Embracing the disappearing wild with Canadian adventurer Adam Shoalts

Adam Shoalts on his journey across the Northwest Territories. Courtesy Adam Shoalts

Adam Shoalts knows that toenails do grow back over time. His were badly damaged while walking through the freezing water of the Coppermine River, pulling his canoe against the rapidly moving current.

“The rocks got me,” he told ARTSFILE, “all the little jagged rocks under the turbulence in the rapids. I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet. The waders don’t have a lot of protection on your toes and they got crushed by rocks over time.”

It was just one result of Shoalts’ journey during the sesquicentennial. He walked some 4,000 kilometres from Eagle Plains, Yukon to Baker Lake, Northwest Territories, without a gun in bear country, pulling all his supplies in his canoe and dodging ice floes and musk-ox.

“You only live once,” he said, “so why not take my best shot at this while I’m still young.”

Shoalts is not a lunatic, but he is passionate about the wilderness.

“I love the outdoors. I can spend hours looking a lichen on a rock trying to learn a new species of any kind — mushrooms, trees, plants and birds. The other day I was looking at bluebirds in my back yard. I added them to the list of birds I’ve seen this fall. I really do enjoy being in the natural world.”

Adam Shoalts used this pole, that he found along the way, to pole his vessel upriver. Courtesy Adam Shoalts.

To that end, four years ago he was looking at a population density map of the area.

“It is the biggest wilderness area on the planet where you can still wander for 1,000 miles and not cross a single road. It’s bigger than the Sahara, the Amazon. Antarctica is the only place bigger without human habitation.”

He wanted to cross it but he said he didn’t know if he could. So before embarking on the journey he went he went into the woods near his home. It’s a place Shoalts has gone since childhood.

“I thought of my love of nature and that I didn’t know how much longer this wilderness would remain in unspoiled and untouched.”

This is the point he wants to get across in his book on his incredible journey called Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Allan Lane).

“I tried to make this more subtle point amid the adventure of drifting on ice and going over rapids and stuff. Hopefully by end of the book, the reader will see there is a real value to these wild places.”

He also paddled when possible. Courtesy Adam Shoalts

He was prescient. The federal government has allowed the development of a zinc mine in this area. That means there will be a road and heavy machinery.

“I try not to preach that we shouldn’t do this or that. Such development is inevitable because there is so much demand for these resources. Still the clock is ticking and every year we push the wilderness back a little more.”

His book, then, is also a time capsule.

“Maybe 10 or 20 years from now, people can  read about the way it was.”

He believes wild places will continue to exist but the experience of being that off the grid, disconnected from the internet will likely be gone.

“It’s harder to be off the grid. They are developing smart phones that can work with a satellite.”

His journey is the living example of taking Robert Frost‘s road less travelled by. As a kid, it seems, Shoalts was destined to do this.

“I always loved going into the forest. I grew up in rural Ontario and we didn’t have any sidewalks. We lived in the last house on an unpaved road so we had no neighbours. The forest was all around us.

“When you are six, the forest can be full of scary and exciting things.

The first time he was alone in the woods over night as at 13.

“It was terrifying and exciting at same time. I worried all night that some black bear was going to eat me. When the dawn came I knew I had made it. He’s been chasing that feeling ever since.

Shoalts is the Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. He’ll be speaking to a meeting of the Society on Nov. 27 in Ottawa.

The word explorer is a word Shoalts doesn’t think about all that much.

It is applied to people like Jacques Cartier, who travelled with an expedition of people of ships from France. And it’s applied to people like Henry Stanley, whose quest to find the scientists David Livingstone was made possible by dozens of porters. There is the famous Explorers Club with Jane Goodall and James Cameron as members.

“Call me what you want — adventurer, woodsman, wanderer. In the modern sense anyone can be an explorer. There is something in us that makes us want to explore. You don’t have to go to some far away place. You can just explore your own backyard.

“Look under a rock. You might find a salamander.”

Most of living things on planet are still unknown to science. New species are being found every week. Everything HASN’T been discovered or found.

“What I enjoyed so much about my journey across Arctic is how the landscape is so diverse and unexpected.”

The stereotypical view is the Canadian north is cold, barren and smelly with not all that much there, he said.

Not so. ” There is a fascinating diversity of eco-systems and landscapes that occur north of 60. Places where you can find have centuries-old black spruce that are really small because the growing season so short.

“There are places where have ancient mountains formed hundred of millions of years ago. There are places where the rocks are billions of years old, where mountains have been formed by lava flows.” For Shoalts, looking at these different ecosystems is what matters.

One thing that you can’t see is the impact of climate change. He knows it is happening but the “temperatures I experienced on the journey were within historical norms.” What you do see is the rapid change caused by other aspects of human activity.

“As I was walking, I could see, in the far distance, the radio towers connected to open pit mines. These operations are like a lunar colony. Everything has to be flown in.”

Shoalts said he is trying to gently take “the reader by the hand and show them the natural world and underline the point that if we want these places we need to protect them.

“The reality is there is something special about a very large wild place. It’s not like going to Banff or Algonquin Park. It’s a place where a wolf will look at you, cock his head in wonder because he’s seen a human before.” That amazing connection that happened on the little known Hare Indian River was Shoalts’ favourite moment on his journey.

“It is hard to keep people focussed on places like this because we are in the south. If we could bring the wild back into our daily life, it would do us a world of good.”

He believes it would reduce incidence of depression and stress.

“We weren’t meant to live in cities. We are built for the outdoors. I spent four months wandering across the Arctic but if people could spend 15 minutes every day outside it would help.”

In town: Adam Shoalts will be speaking about his 4,000 kilometre trek at the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, 50 Sussex Dr. in the Alex Trebek Room on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. For tickets and more information: myconferencesuite.com. His book is Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Allan Lane).

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.