McMaster explorer completes 4,000 km solo journey across vast arctic tundra

One of Canada's greatest modern explorers is a PhD student at McMaster University — and does he ever have stories to tell.

One of Canada's greatest modern explorers is a PhD student at McMaster University

Explorer and McMaster PhD student Adam Shoalts undertook his most extensive expedition ever this past fall: a 4,000 km trek across Canada's north. (Adam Shoalts)

It was 2:30 in the morning in the western Arctic when a noise outside Adam Shoalts's tent shot him out of his sleeping bag with a start.

He hoped it was a squirrel — but he knew it probably wasn't.

Shoalts, a McMaster University PhD student and author, was about a quarter of the way into a massive, solo trek across Canada's arctic as a celebration of the country's 150th birthday.

He unzipped the screen door of his tent, and standing there was bear, not 20 feet away, just staring at him.

"I figured he probably smelled my mac and cheese that I had for dinner," Shoalts told CBC News.

He grabbed his "bear banger" — a kind of firecracker that launches into the air with a huge bang, to scare it away.

Shoalts encountered several grizzly bears along the way on his journey. (Adam Shoalts)

"The bear just sort of flinched, and then he went back to looking at me," he said. "But I had a talk with him, and I was able to scare him off just by yelling at him."

Those kinds of interactions become the norm when you're one of Canada's most accomplished modern day explorers, trekking across the nation's remote wilderness.

A massive 4,000 km journey

Shoalts, who is a member of the Explorers Club and a fellow in the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, most recently set off in the northern Yukon in the northwest corner of Canada on May 13 of last year. He finished 4,000 km later in Baker Lake, Nunavut on Sept. 6.

Shoalts is giving a talk about this epic solo journey across the tundra on Jan. 18 at McMaster Innovation Park — and does he ever have stories to tell.

Shoalts started off in the northern Yukon in the northwest corner of Canada, and finished 4,000 km later in Baker Lake, Nunavut. (Adam Shoalts)

On top of the 14 different grizzly bears he met along the way, Shoalts spent Canada Day stranded on a small, uninhabited island on Great Bear Lake, which is the eighth largest freshwater lake in the world.

"I ran into drifting pack ice. The ice on the lake still hadn't fully broken up. I was actually stranded for two days on a small uninhabited island, just watching ice floes shift by me, and I couldn't get through," he said.

"I tried to break a passage through with my canoe, using my paddle to break it up to try to create channels through a maze of drifting ice. But it didn't work so well, so I was stranded there, just watching the ice go by. That's how I spent Canada Day — all alone on an island.

"Eventually, by around the fourth of July, the last of the ice had broken up on the lake and then I had smooth sailing from there, and I could paddle along the north shore."

Embracing the solitude

Shoalts also encountered wolves and muskox on his journey. (Adam Shoalts)

The 12- to 13-hour days he spent hauling his 15-foot canoe and travelling could be lonely. "Over the course of my whole journey, which spanned nearly four months, I went a couple of times a full month without seeing another human," he said.

The brief moments of respite from the solitude came when bush plane pilots would meet him with resupplies, food rations and camera batteries at different points along the route.

"It was kind of exciting after being alone in the wilderness for a month to see another human face for the first time and ask what's going on in the world. What's the news, I haven't heard CBC at all, so tell me, who won the Stanley Cup?"

Shoalts's interest in the natural world was embedded early. As a child growing up in Fenwick, Ont., he explored the marshlands of his own backyard.

About 1,200 km of the route was paddling upriver, against the flow of current. (Adam Shoalts)

As he got older, he started doing canoe trips in northern Ontario, and his fascination with wilderness only grew. He started doing it more professionally, and began doing expeditions for the geographical society.

Now, his specialty is the most remote rivers left on the planet, and his books help put some of the last missing details on the map of Canada.

"I think it's pretty special, especially in the 21st century and the year 2018, to go to a place that's literally hundreds of miles from the nearest human being. It's a very magical, special feeling to see untouched nature and to watch wild arctic wolves with their families walking across the tundra," he said.

"It does the heart and the soul good to know that even in 2018, there's still places on earth where wildlife lives free of human interference."


About the Author

Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.