Part of Liquid State, an occasional series on our relationship with water.
Adam Shoalts was wet and growing increasingly impatient, tired of getting in and out of his canoe to guide it around the rocks. He was deep within the Hudson Bay Lowlands – alone – and fervently navigating an unfriendly river that, experts say, no one in recorded history had ever traversed in full.
“The next thing I know, I could hear this roar coming from downriver,” said Mr. Shoalts, a 27-year-old history PhD student at McMaster University who studies Canada’s early explorers. “And at that point I realize, ‘Oh my goodness, I just discovered a waterfall.… But then I realized that the current is too strong and I won’t be able to paddle out of here, and in a flash I’m going to be plunging over this thing.”
It was a six-metre high waterfall, and Mr. Shoalts took a nosedive right over. Unscathed, he swam ashore, then ran down the slippery riverbank after his belongings, forced to jump back into the cold water before they drifted away. His canoe was battered, but fixable with some duct tape. On he went.
Mr. Shoalts says he won’t make the same mistake this time: On Friday, he began the long journey to the same river – aptly called the Again. Backed by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Mr. Shoalts will map a series of seven waterfalls he encountered in 2012, including the one he plunged over. The goal is to have the waterfalls added to the map of Canada, a rare addition in the 21st century, the society says. His initial trip along the Again River was the first time anyone in history had travelled it in full, the organization says, adding that aboriginal elders of Moose Cree First Nation have no first-hand knowledge of anyone canoeing the river.
While documenting the waterfalls is a rather simple geographical exercise, the journey there is anything but, full of the same kind of dangers the first explorers of Canada’s interior encountered. In the 1950s, the Canadian government embarked on a massive project to document many of the country’s most isolated regions through aerial photography.
Denis St-Onge, a past president of the geographical society, says that while you can see the Again River’s waterfalls on aerial photographs, no one has documented or photographed the river and its falls from the ground.
“It’s doesn’t particularly surprise me because the Hudson Bay Lowlands are marshy and unpleasant to travel in,” said Dr. St-Onge, who spent 40 years exploring the Arctic. “So explorers, fur traders, what have you, missionaries stuck to the main rivers.”
In 1961, a team of geologists canoed part of the lower Again, but not the whole river. There are other rivers across the country just waiting to be explored by modern adventurers, Dr. St-Onge says.
Mr. Shoalts begins his journey by navigating the Kattawapiskak River in Northern Ontario for about 75 kilometres, which includes a series of rapids and lakes. Then, after paddling down a small tributary and crossing another small lake, he will enter the dense boreal forest. The highest concentration of bloodsucking insects in the world call this place home, Mr. Shoalts says.
“It’s a full-on massacre,” he said, just 48 hours before leaving for the expedition, adding that he doesn’t use bug repellent and relies on long-sleeve shirts and pants for protection, as well as a mesh net that covers his face.
Mr. Shoalts will portage for about 34 kilometres before reaching the river, often getting back in his canoe when he finds smaller rivers and ponds that lead to the Again.
His gear, including the canoe he now calls “a good friend,” weighs about 160 pounds. A water-resistant barrel stores his food, mostly packs of instant oatmeal, beef jerky and freeze-dried lasagna, which he supplements with fresh berries and fish he finds along the way.
Mr. Shoalts, who went on his first major expedition at the age of 18, which he later wrote a book about, says he chose to explore the Again River after studying multiple geographical databases and concluding no one in history had travelled it. He says he hopes this will be his last solo mission, admitting it can be dangerous out in the wild on your own.
In 2011, while exploring a never-before-travelled river in the subarctic, Mr. Shoalts encountered a growling polar bear and a standoff ensued. He quickly grabbed his shotgun, but with both hands occupied, he drifted along at a snail’s pace, only able to pick up and paddle off after several minutes.
“When it comes to my mother, the less said the better,” Mr. Shoalts said, laughing. “She doesn’t need to know the details.”
After days of canoeing, portaging and sleeping on the boggy muskeg of the lowlands, Mr. Shoalts says he hopes to reach the Again. Last year, it took him about a week.
From there it’s smooth sailing until he reaches the waterfalls. He’ll portage around each of them – some as high as 12 metres – and using a tool called a theodolite, will determine the height of each. He will also take photos and video during what he anticipates will be a three to four-day journey down the 100-kilometre river. The Again behind him, Mr. Shoalts will go down another river and then paddle 55 kilometres across the notoriously dangerous waters of James Bay, eventually reaching Moosonee, Ont. Then it’s a train ride home.
Back in civilization, Mr. Shoalts will file a report to the geographical society, which will then submit a proposal to the government to have the waterfalls added to the map. In the end, the 400-kilometre journey will have but a trivial impact on Canadian geography – but that doesn’t bother Mr. Shoalts in the least.
“To me it seems like the most natural thing in the world,” he said. “I want to be exploring the Canadian wilderness and that’s what I wanted to do from the earliest age.”