Adam Shoalts adds another adventure on behalf of Royal Geographical Society
The adventure almost never happened. Inspired by the migratory flight of the peregrine falcons, Adam Shoalts decided three years ago that his next expedition would be to follow their flight from Long Point, in Lake Erie, east to Cape Tourmente, on the St. Lawrence, and from there north to the mountains and cliffs near the Arctic Ocean. Already a seasoned expedition traveler, Shoalts is the Westaway Explorer-in-residence for the Royal Geographical Society of Canada, with five expeditions completed on their behalf, including trips across the Arctic and through the Amazon rain forest. He has written four books about his travels, the latest, Whisper on the Night Wind, having reached number five on the Toronto Star bestseller list in June. Pretty good for the high school student who once contributed a nature column to the Voice, back in the day.
Planning for the 3400 km solo canoe trip and hike from Lake Erie to the Arctic Ocean was two years along when the Covid pandemic put a stop to everything. And then Shoalts and his wife welcomed their first baby just 17 months ago, and it seemed that as a new father, he was destined to curtail his adventures. It was his wife, Aleksia, who insisted he not give up on the project, pointing out that he would always have the regret of an adventure not completed. However, he admits, “the hardest part of the trip was leaving my 14-month-old son.”
He set out from the Old Cut Lighthouse, at Long Point, on April 24, and canoed through the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence to Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area, then farther down the St. Lawrence before heading inland and north. Already an epic solo canoe trip, the expedition now became a hike as Shoalts followed roads and trails on foot from the St. Lawrence north to Labrador City, a 16-day trek. In Labrador City, he bought another canoe (from a man who was reluctant to sell until, awed by Shoalts’ journey, he agreed to help him continue) and completed the almost 1200 km left of his expedition on the rivers that flow north to the Arctic Ocean. He arrived on the saltwater shore of the Arctic Ocean at Kangiqsualujjuaq, a small Inuit village at the mouth of the George River, on July 26.
Over nearly three months of travel, Shoalts averaged some 30 km per day, an incredible feat paddling a solo canoe and on foot. “I use the tortoise and hare approach,” he says. “Slow and steady wins the race. I put in long days, 12 hours at least, and on good days up to 13 or 14 hours.”
With the sun rising at 2:30 AM in northern latitudes, Shoalts began his day at 4:00 and walked or paddled with few stops. While canoeing with the current on the northern leg he could average almost 80 km a day in his canoe, and on the hike to Labrador City he managed about 40 km a day.
“Average that against some days on the Great Lakes, when I got zero km due to storms and winds,” he remembers. “We had wild weather in May on the Great Lakes and even a tornado warning when I was near Trois Rivieres!”
We had wild weather in May on the Great Lakes and even a tornado warning when I was near Trois Rivieres
On the northern leg of his journey, many of the barriers he faced were man-made, as he had to portage his canoe around the frequent hydro-electric dam installations, “some of them as large as skyscrapers,” he notes. “With all the Hydro Quebec activity in northern Quebec, there’s no way to go by water uninterrupted.”
As impressive as the physical aspects of his trip are, the logistical facets are equally striking. Forced to pack as light as possible, he managed to resupply at several points along the way, thanks to Canada Post. Shoalts gives high praise to their Flex Delivery program, which enabled him to mail packages to himself at various postal offices along the route, and have them held for two weeks awaiting his arrival.
“Every time I anticipated that the package would have been lost or sent back, but every time it was there with food, batteries for my GPS, and fresh socks,” he says.
Even with the occasional resupply, there were times when his bushcraft skills were called upon.
“In the mountains of Labrador, I was eating ten survival bars a day along with one freeze-dried meal and finding berries to eat wherever possible. Most were unripe since it was early in the season, but on the mountainsides, where the sun could get at them, I found enough to augment the bars.”
Another important food source was the plentiful trout he was able to catch.
“Since I was packing so light I didn’t have a frying pan, so I’d gut them and hang them on a green stick over the fire.”
At the end of his journey on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, Shoalts spent a day just soaking in the Arctic scenery and reflecting on the previous three months.
“It felt a bit surreal to smell the sea air and realize that there were beluga whales, seals and polar bears in the water I was paddling.”
Now back at home in North Pelham, Shoalts is getting reacquainted with his son, Thomas, and sorting through three months of photographs. As part of his responsibility as explorer-in-residence for the Geographical Society, he will compile a report of the trip that will be on file at the Society, and begin preparation for talks at schools and events. Eventually he hopes to write another book on this expedition and have it ready for publication next year.