Winter Reading: ‘Alone Against the North’ by Adam Shoalts

Canadian Adam Shoalts became a media sensation in 2013, when the British newspaper The Guardian reported on his discovery of unmapped waterfalls on the Again River, which flows into James Bay in northern Ontario. Shoalts was featured on television and radio and interviewed for countless publications, including CanoeKayak.com. The Toronto Star even called him "Canada's real-life Indiana Jones." Meanwhile, some canoeists wondered how a skilled paddler could get swept over a waterfall and indigenous Cree claimed Shoalts' "undocumented" river was actually a historic travelway.

With this backdrop, Shoalts shares his passion for 21st century exploration in his new book, Alone Against the North. As the title suggests, Shoalts accounts of bushwhacking through "a trackless waste of muskeg and lonely rivers" is squarely aimed at mainstream readers and armchair adventures. Veteran wilderness travellers will no doubt scoff at Shoalts' nearly constant overemphasis of the North's dangerous rapids and "aggressive" wildlife. The book traces Shoalts' genesis as a self-described "explorer", from his initial attempts to reach the undocumented Again River to his challenges with an "inveterate slacker" partner who called for an evacuation on the Sutton River and left Shoalts alone in polar bear country.

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There's no doubt Shoalts is a skilled woodsman and naturalist, able to survive the northern wilds with rudimentary equipment (he and his partner paddled a diminutive 13-foot canoe on the 40-day Sutton expedition). Clearly, his tales of near-misses, endurance and battles with wildlife and the elements have struck a chord with a society moved to torpor by the sheer dullness of urban life. Shoalts' has managed to garner the support of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his comprehensive fieldwork and his insistence that the age of exploration is not over.

All of which is admirable, but his colonial, man-against-nature narrative will elicit a gag reflex from some readers. On the one hand, Shoalts laments wilderness lost; on the other, he brandishes firearms, knives and homemade spears to fend off man-eating bears and uses age-old stereotypes to describe the land. As far as I'm concerned, his contention that "the nomadic hunter-gatherers of North America's past…made no contribution to the mural of Canada's wilderness" is downright offensive.

With that said, I ripped through my review copy of Alone Against the North, though I don't anticipate reading it again. For someone who has had extensive experience travelling in northern Canada, the book was compelling in the same way as a observing a car accident: Distasteful at first glance but something keeps drawing you back.

–Watch a video profile of Adam Shoalts, professional explorer

–Watch Shoalts' video footage from his 2013 adventure on the Again River

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