would be the hardest part going into the expedition?
The hardest part mentally I figured would be at the very start, when I had the whole vast route looming ahead of me. I figured if I could just psychologically break it up into smaller portions and keep going, it would get easier, at least mentally, as I went on. Physically though, I envisioned the hardest parts as battling the big waves and ice of Great Bear Lake’s massive expanse, and also of canoeing upstream on powerful northern rivers like the Coppermine, which almost everyone told me beforehand was impossible.

What did you learn about your capability to travel upstream and overland? What were the biggest factors in conquering these challenges?
That almost anything is possible if you’re patient and just chip away at it. If the current is rip-roaring, with rocky cliffs and boulders on shore, well, you just have to think like the tortoise racing the hare, and say, one foot in front of another, one stroke after another, and bit by bit, step by step, you’ll get up the river.

Adam Shoalts
Shoalts, making the hard miles. Courtesy Adam Shoalts

How did you go about keeping yourself nourished? And safe and happy—while traveling alone?
 Staying happy wasn’t too much of a challenge. I loved what I was doing, so that was easy. In terms of safety, I wear a life jacket and waterproof gear, and keep an eye out for signs of bears and maintain a respectful distance. Staying well-nourished, on the other hand, was more of a challenge. Normally, I’d supplement my diet with fish and wild edibles. But since I was racing against the seasons and moving as fast as I could, I didn’t have the luxury of lingering in one place like I might normally do to gather berries or fish. Instead I relied on high-calorie energy and builder bars, the highest calorie ones I could obtain, to keep me going. I ate about a dozen a day, and besides that, my daily allotted rations included nuts, dried fruit, jerky, and one freeze-dried meal a day to be eaten when I stopped. That seemed to do the trick. 

What did you learn about your own limits out there?
I realized I’d take solo trekking in the wild any day of the week over modern life. It’s far more relaxing and tranquil than answering emails or dealing with traffic.

Did the journey change any of your notions about wilderness, the original people or the explorers who have also traversed this land?
It really reinforced how much more patient those earlier generations had to be. Our modern way of life is used to things happening instantaneously: we send a text, order something online and have it delivered to our door, rely on vehicles and planes to get around, etc. Early generations were inured to a different pace that gave them a kind of patience and fortitude that I think few people today possess. This is true even in the realm of canoe travel, where we might think that we’re getting back to the basics, but it’s only true in a limited sense. We still (generally) have modern conveniences like GPS, matches, modern, lightweight tents, and waterproof gear. Those earlier generations had to be much tougher, especially mentally. And this is true of canoeing or kayaking. Those traditional boats were made of birchbark or animal skins, and remarkable as they were, both puncture very easily. I was familiar with historic accounts of these vessels requiring almost daily repair. But when you’re travelling hundreds of miles from the nearest birch tree big enough to fashion a canoe from, it reinforces how much more careful and delicate one had to be with a canoe. During my journey, I was often thinking how I could use my modern Nova Craft Canoe in ways that would be impossible with a traditional canoe. For example, when I encountered vast fields of ice, I simply battered my canoe through them, or even poled along over the surface of the ice. All this kind of stuff would puncture a birch bark or skin canoe (the same is true of many shallow, rock-strewn creeks or rivers that I frequently traveled on), and for that reason, those early generations had to be vastly more patient. They had to either portage far greater distances than modern travellers, avoid certain waterways, or else stop far more frequently to make repairs. 

In preparing the book, did you recall any special details that may have been lost in the course of the expedition?
I kept a journal throughout my journey, and no matter how exhausted I was at the end of a day, I forced myself to scribble as many notes as I could. The journal I used as the basis for my book. But one thing that does seem to jog my memory is revisiting maps, and tracing my route out through each lake or river. It seems to bring back memories of what each place was like.

How will you apply the lessons of this trip going forward?
In the immediate sense, I’m trying to visit schools and other audiences to share the story of my journey and in the process, hopefully inspire at least a few people, especially young people, to look on wild nature with a fresh perspective. I hope to kindle something of the fascination the nature world holds for me in these audiences. If I can do that, hopefully it will help us want to save these wild places.

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