by Deborah Rogers –
Imagine spending months alone, with only musk ox, elk and wolves for company. Imagine paddling, poling and towing a canoe upriver and through ice floes! Imagine covering nearly 4,000km of Canadian wilderness all under your own power. After reading this month’s selection, Adam Shoalts’ Beyond the Trees – A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic, our book club members had a very vivid impression of what a long, solitary endeavour Shoalts undertook, and how such adventuring requires a very particular type of person.
This book, describing his 2017 expedition to cross Canada’s mainland Arctic, was quite a change for our group. We were glad to read something different, though of course there were mixed reactions. No one could doubt Shoalts’ commitment to his project. His feat was extraordinary, pushing the limits of what the weather would allow (think snow and wind, lots of wind) and of what’s been considered possible for a solo canoeist. Our readers marvelled over, and questioned, some of his choices. We were also struck by how undramatic the writing was: a calm, quiet, solitary figure emerges through the text. We pondered whether it was difficult to be both an adventurer and a writer, and many found the pacing too slow, with only so much interest in the endless landscape and monotonous days of granola bars and paddling.
Shoalts is not a raconteur like Bill Bryson or Tim Moore; he’s an explorer first, and actually an incredibly informed explorer with a background in archeology, history and geography. His writing came alive most when he relayed stories about previous, often tragedy-tinged, explorations. It’s a harsh environment and Shoalts makes it clear that he is just a visitor. Many readers commented on how respectful he was as made his journey, leaving a minimum of impact on the land. The Arctic wildlife took centre stage, and his descriptions of the bugs he endured will stay with us for a long time!
We decided that Shoalts is a master of understatement. The end of his extraordinary journey reflects that, as he finds himself unwilling to return to the real world and crosses his finish line with no welcoming party or fanfare. It was a little anticlimactic for the reader, though the quiet reflection in the Afterword suggests Shoalts found the journey worthwhile.
Next month we’ll be discussing the historical fiction The Social Graces by Renée Rosen. There is a book club set of this title available though the Sidney/North Saanich Library; please contact them to request a copy. Our meeting takes place on Tuesday, September 13 at 6:30 p.m. Please join us at the Sidney/North Saanich Library’s Nell Horth room. Sign up to our mailing list for meeting reminders: www.seasidemagazine.ca/book-club.