People & Culture

Adam Shoalts on his latest expedition following the birds to Canada’s North

Professional explorer and best-selling author, Adam Shoalts, discusses his three-month solo canoe journey travelling bird migration routes from southern Canada to the Arctic

  • Aug 10, 2022
  • 1,002 words
  • 5 minutes
It took professional adventurer Adam Shoalts 90 days to travel 3,400 km by canoe from Long Point on Lake Erie to the Arctic coast of Ungava Bay. (Photo: Adam Shoalts)
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Changing landscapes, stormy waves, pure wilderness and 3,400 kilometres – this is what lay ahead of professional explorer, Adam Shoalts on the morning of April 24, 2022. 

For nearly two decades, Shoalts has been taking on the Canadian wilderness, recording his travels and sharing his stories with the world. In 2017, he completed a nearly 4,000 km solo journey across Canada’s Arctic (documented in his best-selling book Beyond the Trees) and then in 2020, immersed himself deep into the dark corners of Canada’s wild while exploring the ancient mountains of Labrador. As a modern-day explorer, Shoalts is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society as well as an Explorer-in-Residence. Trained as a cartographer, archaeologist and historian, he is well-equipped to brace the wild and face the harsh elements that nature often throws his way. 

In his most recent expedition, Shoalts travelled by canoe from Long Point on Lake Erie to the small village of Kangiqsualujjuaq along the Arctic coast of Ungava Bay while tracing bird migration routes. In this exclusive interview, he discusses what it’s like to travel solo, key moments from the trip and how this expedition stands out from his previous endeavours. 

Throughout his journey, Shoalts had to overcome rapids such as the ones pictured here in Northern Quebec. (Photo: Adam Shoalts)
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On the inspiration for the expedition 

I was looking out my porch window in St. Williams, ON, which is right near Long Point on Lake Erie when I spotted a peregrine falcon flying over the cornfield across the road. I recognized it almost immediately because I’d seen many peregrine falcons on my past Arctic expeditions. These falcons, like other birds, migrate in spring from southern Canada to the Arctic. Suddenly, I felt like the Arctic wasn’t so far away. Watching that bird out my window, I was reminded how interconnected Canada’s diverse ecosystems actually are, including even the southernmost Carolinian forests along Lake Erie to the tundra of the High Arctic. Knowing that falcons migrated from Lake Erie to the Torngat Mountains in the Arctic, almost at once I was seized by the idea of wanting to follow them north on foot and by canoe.  

On preparation for the expedition 

I actually began preparing for the journey two years ago in the spring of 2020, when I first came up with the idea by seeing the falcon. But then COVID-19 happened and put everything on hold. After two years passed, I pretty much gave up on the idea and figured the journey would remain just a dream. But then when spring 2022 arrived, the old wanderlust stirred inside me again, and I thought it was now or never, so I just pretty spontaneously grabbed my canoe, loaded up a backpack, and set off from Long Point on Lake Erie. I didn’t worry too much about the details or logistics and figured I’d just work things out along the way. Any resupplies I might require, like granola bars, freeze-dried meals, extra batteries or socks, I simply put in boxes before leaving and my wife mailed them to Canada Post Offices along the St. Lawrence River or elsewhere on my route where I could easily pick them up. Everything else I just sort of worked out on the fly, which made it more of an adventure.  

On overcoming roadblocks

Getting safely around numerous hydro dams, trying not to get run over when crossing commercial shipping lanes on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, portaging around Niagara Falls, and finding campsites in places like GTA and Montreal. Besides that, there were all the typical wilderness challenges like dealing with millions of black flies, and just the frequent hunger I felt from burning so many calories trekking and paddling.

On July 9 (day 77) Shoalts was paddling through Labrador when he was hit by a rainstorm. (Photo: Adam Shoalts)
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On why he travels solo 

I’d say my expeditions are a pretty even 50/50 split between solo journeys and ones with friends. I enjoy both: it’s great to have the camaraderie and teamwork that comes with having a partner on a difficult journey, but on the other hand, solo journeys have the upside that one person usually will have more success spotting and filming wildlife. Of course, I enjoy the solitude and adventure of travelling solo too—it is a pretty special feeling being alone in some of the wildest places left on Earth.

On the message he hopes to share through his expedition 

That all of Canada’s ecosystems, from the deciduous forests of southernmost Ontario to the windswept mountains of the Arctic Cordillera, are interconnected. Migratory birds are a wonderful illustration of this: each spring, thousands of birds migrate from southern Canada to the Arctic, and back again in the fall. Along the way, they depend on critical areas of natural habitat as stop-over places. It is a great example of why we must preserve more green space in southern Canada, which in so doing also helps protect nature in Canada’s North.

On key moments from the trip 

Portaging around Niagara Falls, enduring a massive storm with a tornado warning outside Trois-Rivieres that took down a lot of trees and knocked out the power, and discovering near the mouth of the George River that there were two polar bears swimming upriver just as I was paddling down were all pretty memorable moments.  

On how this expedition was different from others 

Travelling through some of the most densely populated shorelines in southern Ontario and Quebec, was definitely a major difference from the more remote solo journeys I’ve done in the past. Paddling and camping in these more populated areas came with their own set of challenges, but I also enjoyed figuring out solutions to them and I also got to meet many interesting and kind people who helped me out in one way or another.  

On future plans  

I’m excited to do more expeditions soon as Westaway Explorer-in-Residence at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Some of the plans I’m working on include more archaeological expeditions, more river journeys, winter expeditions, and a lot of others. I’ll have more details about them on my Facebook and Instagram pages and website soon.

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