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Alone Across the Arctic

Adam Shoalts speaks about his epic summerlong, 2,600-mile expedition across Canada’s Far North

First and foremost, Canadian author and academic Adam Shoalts defines himself as an explorer. In his debut book, the 31-year-old fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society chronicled his canoe expeditions to record unmapped waterfalls on remote northern rivers. Up next, he's set to launch a work of historical non-fiction later this fall. Shoalts is also a Ph.D. candidate, his studies blending history, archaeology, anthropology and geography.

Shoalts's latest expedition, marking Canada's 150th anniversary, was arguably his most ambitious. He set off alone on May 13, backpacking eastbound from the Native community of Old Crow, Yukon, near the Alaska border. He switched to a canoe when spring finally arrived in the far north. Shoalts's route traced some of northern Canada's largest lakes and rivers. Impressively, he employed a mixture of paddling, poling and lining to ascend the powerful Mackenzie and Coppermine rivers. On the wide-open expanse of the barrenlands, he raced autumn's winds to the reach the tidewater of Hudson Bay at the community of Baker Lake, Nunavut, on September 6.

We caught up with Shoalts to learn more about the 2,600-mile expedition.

CanoeKayak.com: Where did you get the inspiration to make this journey?
Adam Shoalts: I read Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens when I was 12, and was pretty much hooked from there on northern journeys. With 2017 being the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, it seemed like a good time to try something more ambitious.

How did you plan out the route? Were you travelling by canoe (ie., paddling, hauling upstream, portaging) the entire time?
I "connected the dots" so to speak, through studying satellite imagery and topographic maps, along with historic trip reports. The first phase of the expedition through the mountains of the northern Yukon was on foot. That was in May when most rivers were still locked in ice or just breaking up. Once I reached the banks of the Mackenzie River, I continued by canoe. I made progress through a mix of poling, paddling, wading, lining, sailing and portaging. The hardest part was probably ascending the Mackenzie, Hare Indian, Dease, and Coppermine rivers, which required rather arduous upstream travel, especially the Coppermine.

Photo courtesy of Adam Shoalts.

A few years ago we reported on a similar journey that started at the Yukon-Alaska border and finished at Baker Lake. Did you get any advice from these guys? Why did you choose to start at Old Crow?
I read and watched the reports made by that four-person 2012 expedition. I also saw that they won Canoe & Kayak's Expedition of the Year Award. So I figured I would shift the route farther north, incorporate more upriver travel, and do it solo. I wanted to start north of the Arctic Circle, hence Old Crow, and I also wanted the chance to traverse the icy waters of Great Bear Lake, which also entailed the more northerly route.

Ice must've been a major challenge starting out so early in the season. I read you were stranded on Great Bear Lake. Can you talk about this experience and any other problems you encountered traveling in the shoulder season?
Ice delayed me for eight days on the Porcupine River, and again for several days on Great Bear Lake, which didn’t become entirely ice free until about July 5. There was lots of drifting pack ice on Great Bear, which would sometimes cause large bays to become iced in. I spent a couple days waiting for the ice to clear out of one bay on Great Bear’s north shore before I could continue. At times, I poled through the ice, but in other places it was still too thick to push through. By late August and September, the main concern was high winds. The barrenlands west of Hudson Bay are notorious for their high winds late in the season.

What was the biggest lesson you took from this journey?
That Lord of the Rings is actually much more nuanced and complex than I realized! Since I was setting off on a long journey, I figured it would be a good time to finally read The Lord of the Rings, as I never had before. Plus, before I left I found an old paper edition of the trilogy that was about to be thrown away. So I read it on the journey and burned each book as I finished them. I didn’t want any extra weight, after all. The other lesson I took from my journey is that with enough determination you can pretty much accomplish anything. Every Arctic canoeist I’ve ever encountered said upstream travel on some of the rivers I was heading to, especially solo, was completely impossible. Well, it turns out that’s not the case.

Was traveling solo a positive thing?
Definitely, when you consider the upside of getting to see a lot more wildlife. Bears, wolves, muskox, caribou, foxes, moose, and other animals were frequently investigating me. As well, in the context of a world that is getting ever more crowded (7.5 billion people and counting), being able to experience true solitude in the form of wandering across thousands of kilometers of wilderness without seeing another person is pretty special. I doubt it will remain possible to do something like that for much longer.

Photo courtesy of Adam Shoalts.

Our readers love hearing about critical pieces of gear. Can you list off three things that were important to your success?
I recommend getting a good thermos to anyone who wants to eliminate having to set up a stove (or make a fire) more than once a day. Second, Nova Craft’s 15-foot Prospector made of their new TuffStuff Expedition material performed extremely well on the journey. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a tough and versatile canoe. As for a third critical piece of gear, I’d say a notebook and a pen. It’s a very useful thing for staying motivated. I had a lot of other gear innovations; but those are closely guarded secrets. Readers will have to wait for my book about the journey to hear of them.

What's next?
Antarctica. I’m heading there this winter on another expedition for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. After that, I have more expeditions planned all across Canada that are a mix of solo journeys as well as increasing collaboration with others to expand what it is possible to explore. Anyone who wants to know more can "like" my Facebook page to stay in the loop and maybe even join some expeditions.


—Keep up to date with Adam Shoalts on Facebook
—Read C&K's review of Alone Against the North