Crossing the Arctic for Canada’s 150th

Explorer and author Adam Shoalts, on an earlier journey. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Pelham native prepares to embark on five-month solo journey across Canada’s most hostile terrain


While many Canadians will be celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday watching fireworks or taking in live music with family and friends, explorer and author Adam Shoalts has decided to celebrate solo. After learning how teams of canoeists paddled and portaged from Vancouver to Halifax to honour Canada’s Centennial year in 1967, Shoalts came up with the idea to celebrate his homeland’s birthday in an extraordinary way.

Shoalts’ tribute to Canada begins this coming Saturday, when he flies from Toronto to Whitehorse, before travelling north to the remote community of Old Crow. From there, he plans to embark on a five-month solo expedition through the Canadian arctic.

Recognizing there was not nearly as much wilderness remaining along the southern canoe route from Vancouver to Halifax as there was 50 years ago, Shoalts set his sights on Canada’s north.

“I thought, well, I’ll do the same thing, but I’ll do it in the north and try to cross the length and breadth of all three of Canada’s arctic territories — the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut,” he said.

“In doing so, I hope to inspire Canadians to think more about Canada’s wilderness and our north, and what kind of future it is going to have over the next 150 years. Everyone seems to be celebrating Canada’s last 150 years, but I want people to start thinking ahead toward the next 150 and what the future of Canada’s wilderness is going to look like in 150 years.”

Shoalts has been sharing his passion and enthusiasm for Canada’s wilderness with the next generation by speaking about his upcoming expedition in schools throughout Ontario. He hopes his efforts will inspire younger Canadians to spend more time experiencing the outdoors and appreciating nature.

“It doesn’t mean they have to do a five-month solo journey,” Shoalts said.

“They can explore nature in their own backyard by simply watching a birdfeeder or going on a camping trip. I’m really trying to inspire younger Canadians to care about our wilderness, especially since this generation may have grown up with video games and never really unplugged to do these kinds of things.”

His journey through the heart of one of the world’s wildest ecosystems will take Shoalts over mountains, up rivers, across tundra, through subarctic forest, and down wild waterways. One third of his travel time will be on foot. Though this is not his first solo expedition in Canada’s north, this is the first time anyone has attempted to travel from his starting point on the Alaskan border to Hudson Bay within a single year.

A seasoned explorer, Shoalts is no stranger to wildlife. On previous expeditions, he has been in the company of arctic wolves, muskoxen, caribou, and even wolverine. This time around, he said he is hoping to come across a species of wildlife he has yet to see firsthand — Dall sheep. Before leaving Sudbury last week to return to his parents’ home in Fenwick, Shoalts said he had a face-to-face encounter with a black bear. Walking through the woods as he does every day, he said he noticed the large creature sitting on top of a rocky hill.

“I was looking at him and he was looking at me,” Shoalts said.

“It’s always a special moment when you see a bear in the wild.”

Considering he will be travelling through the arctic in the summer, Shoalts said he expects to cross paths with both grizzly bears and polar bears, as they browse the tundra for berries. Being such massive animals, Shoalts said it’s hard to imagine they live on such tiny berries. In fact, he said, two-thirds of their diet consists of berries, roots and grubs they dig up. Acknowledging that he will be hiking through a bear supermarket of berries, Shoalts said he must remain alert and take precautions not to put himself at risk.

“During daylight, I don’t really fear them,” Shoalts said.

“It’s at night, when you’re inside the tent, and you feel pretty vulnerable — especially in a one-man tent. If a bear is going to pounce on that kind of tent you aren’t going to know.”

Despite his concern for bear safety, Shoalts said bears are not high on his list of potential dangers. Topping the danger list for him on this journey are ice and wind. Depending on the weather, he said he could get stuck on day one, if the ice hasn’t broken up on the first river he needs to cross.

“If the ice hasn’t melted I could be stuck right off the bat,” he said. “If it’s solid I can walk across. I don’t want to get trapped in the in between where the ice hasn’t melted but it’s not strong enough to walk on and then you’re waiting for days for the thing to melt and break up and melt. That could be scary if I have to walk across ice not knowing if my next step could be my last.”

This is a real concern of his, because he said ice can remain on some of the smaller lakes in the arctic until July. If he is to cover 4,000 kilometres within five-months, Shoalts said he will have be conscious of the weather and the changing seasons.

“You can plan and you can prep as carefully as possible, but at the end of the day if the weather gods are against you, you’re going to lose and you can’t do anything about it.”

The wind in the arctic is so fierce, he said, that arctic canoeing expeditions are often called off. It is common to hear of travelers becoming wind-bound or trapped for a week or two at a time.

“They literally can’t move at all because the wind is so fierce it makes canoeing impossible,” explained Shoalts.

“If the wind is against you, you’re pinned down. That’s why most people don’t like to canoe in the arctic any later than mid-August. After mid-August if you are in the Hudson Bay watershed the wind really starts to turn against you. When you have such strong, hurricane force winds sweeping in off Hudson Bay you can’t canoe into them.”

This means Shoalts is likely to be facing at least six weeks of strong adverse winds. While some delays are inevitable, if Shoalts is held up too long he could find himself in a dangerous predicament. He expects to finish his expedition in late September, but if the weather does not play along he may have to push his return date to early October.

“Those are the two biggest factors that could prevent me from reaching my goal — ice and wind — because either one of them could eat into my travel time for days. Every day is precious, every hour is precious. If I am going to cover this enormous distance in a single year I need all my stars to align. I need to keep pushing every day, so every day I get trapped by the wind or the ice it’s like an hour glass turned over and the sand is running out. That’s partly what makes it exciting and what makes it an adventure — not knowing if it’s possible.”

Having to raise $30,000 to fund the expedition was a different kind of challenge than Shoalts was accustomed to. Leading up to his celebratory arctic adventure, he has built a generous team of sponsors who have supported him in a variety of ways. While some gave money, others donated equipment or food. At the beginning of his journey, Shoalts will be lugging approximately 150 pounds of gear in two food barrels and a 53-pound canoe.

As he moves forward he said his load will lighten as he consumes his provisions. For five-months he said he will be surviving primarily on granola bars and fish that he catches on the way. As his supplies run out, he will have a couple of opportunities to use a satellite phone to contact a float-plane to replenish his stock.

Shoalts will be working with Cream Productions out of Toronto to document his experiences in the far north for a 90-minute special. This will be Shoalts’s first professional endeavour in documentary filmmaking. He also plans to put together a slideshow presentation, which he will be presenting in partnership with the Pelham Public Library sometime in October.

Upon his return, Shoalts will also be releasing his latest book, A History of Canada in 10 Maps. He said he is hoping to be back from the expedition in time for the book launch on October 3.

Throughout his journey, Shoalts will be providing updates via social media. To catch a glimpse of his expedition as it unfolds, he encourages people to follow his Facebook page, or visit his website at www.adamshoalts.com/expeditions/alone-across-arctic-2017

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