The Still Unknown Country

A natural-born explorer tackles the Again.

When it comes to the country we live in, all of us carry maps in our heads: the frigid North, major cities, our disparate regions, our coastlines. Adam Shoalts, a prodigiously talented young man (he is 30 this year), points to their utter inadequacy. The sheer scale of unexplored territory in Canada—indeed, land that has likely never been encountered by humans—is revealed in Alone against the North: An Expedition into the Unknown, his account of his wilderness adventures in the Hudson’s Bay Lowlands.

The Lowlands comprise the largest wetland in North America and the third largest in the world: 373,700 square kilometres of muskeg, tundra and scrub forest. It would be a profoundly unappealing place for ordinary folk—including the sparse numbers of aboriginal people who referred to the Lowlands as “sterile country.” It is boggy and cold, with high-density clouds of mosquitos and blackflies, weather that can turn on a dime, treacherous waterways, unpredictable black bears and, by the shoreline of Hudson’s Bay and James Bay, predatory polar bears. (Visitors are strongly advised to carry 12-gauge shotguns to ward off the latter.)

Many of the lakes, and the rivers that vein this vast area, have no names. That is not surprising: there are literally millions of them in the sub-arctic. Shoalts explored one of these on an official Royal Canadian Geographical Society expedition detailed in this volume. His other river quest, a personal one, was down an unexplored waterway named the Again River. He became obsessed with it. When he finally made his way to it, alone, it nearly killed him.

Every bit as interesting as Shoalts’s explorations is the personality that emerges in his recounting. From an early age, the author was encouraged by his father to develop his woodland skills and to follow the lure of the wilderness. He dreamed of being an explorer, but was discouraged by the commonplace notion that nothing unexplored remained in the world.

At university he realized that this was not the case, which rekindled his boyhood dream. He soon acquired everything he needed to realize it.

Shoalts is learned beyond his years, thoroughly immersed in a strong solution of old journals, reports, books and maps. He is well versed in the fields of geography, archaeology, history and anthropology, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in history at McMaster University.

But all of that book learning is only a means to an end. His life consists very much of that rarity these days: an unmediated engagement with the natural world. Whether he is exploring unnamed rivers, taking part in archaeological digs, hunting petroglyphs or just doing an impulsive climb up a British Columbian mountain supposedly infested with sasquatches, Shoalts just keeps going and going, like that well-known bunny: “I roamed all around Canada’s wilderness from the rocky inlets of the Atlantic to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific. My life devolved into a restless search for one adventure after another.”

He is keenly observant, describing in detail the flora and fauna he encounters on his journeys. That knowledge also kept him happily fed in the bush, with berries, leaves for various teas and wild tubers supplementing his basic staples.

He must have been in superb shape to overcome the appalling obstacles and physical challenges he describes, ones that would drive most of us to tears. Two of his friends simply fled. Even his father, on the first attempt to reach the Again, was not up to it. Shoalts is a little unsparing about his buddies: it is a tribute to long friendships that he was able to use their real names.

This is, of course, not the world in which earlier explorers risked life and limb far from home. In the Amazon rainforest, where Shoalts joined an expedition after a second aborted attempt to reach the Again, he was able to wander into a village with internet to check his email. In his Canadian ventures, he was often equipped with satellite radio and GPS.

But Shoalts, who prefers going into the bush with a knife and a compass when he can, punctuates many of his experiences with anecdotes about almost superhuman feats of human endurance, including one about shipwrecked survivors of the El Dorado in 1903. They managed to make their way from their landfall on James Bay’s east coast to a settlement 500 kilometres away. One feels that Shoalts gains more strength from stories like that than from 21st-century gadgetry.

Shoalts writes in an odd mixture of styles. Sometimes his matter-of-factness in describing his arduous work in the wilderness seems to border on humble-bragging. Other times he appears to be standing apart, describing himself a touch self-consciously, as though he were one of his explorer ancestors: “Regardless, nothing could deter me from completing my quest.” He is at his best when he is reliving adrenalin-soaked action—being swept over a waterfall on the Again, for example, or drifting in his four-metre canoe past a monstrous—and very interested—polar bear, hoping he does not have to use his 12-gauge.

His plain mode of expression reveals wondrous skills almost nonchalantly: making a longbow, building a birch bark canoe with his father, or preparing a bear-proof sleeping shelter on a side trip to BC:

I decided to build a more secure shelter to sleep in. The only tools at my disposal were a hatchet, my knife, and a folding saw, along with some rope and paracord. With these tools I could fashion a sleeping platform between four trees a safe distance off the ground. Of course, bears can climb trees, but I would be much better protected on an elevated platform than in a tent on the ground. Working quickly to beat the sunset, I had to shinny up each tree and lash together the strong sticks I had cut to create a platform between four hemlocks. After the frame was finished, I cut sticks that I would bind to the rectangular platform, creating a solid floor to sleep on. For protection against the rain, I made a roof out of my tarp and enclosed the sides with hemlock boughs. To make the floor more comfortable, I laid moss and more hemlock boughs over the platform. My shelter finished, it served as a rather cozy abode for the next five nights.

Shoalts does not mind sharing his discomfort—shivering cold, insect bites, deep fatigue, a wounded thumb, etc. But for all that, he makes it all sound perfectly endurable, which for most people it would be anything but—pulling a loaded canoe up the entire 96-kilometre length of the nameless river to its headwaters, for example, or faring the difficult Again once more to make precise measurements for mapping purposes.

Shoalts did all of this on a shoestring, too. He could not even afford new topographical maps at one point. His accomplishments, however, were duly recognized. Only in his twenties, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. After an interview in The Guardian, he found himself deluged with further interview requests from around the world.

Unsurprisingly, he is still at it. There was a canoeing expedition in the High Arctic, for example, after this book went to press. And there is still a lot of the Lowlands left to explore. We have here only a slice. I predict there will be more, if he has the time to write them.

In the meantime, for those willing to pick up this down-to-earth, readable book, Shoalts is likely to change their mental map of Canada substantially. And that, perhaps, is his most startling achievement to date.