People & Culture

Excerpt from Where the Falcon Flies: A 3,400 km Odyssey from Lake Erie to the Arctic

Westaway Explorer-in-Residence Adam Shoalts shares a portion of his story from his 3,400 solo journey from Long Point on Lake Erie to Ungava Bay on the Arctic coast

  • Oct 09, 2023
  • 1,816 words
  • 8 minutes
Adam Shoalts pushing his canoe from the American Falls. (Photo: Adam Shoalts)
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I woke before dawn, tense with anticipation. My plan was to paddle across the river in the dark, land on the Canadian shore, and then, using the aluminum cart, push my canoe past the falls and whirlpool rapids before most tourists were astir. I didn’t want to attract attention to myself if I could avoid it, as that would cause delays.

With the aid of a flashlight I dismantled my tent, then climbed through the woods and brambles back to the water’s edge. Once the canoe was packed I shoved off into the dark, paddling hard to overcome the current sucking me in the falls’ direction. It was a little nerve-racking, but I had excellent motivation not to allow myself to drift downstream. My fast strokes drove the canoe back across the river. It was still dark when I neared the mainland, but instead of landing I pivoted the canoe. It seemed safe to go just a bit farther, which would shorten the lengthy portage.

I had to be cautious, as near the shore were submerged rocks that could tip me into the river if I slammed into one. Meanwhile the roar of the falls grew louder and louder. Immediately above the falls is a one-kilometre stretch of some of the most violent rapids on earth, a furious vortex of surging water. But luckily, I didn’t have to worry about them, since up from these dangerous rapids is the hydro intake, and if I missed my landing spot, I’d be sucked into these giant turbines long before even reaching the rapids.

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When through the gloom I discerned the mouth of the Chippawa River—a small tributary joining the Niagara—I knew I’d reached the last safe place to get out. I canoed alongside the wooded shoreline then jumped onto the rocks, pulling the canoe up securely. Just on the other side of the trees was the Niagara Parkway, which winds along the water, and on its far side were spacious houses. But this early in the morning the road was quiet, with no one around as I set up my cart in the dark. I took a little extra care in strapping the canoe on and loading the backpack, barrel, and some freshwater I was carrying just right. This was going to be a long portage after all, and I didn’t want to have any unnecessary delays. In total, to safely bypass the hydro intake, the falls, as well as the Niagara Gorge and its famous whirlpool, I’d have to portage thirteen kilometres to Queenston.

I began by wheeling my canoe along a narrow walking path that follows the river. There was a time when portaging around the falls was a common occurrence, but it’d probably been two hundred years since someone had last done so. Prior to the construction of the first Welland Canal in the 1820s, anyone in a boat or canoe travelling from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, or vice versa, had no choice but to bypass the falls and rapids on foot. Originally this was done by a simple path through the giant old-growth forest that once towered alongside the river, bathed by the eternal mist of the falls, which creates a micro-climate of rich rainforest. The advent of the canal in the early 1800s, with its systems of locks, allowed for a much quicker, easier, and safer passage for boats travelling between the lakes. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t take the canal, it’s for commercial shipping traffic and motorboats only—my little canoe would easily be run over by a freighter in its narrow confines.) Today, more than two and a half centuries later, the road is still called the Portage Road, but now it’s used by motor vehicles rather than canoeists.

I’d gone about two kilometres along the trail, dawn breaking, when a police officer drove by. I hoped he wouldn’t notice anything unusual, but he did, and pulled over. His vehicle indicated that he was Niagara Parks Police, which are Canada’s second oldest police force, formed in 1887 by the provincial government of Ontario to police the Niagara Parks.

“What are you doing?” asked the officer through his window.

“Portaging around the falls.”

He looked at me suspiciously. “You’re not going to try putting into the rapids above the falls? Going over them?”

I half laughed at this, though it was true that past daredevils had attempted to paddle the falls, which had never ended well. “No,” I said, “that’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do. I’m on land because I don’t want to go over the falls.”

“Where are you heading?”

“I have to get to Queenston, where I can put back into the river below the gorge.”

He seemed surprised. “Do you know how far that is?”

“Thirteen kilometres.”

“That’s a long way.”

“Well, I’m heading to the Gulf of St. Lawrence so it doesn’t seem that long to me.”

“What? How are you going to get to Queenston from here?” He asked again.

“Isn’t this path paved the whole way? That makes it easy. The cart takes most of the weight—all I have to do is push.” I could see him debating in his mind, so I sensed that I’d better offer more of an explanation. “That’s why I’m here early. I want to get this portage done as early as I can before anyone else is around.”

Shoalt's canoe beside the brink of the Horseshoe Falls. (Photo: Adam Shoalts)
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“All right,” he said, “I can see you have a plan. I’ll get out of your way and let you get on with it. And I’ll tell you what: I’ll radio all the other units along the Parkway to let them know you’re coming so no one else bothers you.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He waved, and then headed off toward the falls. I kept pushing, eager to make up for lost time. A narrow footbridge led me across part of the river adjacent to the Ontario Power Company Gate House. Luckily my canoe was just slender enough to squeeze onto the footbridge. I next passed Dufferin Park, where Canada geese and mergansers huddled in its sheltered waters, and over a second footbridge. Here I had my first good look at the raging rapids up close—I couldn’t help but look on them with fear and awe. In 1990, an American kayaker, Jesse Sharp, attempted to paddle the rapids and then over the Horseshoe Falls. His body was never recovered, but his dented kayak washed up below the brink. Five years later another daredevil, Robert Overacker, came up with the novel idea of running the rapids on a Jet Ski and then deploying a parachute as he plunged over the falls. It sounded fine on paper, but when he soared over the brink the parachute failed to open and he drowned.

Midstream in the violent water, stranded on some rocks, was an old iron boat—a scow that ran aground back in 1918. The terrifying incident occurred when the eighty-foot-long boat broke free of a tow rope and was sucked downstream into the rapids. On board were two men, clinging for dear life as the boat rushed toward the falls, tossing wildly in the roaring water. Luckily the boat caught on some rocks less than eight hundred metres from the brink. For seventeen harrowing hours the men were trapped, fearing that at any moment the powerful current might knock the boat loose. They were rescued when a grappling gun shot a rope out to them, allowing them to cross on an improvised harness. A century later, the rusted-out boat is still stuck in the rapids above the falls, just waiting for a day when a big storm knocks it over.

Still wheeling along the trail by the roar of the rapids, I passed a spectacular old limestone building that looked more like something out of Ancient Rome than Canada—this was the old power house building, a grand edifice from an earlier era. Today it’s vacant and has been for years—a strange mouldering ruin just above the mighty falls. Not long after this was a third footbridge, which ran alongside the furious churning water. Only a stone’s throw ahead I could see a huge plume of mist: the falls. As I was nearing it two more police vehicles pulled up. My first thought was that the earlier officer hadn’t radioed his colleagues after all.

“Hello,” said the officer in the first car through her open window.

“Hello,” I said back.

“We heard from another of our units that you’re going around the falls.”


“That’s awesome. How are you going to get around Table Rock though?”

“Along this path,” I said, slightly confused. Table Rock is the tourist centre situated beside the brink of the falls. It had once been an actual “table rock” that extended precariously over the brink, but the erosion caused by millions of gallons of water pouring over had long ago caused the overhanging rock to plunge into the abyss. But the spot has ever since been known as Table Rock.

“The trail is closed there due to construction,” explained the officer.

“Oh,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to find some other way.”

“Well,” said the officer, “we don’t want you going out on the road, so we’ll just close it down for you in that section and let you pass through without having to worry about traffic.”

“Oh wow, thanks,” I replied, grateful for this unexpected help.

“All right,” she replied, “we’ll see you down there.”

“Thank you!” I resumed pushing.

A few minutes later I was beside the brink of the Horseshoe Falls, marvelling at the raw power of millions of cubic metres of water hurtling over the edge with a thunderous roar. The sun was now fully up, the temperature climbing. Up ahead was the sidewalk construction that had closed the path. The police, in two vehicles, had their lights flashing on the road below the Table Rock building. I turned and pushed the canoe through a parking lot toward the street. Once I’d swung onto the road, one police vehicle drove ahead of me at a walking pace while the other followed behind, lights flashing.

Reflecting on the hundreds of portages I’d done in godforsaken mosquito-infested swamps or windswept boulder fields in lonely corners of the Arctic, I couldn’t help but laugh at the bizarre fact that I was portaging my canoe with my own police escort around one of the world’s most famous landmarks. The only witnesses to this strange procession were some park landscapers and gardeners, a couple of maintenance staff, and a few of the arriving construction workers.

It took only a few minutes to get beyond the construction. After bypassing it I pushed the canoe back onto the path, waving goodbye to the officers. I was now on the narrow stone walkway immediately in front of the falls.


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