The explorer measures and maps the waterfalls he accidentally plunged over a year earlier, and captures the world’s attention along the way
ADAM SHOALTS DREW THE LINE at Al Jazeera. Not because it was Al Jazeera, but because Al Jazeera couldn’t interview him until Friday, August 2nd. By then, the 28-year-old explorer and history PhD candidate from Fenwick, Ont., was determined to be on the road, en route to the starting point of a 14-day solo canoe expedition in northern Ontario and Quebec sponsored by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
Even so, that still meant Shoalts, who’d already delayed his departure 24 hours to appear on Canada AM, would have to weather a four-day barrage of interviews by local, national and international media while prepping for the trip.
The attention began after a Canadian freelance writer sold a story about the expedition to The Guardian in the UK. It was published the preceding Sunday, July 28, the same day Shoalts returned home from a fun canoe trip with friends. The article told how, in 2012, Shoalts had accidentally canoed over the first of what proved to be five uncharted waterfalls in Ontario’s scrubby, preternaturally vast, mosquito-infested Hudson Bay Lowlands. He’d done so while completing, on his third attempt, the first recorded top-to-bottom trip down the 107-kilometre Again River, straddling the Ontario-Quebec border. The pending expedition’s purpose was to retrace his route and photograph and measure the falls, so they could, quite literally, be put on the map.
But first, the media gauntlet: Shoalts’ story struck a chord the world over. It seemed magical that in this day and age, in a G8 country, with all our technology, it was still possible for a research-obsessed solo explorer to find himself plunging over an uncharted waterfall. So, while he had come back from his trip expecting a quiet couple of days to get ready for the Again, when Shoalts turned on his computer, his inbox was flooded. “All these media outlets like BBC, CBC, CNN, they were all emailing me: ‘We want to do a story, we read about you in The Guardian,’ ” he says. “The whole week before the expedition I had no time to do any planning as it was just media interviews around the clock.”
It had been about six years since Adam Shoalts, at the behest of others, took to calling himself an “explorer.” In the span of a few days, thanks to the thrill of discovery meeting the viral power of Twitter, he’d become a celebrity, too.
“EVERYONE ALWAYS ASKS me how tall they are,” Shoalts says.
Now he has the answer: 18, 25, 10, 15 and 10 feet, approximately, from first to last waterfall. The first, the one he went over in 2012, has two distinct drops of roughly four and 14 feet.
It’s late November. Shoalts is relating the details of his entire five-year relationship with the Again River (he failed twice to reach its headwaters in 2008 and 2009) and what proved a successful 2013 expedition — though the wear and tear ended his old canoe’s whitewater career. He’s sitting at a small wooden dining table in his main-floor apartment in a house in St. Catharines. There’s a pile of rolled up top maps next to his chair. On the walls, three mounted paddles, a framed landscape, some historical maps and, side by side, a portrait of Samuel de Champlain exploring a river in New France in the early 1600s and a photo of Shoalts (a tripod-aided selfie) striking a very similar pose, at the foot of one of the Again’s newly charted waterfalls.
Finding the falls was a fluke, but that Shoalts was in such a position was no accident. “To me, the most important thing [in exploring] is not the majestic scenery or all that, it’s going somewhere where there’s no record of anyone having gone before,” he says, his dark eyes intent behind a tousle of hair. “It’s why I do it.”
His sweet spot: identifying and exploring rivers that are so remote, or inaccessible, that there is no written or verifiable oral record of them being explored. The aim? To canoe them top to bottom, document and then publish the findings. He considers this getting “back to the basics of exploration, which was always about generating new geographic knowledge and putting something new on file.”
The Again first made his shortlist in 2008. It had a name, added in 1947 without explanation, but an exhaustive search of canoeing logs, university libraries, digital archives and the Geological Survey of Canada turned up no record of anyone travelling it. When an attempt seemed in order, he asked contacts in the area, particularly in the aboriginal community, what they knew. “No one I spoke to had any knowledge of the Again River,” he says, other than “a few individuals who had been to the mouth [where it enters the larger Harricanaw River, en route to James Bay].”
All that research didn’t discourage people from challenging his finds once his story spread. It didn’t help that some of the coverage about Shoalts stated incorrectly that he claimed to be the first person to ever see the falls or canoe the Again, rather than just the first to record the effort. “At no point would I ever say or would I ever write anything like I’m the first person to ever canoe the Again River,” he says. “It’s a completely meaningless statement and there’s no way to either prove or disprove that without time machines.”
Technology muddied the waters, too. There are “explorers” today who make discoveries using Google Earth. Lost foundations, unknown caves and other features are now being found this way. Couldn’t the falls on the Again River (assuming people knew where to look) have been seen the same way? Skeptics got online and got out their imagery; while no one claims to be able to see any of the waterfalls outright, there was the suggestion that Shoalts was, at best, just filling in “details.”
When Shoalts hears that criticism, he shakes his head. “That’s the point, to get these details on the map. These waterfalls were never on the map.”
On this, he has a supporter in Will Roseman, executive director of the 110-year-old Explorers Club in New York City. “Exploration is education,” says Roseman. “Even if there were people that knew these particular falls were there, it’s the matter of educating and bringing it to light and putting it on a map so that other people know it’s there.”
Jeff Fuchs is a Canadian explorer specializing in ancient Himalayan tea trade routes from a base in Shangri-La in Yunnan Province in southwestern China. He says the pressure on explorers to validate and verify has never been greater. “There’s so much out there that hasn’t been done, hasn’t been seen,” says Fuchs. “But people have to corroborate their claims.”
Adding to the confusion, Fuchs says, are ego-driven adventurers in outlandish pursuits who aren’t necessarily explorers. What sets explorers apart, he says, is the intention to return from their journeys with information of “practical use” that is “clearly intended for a larger audience.” In this, Fuchs echoes the RCGS’s own expedition guidelines. According to Michael Schmidt, co-chair of the RCGS expeditions committee, whatever participants learn individually, they’re also expected to “communicate what they have learned more broadly.”
IF YOU MEASURE by Google hits and page views, Adam Shoalts exceeded his communications quotient before his paddle even hit the water last August. But there’s potentially more in store. He has a book in the works, on this and other expeditions (he lists at least 19 on his website). And he’s also working on a TV show project based on his expeditions, which he hopes to shop to various networks.
“We’ll see what happens,” Shoalts says with a laugh. “It’s kind of hard to turn down when someone gives you that opportunity.”
Amid it all, he’s emphatic he’ll finish his PhD in history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., “on schedule” in June 2016. He’s studying relations between Western explorers and North American indigenous peoples, researching petroglyphs and rock carvings, while also doing a minor in historical archeology. “It’s kind of what I live and breathe, right?”
The more layers you peel away, the more you begin to see the quick mind and quiet intensity that helps propel Adam Shoalts. Asked about his career plans in terms of teaching or research, he says: “Whatever is more conducive to doing more expeditions is what I do.”
To hear Shoalts tell it, that’s pretty much been his guiding light since growing up in Fenwick, Ont., near Welland. On canoe trips in Algonquin Provincial Park with his father and twin brother, he says he’d always wanted to paddle to the most distant lake, while his brother just wanted to fish. He got the idea for his first wilderness expedition in Grade 8, after reading Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, and completed the trip after high school — he and a friend, canoeing, hiking and surviving by their wits in northern Ontario.
By university, his mind was set. That’s the time he also began zeroing in on the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Stretching from northern Manitoba, across Ontario and into Quebec, it is the biggest wetland in North America, third largest in the world and, says Shoalts, “definitely one of the least explored places on the planet.”
YOU CAN’T CHARACTERIZE any 14-day solo canoe trip through even a segment of these environs as a victory lap. But when Shoalts reached his starting point last summer — a bridge over the Kattawagami River, at the end of one of Ontario’s most isolated highways, halfway between Cochrane, Ont., and the southern James Bay shore — he had the benefit of knowing what lay in store. “I wasn’t too concerned because I was going back to a river I had paddled before,” he says. “This time around I’d have my trails from the last year, the ones I’d blazed, so that made it a lot easier.”
The segment that first stymied Shoalts in 2008 and 2009 — a 15-km paddle-wade-bushwhack overland passage from the nearest point between the Kattawagami and Again headwaters — comes up around day three and takes a couple more to cross. Shoalts remembers his elation when he finally reached the Again in 2012, thinking he’d put those “nightmarish portages” behind him — only to realize as soon as he went over the falls a couple of days later that in order to photograph and measure them, he’d need another return trip. This last time out, Shoalts experienced that same “satisfaction and relief” after he’d taken his pictures, measured the falls and started down the easier lower stretch of the river. “I was happy I was finished the job, basically,” he says.
Understandably, Shoalts now says he’s eager to move on to new challenges. He also says he hopes he can get a sponsor for a new canoe. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like it will be a problem.
Photography by Brian Banks (top) and courtesy Adam Shoalts