28 April 2017

Adam Shoalts: Alone Against the North

Apparently my favourite type of non-fiction is when the narrator
journeys alone into the unknown... It doesn't make much sense because Meg and I always describe ourselves as "indoor girls," and yet I find myself always buying any book about someone venturing into the wilderness. I suppose it could be because I've always loved Robyn Davidson (who crossed the Australian desert alone in 1977) saying, "I'd like to believe an ordinary person is capable of anything," and I like to read the proof of that as often as possible. Also, Meg and I are partaking in a 4-day hike in June and are already planning the pitch for our book deal, so reading Alone Against the North: An Expedition Into the Unknown by Adam Shoalts was a matter of research.

I'll start this review with two of the many facts I have been telling anyone who will listen:

1. You legally have to carry a certain gauge shotgun with you when you are so far north in Ontario because of the ferocity of the polar bears! I didn't even know there were polar bears in Ontario. Apparently polar bears are far more aggressive than grizzlies. Shoalts even considered buying an electric fence to keep him safe from them while sleeping, but he was too poor and couldn't afford it. He recalls something he read about polar bears in Canadian Hunter's Handbook:

Hunting polar bears... is sport for big game hunters who want to experience maximum thrills and danger. It is not for the physically frail and soft. The polar bear is not afraid of man. It recognizes no enemy."

This is the stuff Meg and I love... we gave Backcountry a rave review. Please watch the movie. I made my boyfriend watch it with me on my birthday and he was disgusted with it, but he doesn't understand animal horror like we do.

2. The other thing I learned was that Canada has one of the largest wildlife masses in the world ... it is bigger than the Australian outback.

Now on to the review ...

Adam Shoalts canoeing
Whenever I'm reading a memoir it is usually important for me to actually like the narrator / subject on some level. The only time I found the narrator unlikable was when I read Patty Smith's Just Kids and she wouldn't stop calling herself an artist. Adam Shoalts is fairly likeable, the only issue is that he spends a lot of the book complaining about his partners' (who albeit, does leave him alone in the northern wilderness) incompetence in the wild. He sort of makes his partner (Brent) seem like a bumbling idiot ... constantly complaining about how cold it is, the bugs, etc. The one descriptive line I remember verbatim is when they are out shopping for supplies and Brent asks if they can go to Subway and then says with a mouthful of food "God I love meatball subs." For some reason I feel like this is one of the more humiliating things you could write about someone ... and you can't help but think the entire book that Shoalts could have just said Brent was inexperienced and left it at that.

Other than that, he is similar to the people who climbed Everest in that his drive to explore is unlike anything I've ever felt about anything in my own life. He is so determined to explore an unknown river that at one point in the book he mentions how he grew concerned for a bad cut on his thumb and how infected it was, and said that if successfully exploring this river meant losing his thumb it would be well worth it. It wouldn't be worth it to me if it meant losing an inch off my hair.

Shoalts has wanted to be an explorer since he was a little boy growing up in Fenwick, Ontario. He grew up thinking there was nothing left to explore, but after studying archeology / geography for years (and eventually pursuing a phd in the subject) he learned that not only is there tons of places untouched by humankind, but some explorable areas are within his own province. He then starts a meticulous search for an unexplored river.

He originally sets off on his trip with his friend Brent (not his first choice). The reason he even brings Brent is that the majority of his trip involves portaging and it would be considered too dangerous to go alone. He recalls a famous explorer talking about the importance of working in groups:

Think about the possibility of injury even from routine actions, such as picking up and carrying the canoe over a muddy trail, chopping wood or running rock-studded rapids. Close your eyes and imagine yourself pinned helplessly between your canoe and a rock in the middle of a rapid ... When you are chopping wood or splitting your firewood, imagine sinking the axe into your foot [...] Six is just about the right number of people... It is also considered the safest number for travelling on a remote wilderness river."

After a few days of what seems like unimaginable hell, Brent finally gives up saying there is no price he wouldn't pay to be home on his couch. They call in a pilot and Brent is helicoptered out, leaving Shoalts ALONE AGAINST THE NORTH (it's the title of the book after all...)

Something I loved about the book was how knowledgeable Shoalts is about past and present explorers. He knows every story and often brings them up to self-motivate or give the reader some kind of history. I was a huge fan of this because I also love reading books about botched or successful expeditions, and was familiar with some of his stories. The one he brings up the most was of Ernest Shackleton's famous journey to the Arctic, which was recounted in Alfred Lansing's Endurance. He also references Hugh Glass' story of survival after a bear attack, which was made famous in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film adaption The Revenant.

Maybe this is why I love reading these kinds of stories? Because if I ever have the nerve /courage to do a solo trek (lol) I will have plenty of motivational stories to comfort myself with. I'm sure the real reason is that these stories are riddled with the kind of facts Meg and I love, and we can both sit down to dinner and listen to the other tell the entire story without getting sidetracked once.

Shoalts gives a great description of what explorers are like:

The life of an explorer is often lonely. Soldiers and sailors have their bonds of brotherhood - but explorers tend to be lone wolves, solitary sorts not given to intimacy." 

Later in the book he talks about of the struggles explorers face when trying to adjust back to normal life. He details a pretty graphic suicide by a famous explorer (Meriwether Lewis) who crossed North America... it is very bleak but seems relevant to understanding the difficulty some have going back and forth between being out in the "real world" and being isolated and alone in the wilderness:

[...] despite the fame and accolades bestowed on him, Lewis fell irretrievably into despondency. One night, unable to cope any longer, he shot himself in the head. The bullet only grazed his skull. Grabbing another flintlock pistol, Lewis shot himself through the chest. Still, he did not die. Fully conscious, but out of ammunition, in desperation he reaches for a razor. In the words of a horrified witness who burst upon the scene, Lewis was found 'busily engaged in cutting himself from head to foot.' Choking with blood, Lewis gasped, 'I am no coward; but I am so strong, [it is] so hard to die.' Only after agonizing pain that lasted for hours did Lewis - one of history's most fearless explorers - finally succumb to his self-inflicted wounds." 

I know this is sort of a sweeping generalization to make, but another reason I've always found myself so interested in these solo-trekking adventures is that it fascinates me that people would choose to be completely alone for any amount of time. Robyn Davidson (Tracks again) seemed repelled by physical proximity to other humans, and Cheryl Strayed ventured into the Californian desert specifically to be alone. There's something about this that keeps me reading any related material.

This book not only tells a really interesting story about a man's experience canoeing northern Ontario alone, it also gives so much history of past explorations, as well as details about the particular wilderness he is exploring, and Canada's relationship with mapping its geography. Shoalts talks a lot about the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and its contributions to our country, as well as to other explorers.

The only complaint I have about this book is that he mentions how on his trip he was responsible for documenting hundreds of flora and fauna, as well as other details such as waterfalls, animal life, etc. But the book doesn't have any pictures of what he documented. Usually with these types of books you get some photographs in the middle of the book, but in Alone Against the North you only get two or three black and white maps throughout the entire book. I wonder if it had something to do with the publishing deal? I guess printing colour photos is also pretty expensive.

Anyways, if this sparked your interest you could either read the book yourself, buy me a quesadilla and have me tell you about it, or check out Shoalts' website here which has tons of pictures and videos of some of his trips!


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