Alone Against the North

Canada’s real-life Indiana Jones reminds us that the age of exploration is not over.

When Adam Shoalts ventured into the largest unexplored wilderness on the planet, he hoped to set foot where no one had ever gone before. What he discovered surprised even him, and made him a media sensation.

Shoalts was no stranger to the wilderness. He had hacked his way through jungles and muskeg, had stared down polar bears and climbed mountains. But one spot on the map called out to him irresistibly: the Hudson Bay Lowlands, a trackless waste of muskeg and lonely rivers, moose and wolf, much bigger than the Amazon. Little of it has ever been explored.

Cutting through this forbidding landscape is a river no hunter, no explorer, no Native guide has left any record of paddling. It is far from any important waterways, even further from any arable land, and about as far from civilization as one can get. It was this river that Shoalts was obsessively determined to explore.

It took him several attempts, years of research, and two friendships that collapsed under the strain of Adam’s single-minded thirst to explore this river. But finally, alone, he found the headwaters of the Again. He believed he had discovered what he had set out to find. But the adventure had just begun.

Paddling his way back to Hudson Bay, where a float plane would pick him up, Shoalts discovered something that seemingly shouldn’t exist: a towering unmapped waterfall. He also discovered edenic islands, and braved rock-strewn rapids, but the waterfall captured both his imagination and the world’s.

Adam did a single interview, with The Guardian, and once the story hit, he was a celebrity. He appeared on morning TV and was made the Explorer in Residence of the Canadian Geographic Society. What struck a chord with people was the realization that the world is bigger than we think. We assume that because we have mapped it from space, it must be exhaustively known. But it is wilder, stranger, less homogenous than we assume. We hardly know it. And, contrary to popular wisdom, it is certainly not flat. In other words, the age of exploration is not over.