Sunday, January 12, 2020

A canoe adventure that boggles the mind

To commemorate Canada's 150th birthday in 2017, Ontario resident Adam Shoalts, decided to make a canoe trip that had never been done before: to paddle 4,000 kilometers from the Yukon to Hudson Bay across Canada's Arctic. There were just a few problems: there are no river systems that run east and west in that region; the area is ice-free for only four months; and he had no one to go with him. He did it anyway in what was one of the most grueling, incredible feats of human endurance. Then he wrote a book about the experience -- Beyond the Trees, A Journey Alone Across Canada's Arctic.

He set out in early May near Eagle Plains, Yukon Territory, walking along the Dempster Highway that runs from Dawson City to the Beaufort Sea. Almost immediately he was charged by a grizzly bear, the first of many grizzlies he was to encounter in the next four months. It pulled up short -- a bluff charge. A good thing because Shoalts had no weapon other than bear spray for the entire trip.
He had chosen this spot to get dropped off along the road because it was the crossing of the Arctic Circle -- the latitude where the sun never sets on the Spring Solstice and never rises on the Winter Solstice. He then walked to where the road encounters the Mackenzie River and had to wait a bit because the river was plugged with ice sheets rushing downstream. It wasn't long before he took off anyway, only he didn't go downstream, he went upstream in currents too strong to paddle. So he poled his canoe along, dodging ice floes and wading up rapids.
He traveled almost all of the North's big, rushing rivers this way -- in the wrong direction, upstream -- for weeks on end, because they flowed toward the northwest and he needed to go east, even if the rivers only angled that way. Shoalts would portage from one river system to another with no trails to follow, making seven trips over each divide to haul his canoe, backpack and two waterproof barrels.
Why did he go in this direction and not the reverse, east to west? Because spring comes to the West earlier. If he had waited for ice-out in the East, he would have been caught by winter before he could complete the trip. Time was of the essence and it became a drumbeat for Shoalts.
Eventually he reached Great Bear Lake, the eighth-largest lake in the world, larger than Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. It was still plugged with ice but he couldn't wait for it to fully melt, so he paddled in and around inland icebergs, through massive waves and against ferocious winds. He crossed the lake in just 11 days.
He then had to make a long portage from the Great Bear watershed to the Dismal Lakes of the Coppermine River drainage. No trail and as always, he had to do it seven times to get his stuff across. All told, he had to travel 40 kilometers. It took him just two days!
Obviously, Shoalts was no greenhorn when it came to wilderness canoeing. In fact he has been called Canada's greatest living explorer. He is also an archaeologist, geographer and historian. The year after this trip he was named Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
So-driven by time on his trip, Shoalts never once stopped to drop a hook overboard although he would paddle amidst schools of enormous northern pike and lake trout.
For months the only creatures he met were belligerent muskox, curious wolves, bears and birds. As a reader, I wondered if perhaps he didn't eventually become "bushed." It's a term used here in the North to describe someone who spends so much time alone in the bush he shuns other human company. Lost persons, for example, have been known to run and hide from their rescuers.
The incident that made me wonder about this was a time near the end of July when Shoalts, after another tortuous day of wading up whitewater, dragging his canoe behind and driven nearly to madness by the hordes of blackflies and mosquitoes, had just turned into his tent for the night when a voice called out. It was a group of five female canoeists from Minnesota traveling downstream, of course. They were incredulous, also of course, that Shoalts was going the other way -- upstream -- and that he had been doing this for months.
Shoalts spoke to the party from the inside of his tent, explaining he had just killed all the blackflies inside. He mentioned that he had passed a better camping spot a mile downstream. The ladies took the hint and left.
On Sept. 4 he reached Baker Lake, a fjord-like water body with direct access to Hudson Bay and frequented by beluga whales and seals. His hair was long and wild, his beard enormous and he was scarecrow thin. But his incredible journey was over.

1 comment:

Ray G said...

Dan: Great story and good reading I;m sure. He should have become one with the bugs which of course starts another story.

Ray

Here's to the fungus among us

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