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book review

Adam Shoalts explored the Again River in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, southeast of Moosonee, Ont.Alexia Wiatr

"Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it's not there." My wife's stepfather said this to her when she couldn't find something that was right in front of her. The phrase came to my mind often while reading Alone Against the North, in which explorer Adam Shoalts, filled with dreams of terra incognita, claims glory for paddling an unexplored river in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, but remains blind to uncomfortable truths.

Shoalts greatly admires a certain kind of explorer from the past – "heroic adventurers who undertook dangerous journeys sponsored by geographical societies." It's these men of empire that he's modelling himself on when he begins scanning maps in search of "a river that no one knew anything about." He settles on the remote Again River, running along the Quebec-Ontario border, southeast of Moosonee.

The bulk of the book is devoted to Shoalts's attempts to explore the Again, with detours to a few other wilderness destinations. His quest is ostensibly in the service of geographic knowledge. But it feels powered by an ego as swollen as a thundercloud over James Bay and a misguided reverence for the lumbering spirit of European colonialism. Shoalts believes himself to be looking for an uncharted river, but it's clear that what he's really searching for is the 18th century.

It's significant that Shoalts pits himself "against" the North. Although he wears the breeches of a plucky coureur de bois and has an intimate knowledge of the outdoors, Shoalts approaches the land as a bored antagonist. His default technique as a writer is to describe, in dry, detached prose, all the things that make a place or journey uncomfortable – "impassable rapids," "monotonous woods," "foul pools of black water," "hordes of biting insects" – and then state how unaffected he is by all of it, as he charges ahead in pursuit of his goals. His veneration of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society comes off as boyish and archaic, and it's clear by the end of the introduction that this is not a book written for an era of Truth and Reconciliation. He seems oblivious to how cringe-inducing it is to state that "the nomadic hunter-gatherers of North America's past … made no contribution to the mural of Canada's wilderness." For Shoalts, if it hasn't gone into a leather-bound atlas stamped with gold foil, it's beyond his concern.

Of course, there's a reason those swashbuckling tales about Shackleton, Franklin and company captivate Shoalts and the rest of us. A good adventure yarn, confidently told, is hard to resist. Shoalts is good at painting a picture of a landscape and cataloguing its details, and although his structure gets repetitive (we get the Again, and then we get it again), his stories of stoic bushwhacking and close wildlife encounters had me dreaming of taking a canoe trip of my own. Those blank spaces, on our maps or in our notions of self, are alluring things.

What Shoalts doesn't recognize is how awkwardly he wears the battered fedora of exceptionalism. Wielding arrogance like a knotty stick, he decries extractive industry, but, a sentence later, worships the same compulsion to conquest that led men to pull fuel from the earth at all: "It filled me with dismay that society could permit the wanton destruction of wilderness – Earth's true gem – in pursuit of shiny stones. But my opinions reflect a life spent seeking untouched, hidden-away places." For Shoalts's favourite heroes, the map begat the territory, where flags could be planted and spoils taken. While Shoalts makes token complaints about those who exploit nature, he himself feels an insatiable urge to claim it for himself, on behalf of the fatherland.

Although Shoalts repeatedly declares his clarity of mind, he is seemingly driven solely by impulse, and does all kinds of stupid, dangerous and selfish things. Unlike writers calling for the rewilding of the Earth as a cure for our shared ecological boredom, Shoalts doesn't appear to give a crap about humans on any scale. One of the worst things in the book is how patronizing and dismissive he is to his would-be travelling companion and friend, Brent Kozuh, whom he describes as "an inveterate slacker," without pride – a creature to be pitied.

Finally, the most disquieting thing about Alone Against the North is the "alone" part. The notion of wilderness as a quarry waiting to be mapped into relevance by hardy men destined for plaquedom, and everyone else be damned, runs counter to the contemporary discussion about nature and how we keep it – the idea that every river, charted or no, is part of the larger ecosystem that includes all of humankind. Like it or not, nature is now a collective concern. At one point, Shoalts tells Kozuh that his personal motto is, "You are what you make yourself." Sadly, Adam Shoalts has chosen to make himself an anachronism.

J.R. McConvey is a Genie and Gemini award-winning producer of documentaries, including the cross-platform arts/adventure docs, Northwords and the National Parks Project.