One of Shoalts’s more constant travelling companions — the Arctic wolf. (Photo: Adam Shoalts)
On racing the changing seasons
My constant mantra was “winter is coming, winter is coming, winter is coming.” I had to remind myself of that a lot, saying it aloud whenever I saw geese flying south or when the Arctic willow and bearberry leaves started turning red and yellow in August. I’ve done expeditions in the Arctic before, I’ve been through snowstorms in July and August, and there’s no way of knowing when the weather is going to turn too nasty to keep going. I was racing as fast as I could go.
Up until the end of July, I had essentially 24 hours of daylight. From August onward I started seeing longer and longer nights. I remember the night I saw a star for the first time in three months. It was so bright, it was astonishing.
On the most difficult stretches
The long upriver journeys were among the most extreme aspects of the expedition. I made four major ascents: on the Mackenzie River, from the little Indigenous community of Tsiigehtchic to Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.; on the Hare Indian River to its headwaters northwest of Great Bear Lake; on the Dease River, N.W.T., to Sandy Creek, near the Nunavut border; and then soon after that on the Coppermine River, which crosses from the Northwest Territories into Nunavut and then back again. Many told me beforehand that much of this would be humanly impossible — especially the Coppermine, a huge, powerful river with strong currents, whitewater rapids, canyons and waterfalls. But I had researched my route incredibly thoroughly, and at any given time I was carrying as many as three or four trip logs from previous explorers and canoeists, ranging in date from the 18th century to 2009. The first day on the Coppermine was a brutal slog, and at times the only way to make progress was by wading along the river’s edge, through whitewater and over rocks and boulders, which was so, so taxing. There was one canyon in particular that I had to portage around four times, once with the canoe, twice for the food barrels and again for my backpack.
Traversing Great Bear Lake was another great challenge. Ice cost me several days. There was so much that my path was completely blocked and I was stranded on an island for two nights. I tried pushing it aside, breaking paths through with my canoe, but even though it was early July, the ice was more than a foot thick. It became navigable a few days into the month, and despite the fact that I had been stopped, I traversed the lake much faster than I had planned. It was scary at times, with big waves and fierce, gusting winds, but it was still a nice experience after having spent the last 600 kilometres travelling upriver, not really getting anywhere by paddling. It was like reaching an ocean. To avoid the bad wind conditions, I would sometimes wake up before 2 a.m. and paddle through the night — which was still very bright — before the winds set in again.
My philosophy is that you have to be prepared for the worst, to not take anything for granted. That meant that I was consistently ahead of my schedule.