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There and back again

Adam Shoalts in the far north. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Explorer from Fenwick returns to Legion next Sunday to discuss latest expedition, new book

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

When Adam Shoalts pulled into the parking lot at Short Hills Provincial Park last week, he could almost have passed for any other hiker there for a casual stroll. A few weeks ago, his beard was long and tangled, and he was rope-thin, but last week he wore just a few days worth of stubble and seemed to have regained some weight. His wispy brown hair, which the day before had been gelled when he appeared on television, flopped in the wind as he pulled off his Hush Puppies and laced up a pair of hiking boots.

“I used to come here all the time,” he said, looking around. “It’s busy now. Maybe I’m partly to blame—I used to promote Short Hills and Swayze Falls all of the time. But if you’re like me, and you’re a lover of solitude and wilderness….” There were four other cars in the lot.

Shoalts can be forgiven for considering a few people a crowd. He had, after all, recently returned from a four-month solo expedition in the arctic, during which he canoed, waded, and walked some 4000 kilometres from the Yukon to Nunavut.

Shoalts, who at 31 is considered by many to be Canada’s greatest living explorer, is now known for making these trips alone, but this is not how he has always travelled or even his preference. It is difficult for him to find companions who can leave their lives for months at a time, and those who do often aren’t prepared for the extremes of his trips.

In 2011, he started on an expedition in the lowlands of Hudson’s Bay with a friend from high school who agreed to accompany him. The lowlands is a massive wetland that covers a quarter of Ontario’s acreage, and its myriad lakes, rivers, and swamps make it an especially difficult wilderness to navigate. It is also home to the greatest number of bloodsucking insects in the world.

Shortly after beginning the trip, Shoalts’ friend broke down and said that he was going to use the pair’s satellite phone to call in a plane to pick him up. Shoalts describes the moment in his book, “Alone Against the North.”

“Unlike when he first attempted to quit,” Shoalts writes, “I didn’t much argue this time. It was clear he was unequal to the task, that his spirits were broken, that the wilderness had vanquished him.”

Shoalts proposed altering their route so that they could still explore and chart the nameless river they’d set out to see.

His friend balked.

“Adam, there’s no way I’d ever do that. I don’t want to explore any rivers. I’ll die happy if I never see a canoe again. All I want to do is go home.”

Though the friend tried to convince Shoalts to leave with him, Shoalts refused.

“I have work to finish,” he told the aged bush pilot who picked up his friend and who insisted that continuing alone was too risky. The pilot recognized Shoalts’ obstinacy and flew off. While his physical skills are important to his success as an explorer, it is his unshakeable obsession with surviving the wilderness that separates him from most others who go adventuring. Repeatedly, his books tell of encounters with experienced naturalists who express concern that Shoalts’ proposed routes are for the foolhardy. But Shoalts’ single-mindedness is such that when he writes of a wounded hand that, “I concluded that if the cost of exploring the nameless river was a lost thumb, I would accept it,” it isn’t clear whether he’s joking.

When Shoalts began that trip in 2011, he had been home from the Amazon for just a few weeks, and was still taking anti-Malarial drugs and suffering from back spasms caused by an injury in the jungle. Even in Shoalts’ first book, “Sense of Adventure,” which was published when he was 20, it is evident that he is simply different than others in the wild.

Shoalts’ partner on the expedition was another childhood friend, one who was sufficiently adventurous to take on the trip but also lovesick throughout it. One evening, the two were resting after a tough day, and Shoalts was trying to convince his friend to ignore his girlfriend’s pleas to return and to instead prolong the expedition.

“You don’t understand,” his friend said. “The only girl you’ll ever love is Avalon,” pointing to their canoe.

But even if Shoalts is single-minded when he’s in the wilderness, this fact is less apparent when he’s back in civilization. He is engaged to be married, and lives with his fiancé in Sudbury, where she attends school, something he said had not hindered his ability to adventure.

“She’s done some photography for me, and enjoying coming along on weekend trips. She’ll answer emails that come through the site, too, especially when I’m away. And she’s really supportive of all the big journeys.”

This fall he will defend his PhD dissertation—which concerns indigenous oral traditions and European explorers—done through the history department at McMaster University. Though PhDs are typically undertaken with an eye towards a coveted tenure-track position, Shoalts said that he doubts that such a position would allow him to undertake expeditions and publish his books.

“Why would you want to write in an academic journal?” he said. “It doesn’t pay, and seven people read it…so it’s just killing trees.”

“Alone Against the North” was a number one best-seller in Canada, and Shoalts’ new book, “A History of Canada in Ten Maps,” will be released this week. Whereas “Alone Against the North” is predominately a first-person account of Shoalts’ expeditions, the new book draws more upon his extensive research into Canada’s history, which he attempts to present in an intriguing new manner.

“History often becomes stuffy,” he said. “But the reality of Canada’s history, especially pre-1867, wasn’t like that at all.”

Shoalts begins with maps made by the Vikings during their stops on Canada’s east coast, and draws heavily on his research into the early interactions between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples.

Though Shoalts receives occasional criticism from those who assail the idea of a Canadian of European descent calling himself an explorer, it is clear that he has nothing but respect for indigenous culture.

“The maps made by aboriginal guides proved invaluable to European explorers, he writes in his new book. “But sadly, few of those maps have survived.” Shoalts is especially appreciative of the efforts of aboriginal peoples in resisting the mantra of endless growth that is endemic in modern society.

He stopped after climbing a slope in Short Hills. “I really do think that we need to put the brakes on modernity,” he said. “I mean, just look at this place. It’s one of the only preserved places we have in Niagara, and it’s not nearly big enough. It was created decades ago, when the population of Niagara was much smaller, and it hasn’t grown with the number of people. Why is it that when the population doubles we can add a McDonald’s to meet demand, but can’t have a bigger park?”

He continued to walk along the trail, which meandered into a meadow. Clouds of grasshoppers burst from the ground with each footstep, whirring as they took to the air then landed, only to launch again as Shoalts moved forward. When he got to the edge of the meadow, he turned to look out across it, to where high-voltage power lines cut their own path through the woods. Shoalts removed his sunglasses as he walked back through the trees, where the air was cooler and smelled of damp earth from the previous day’s rainfall.

“I’ve missed this place,” he said. “See that line of big trees there? That’s the original property line between farms. The forest was allowed to regenerate naturally, and so you can really notice a difference between what used to just be a field.” He stopped periodically as he moved, pointing out Sassafras (“You can make a good tea from that”) and different trees (“This one is called ‘Ironwood,’ it’s so hard”).

Shoalts’ naturalist education began early. When he and his twin brother Ben were young, they spent most of their free time roaming the woods behind their home in Fenwick. Though much of his knowledge was practical, acquired while outside, Shoalts became dedicated to theory too. Upon arriving in the Amazon in 2011, the team there issued him a written test. He scored perfect.

This discipline is greatly advantageous to Shoalts when he is preparing for expeditions, particularly the one he completed this summer. Due to how far north he was travelling, the journey was as much a race against winter as an exploration, and Shoalts had to plan to move as quickly as possible. This meant travelling exceedingly light. While he typically carries a gun in the event of bear encounters, this time he brought only an air horn and a can of mace.

In any case, Shoalts was more concerned with wind than bears. Out on the exposed tundra, waves often become insurmountable. On more than a few occasions, Shoalts was trapped at a camp while whitecaps made canoeing too dangerous to attempt. During one of these maroonings, he was lying in his tent at midnight, trying to sleep, when the wind suddenly died. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Shoalts packed up his tent and paddled continuously for 14 hours, barely stopping to eat.

Bringing enough food for the entire four months was impossible, so Shoalts arranged for bush pilots to drop off supplies for him on several occasions. Before he departed, back in May, he posted a picture to Facebook of the piles and piles of stores that he was packing. He captioned it: “You know that look you get at the check-out aisle when you buy 1,112 granola bars?”

Shoalts fundraised for voyage, and as he becomes more famous, it has been easier to find sponsors who will provide him with the necessary gear.

In the past, working on a limited budget meant that Shoalts’ greatest fear was hypothermia, but the equipment he had this summer drastically reduced this likelihood. He had a custom-built canoe, too, which was made of a material designed to withstand the brutal beatings it took on ice and rocks.

Shoalts must develop strict psychological discipline to survive his trips. This summer, the pilot of the float-plane during one supply drop-off was the first person that Shoalts had spoken to in a month.“You have to keep yourself on an even keel and limit how much time you spend talking to yourself,” he said. Routine is everything, and the long days—he often awoke at four in the morning and travelled for 12 hours—were essential to dealing with the solitude.

Shoalts looked entirely healthy last week at Short Hills. One of his supply pilots once brought him some chocolate milk and orange juice, but the otherwise dearth of dairy and Vitamin C didn’t seem to have any lasting impact upon him. After spending so much time alone, Shoalts’ next few months will be spent speaking in public a great deal, including at the Fonthill Legion on October 22 for the local launch of his new book. In January he will be the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s ambassador on a tourist cruise to Antarctica.

Shoalts will surely write about his most recent expedition, in some form or another, and he has been working with a production company in Toronto to develop a documentary, too. He brought no still cameras on the journey, but had two GoPros filming much of the time. At the beginning of the trip, and when he was visited by the supply planes, a film crew recorded him with drones that buzzed overhead and captured breathtaking images of him paddling in the wilderness.

On Shoalts final day of the trip, in early September, he was paddling towards Baker Lake, a town of 2,000 at the end of a long inlet of Hudson’s Bay. Though he had been on the move for so many months, the daily targets had been general, not specific, and so on this day Shoalts wasn’t sure precisely in which direction he should be paddling. Then, out in the distance, he saw one of those drones flying out towards him across the water.

Before it got to him, the drone stopped, having reached its maximum distance from the controller. It turned around, and whirred off in the direction from which it came. Quickly, slowly, as fast as he could, Shoalts followed it in to shore.

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The Voice of Pelham
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