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Alone Against the North: An Expedition into the Unknown

by Adam Shoalts

In his recent biography of Roald Amundsen, The Last Viking, Stephen R. Bown describes the Norwegian explorer’s awareness of living at a time when the window for achieving greatness in an expeditionary context was closing. “Why should anybody want to go to a place where somebody else had already been?” Amundsen once asked. He claimed to be glad he had not been born later, because the only place left for him to go would have been the moon.

Alone Against the North Adam ShoaltsAdam Shoalts is very familiar with this feeling. Shoalts “always knew [he] was destined to become an explorer,” following in the tradition of his 19th- and early 20th-century idols. But from a young age he was also told “that there was nothing left to discover.” And this was before Google Earth placed its all-seeing eye in the sky.

What to do? Surely there must exist unexplored parts of the globe, but where? Shoalts does some archival investigation and settles in the region of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, around the headwaters of the Again River on the Ontario–Quebec border – “a place unknown to the world” – somewhere “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 to go there.

But Shoalts finds various motivations to set him off. For starters, he harbours the same spirit that expresses itself in the current fashion for extreme 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 mutters to the surrounding boreal forest, “People are getting soft these days.”

There is also the desire to contribute something to our knowledge of a natural world that is being lost faster than we can explore it, along with the modest fame that comes with an entry in an obscure monograph listing Canadian river journeys.

But more than all this, there exists in Shoalts the lonely passion that Pierre Berton described 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. He is possessed of a powerful ego, though this is not necessarily a handicap for an adventurer. 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. A little of this goes a long way, but it gets irritating only when he describes a couple of preliminary journeys into the Lowlands with childhood friends. Despite their volunteering to accompany Shoalts on his difficult voyages, aimed at what are mainly personal ends, Shoalts 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, during which he recounts the story of those early expeditions. “At the end of each presentation,” Shoalts writes, “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 such feedback might have tipped Shoalts 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, Shoalts decides Brent is just not as much of a nature lover as he is: “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 into his adventures. The writing is efficient, and Shoalts is a knowledgeable and observant guide. It is only disappointing, given how many pictures Shoalts says he took, and the amount of time he spends describing different locations, that 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.

Otherwise, Alone Against the North introduces us to a place few would want to travel to, but even in the jaded 21st century, armchair adventurers respond to the call of the unknown. Perhaps we have gone soft, but there’s no shame in enjoying Shoalts’s expeditions vicariously.