Alone Against the North

By Adam Shoalts

In his recent biography of Roald Amundsen, The Last Viking, Stephen R. Bown describes the Norwegian explorer’s consciousness of living at a time when the window for achieving greatness was closing. “Why should anybody want to go to a place where somebody else had already been?” he once asked, and claimed to be glad that he had not been born later, because then the only place left for him to go would have been the moon.
Adam Shoalts knows the feeling. He is someone who “always knew [he] was destined to become an explorer,” following in the tradition of his nineteenth- and early twentieth-century idols. But from an early age he was also told “that there was nothing left to discover.” And this was before Google Earth placed its eye in the sky.

What to do? Surely there must exist unexplored parts of the globe, but where are they? Shoalts does some archive work and settles on a part of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, and in particular the region around the headwaters of the Again River on the Ontario-Quebec border as “a place unknown to the world . . . that it wasn’t possible to learn about by simply picking up a book or consulting Wikipedia.”

There’s a reason for the Again River’s obscurity. It is located in a remote and inhospitable area that is hard to access, consisting mainly of muskeg swamp and air thick with legions of black flies and mosquitoes. You wouldn’t want to go there without a good reason, and there really is no good reason.

But Shoalts has various motivations. For starters, he has some of the same spirit that expresses itself in the current fashion for “Xtreme” sports and survivalist television shows: a reaction against a life of domestic comforts and conveniences. At one point, having developed a habit of talking to himself in the bush, he even mutters to the surrounding boreal forest that “People are getting soft these days.”

There is also the desire to contribute something to our knowledge and understanding of a natural world that is being lost faster than we can explore it, and the modest fame that comes with an entry in an obscure monograph listing Canadian river journeys. But more than this there is the lonely passion that Pierre Berton describes in his last book, Prisoners of the North, a collection of sketches of “rugged individualists – impatient of authority, restless, energetic, and ambitious.” What draws Shoalts on is “the inexpressible allure of the unknown, the romance of adventure, and the thrill of exploration.”

Shoalts is not a humble man. Indeed, he is possessed of a powerful ego, though this is not necessarily a handicap given his chosen profession. As an author, he can be overly self-congratulatory, as when he meets people who are incredulous at his solo adventures and lack of high-end equipment (“That’s your canoe!?”). A little of this goes a long way, but the only time it gets irritating is when he describes a couple of preliminary journeys into the Lowlands with childhood friends. Despite their volunteering to accompany Shoalts on his difficult missions, aimed at what are mainly personal ends, he shows little charity toward their efforts, painting them as wilting slackers: not to be counted on, barely competent, weak and lazy.

What makes this treatment of his friends even more surprising is his later experience as a public speaker, where he would recount the story of these early expeditions. By his own account, “At the end of each presentation, a forest of hands would shoot up, but the first questions were always the same: “Are you and Brent [one of his early companions] still friends? Are you still on speaking terms?” (emphasis in the original). One would have thought that feedback like this might have tipped him off to a certain obtuseness in his handling of personal relations, but he is content to forgive his friend for not being “cut out to be an explorer.” In the final analysis Brent is not a wilderness lover like Shoalts: “When I looked at the forest, I saw a fascinating place full of enchantment and wonder. Brent saw only a grim, alien environment.”

Shoalts’s love of nature, cool professionalism, and almost archaically romantic spirit draw us in to his adventures. The writing is efficient, and Shoalts is a knowledgeable and observant guide. It is only disappointing that, given how many pictures Shoalts says he took and the amount of time he spends describing different locations, there are no photos included. Illustrations have always been important to the exploration/travel genre, right from the days of engravings and lithographs, so this omission is hard to understand.

Perhaps we have gotten soft, but there’s no shame in enjoying Shoalts’s expeditions vicariously. Alone Against the North introduces us to a place few would want to go, but even in the twenty-first century we respond to the call of the unknown.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2015.

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