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Back Roads Bill: sometimes it's cool to meet your heroes

This week introduces readers to his hero, adventurer Adam Shoalts, some parallels and proof that the age of exploration is not over

It's important to have someone you look up to, but don't forget the other side of the coin you have your own sphere of influence, well maybe, and at a different scale, so Village Media tells Back Roads Bill.

One of the greatest heroes of all time is Indiana Jones. He has a fedora hat, a bullwhip, a pistol, a leather jacket and a satchel containing important stuff. “Indy” is an adventurer. So is Adam, he only has the hat though.

Back Roads Bill has no hair and goes on adventures and recently made it to the prestigious Hockey News magazine.

Adam Shoalts has been called "Canada's Indiana Jones" by the Toronto Star and has proven that the age of exploration is far from over. The Devil’s Rock near North Cobalt was not so well known until this Back Roads Bill video came out.

The new Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is scheduled for release theatrically in the United States on June 30.

Most recently, from April 24 to July 23, 2022, Shoalts undertook a 3,400 km solo journey from Lake Erie’s Long Point to Kangiqsualujjuaq in the Arctic by canoe and on foot.

The journey took three months and spanned five different ecosystems ultimately going from Canada’s south coast (Lake Erie) to the north coast. This year Bill reached the furthest point north in Ontario and we both encountered polar bears.

Adam now has four books to his credit.

Within his most recent offering, The Whisper on the Night Wind, readers are introduced to a spine-tingling tale.

Early in the last century an isolated little settlement in Labrador was the scene of an extraordinary haunting by large creatures none could identify. Strange tracks were found in the woods. Unearthly cries were heard in the night. Sled dogs went missing. Children reported being stalked by a terrifying grinning animal. Families slept with cabin doors barred and axes and guns at their bedsides.

Adam picks up the trail from a century ago and sets off into the Labrador wild to investigate the tale. One of the most compelling Back Roads Bill stories involves a spirit and of course Sasquatch.

Beyond The Trees was a result of a 2017 trek.

“I set off on an unprecedented solo journey across North America's greatest wilderness," Shoalts said. "A place where, in our increasingly interconnected, digital world, it's still possible to wander for months without crossing a single road, or even see another human being."

He started in Eagle Plains, Yukon Territory and made his way to his destination in Baker Lake, Nunavut.

“Here lies a maze of obstacles: shifting ice floes, swollen rivers, fog-bound lakes, and gale-force storms. And I had to time my departure at the breakup of the spring ice, then sprint across nearly 4,000 kilometres of rugged, wild terrain to arrive before winter closes in.”

Well, this car ride with Bill was epic.

Northern Ontario influence

Two of Shoalt’s books have Northern Ontario themes. People ask where is another source of different Back Roads Bill stories and twelve YouTube videos.

Shoalts says, “‘A History of Canada In Ten Maps;’ every map tells a story, and every map invites us to go somewhere we've never been." 

If you love to look at maps you will appreciate this book. Within the book the map chapter entitled Champlain’s Map of New France highlights the explorer’s voyage from the Ottawa River through the Mattawa and French Rivers to Georgian Bay.

“It is an account of what we know, but also a trace of what we long for. Like a story, a map is never completely objective. It records special interests and agendas. It leaves important things unsaid even as it purports to lay things out clearly and indisputably," he said. "We can know our history by our maps.”

This remote Village Media, Back Roads Bill story and this map from the story now has more than 51,000 views.

But it is the first book that resonates. It explains the difficulties of reaching a destination, something that is near and dear. It is country that is so familiar and close at hand to Bill.

His initial interest took him on a solo expedition into a never-travelled river north of Cochrane and flowing into James Bay near the Ontario/Quebec border.

It has resulted in the bestselling book Alone Against the North, “An Expedition Into The Unknown.” Because of this, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) for “extraordinary contributions to geography” and presented the Society’s expedition flag to His Excellency David Johnston, Governor General of Canada and patron of the RCGS.

He’s since been named by the magazine, Canadian Geographic as one of Canada's Top 100 Living Explorers, alongside the likes of Les Stroud, David Suzuki and Chris Hadfield. Back Roads Bill has made it to the local museum, though, and as an exemplary teacher.

Shoalts’ expeditions into Canada's wilderness have generated new geographic knowledge and garnered international headlines.

Focusing on the vast Hudson Bay Lowlands (the closest thing left to a blank spot on the global map), this area, larger than the United Kingdom, remains virtually unexplored and untouched.

The expedition took several attempts, years of research, and two friends abandoned him on his mission to explore it. But finally, alone, he found the headwaters of the mysterious river. He believed he had discovered what he had set out to find.

He says, “My great love is wilderness. If I didn't get to spend at least part of each day out in the forest somewhere, I'd get depressed. So, motivation is pretty easy to come by on a journey like the ones I describe in my book---sure the bugs can be bad and the weather miserable---but I'm immersed in the great outdoors doing what I love. Pure wilderness, far from any cottages, roads, trails, litter, that is what nurtures my soul.”

He comments on the man versus nature theme, “I think a lot of readers have looked at my book and seen the title, and thought because of that, 'Oh it's going to be a humankind vs nature story.' And to be sure there is an element of that in the book---life in the northern wilderness is hard--and the Hudson Bay Lowlands is surely one of the hardest of all Canada's diverse ecosystems to survive in. The fact it has the highest concentration of blood-sucking insects says it all.

"But, on the other hand, the wilderness can be your best friend. I meant what I said when I wrote in the book, 'to be in the forest was to be home.' The title is actually a tribute to Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barrens, also published as Two Against the North, which is the title I knew it by as a 13-year-old when it was my favourite book.

"I wanted to have an adventure like the ones the two characters face in Mowat's fictional story, but for me, it ended up being a solo adventure after my friend quit early, thus Alone Against the North instead of Two.”

The unexpected

Most people discover waterfalls by following road signs and tourist maps. With a lack of information this unexplored river, the Again River on the map had hidden its secrets well; astonishingly Shoalts discovered five waterfalls on the river, which were not previously known to exist. The first of these falls he was swept over in his canoe

“After a week of nightmarish portages through impenetrable forest and black fly-infested swamp, I thought that I’d finally reached the easy part of the expedition, and that heading down this river that no one had ever paddled before, there was nothing I couldn’t handle.

“So, the river is picking up, it’s getting a bit deeper, the rapids are getting a bit bigger. It’s getting a little wider. Next thing I know, I can hear this ominous roar down river, a big roar, the roar of water that puts the fear in your heart.

“And then I thought, ‘Wow, this is a big rapid.’ A few seconds later, I’m like, ‘Where is the river?’ It took me a moment to digest the fact that I’d discovered a waterfall, which I was really excited about. That’s a good discovery, a waterfall! But then, I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I think I’m going to get swept over it.”

At the last moment, a current popped the canoe sideways. Shoalts tumbled out the side and took a six-metre plunge. “I hit the water at the bottom and I got sucked down, right underneath, which was pretty shocking. I remember distinctly thinking in my mind, ‘I survived the plunge, great.’ And then thinking, ‘Why haven’t I come back up to the surface?’”

Quickly he surfaced, “breathed in a life-giving gulp of air and I can see out the corner of my left eye, my canoe was off to the side in an eddy, upside down, just bobbing there. I could see that the hull of the canoe was crushed in.” He was able to recover most of his gear and food, and repair his canoe with duct tape — “there was a bit of a ‘Red Green’ moment.”

Mattawa River – Meet Adam

He is no stranger to the historic Mattawa River, designated a Canadian Heritage River.

“I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Mattawa River and surrounding area because it has such a wonderful combination of natural beauty and historic lore." Shoalts said. "When I imagine the iconic Canadian landscape, I generally picture the Mattawa."

"I like rugged country of the sort you see around Mattawa, with forest-clad hills and granite cliffs. It is a great area for paddling, and the historian/archaeologist in me appreciates the rich history of the Mattawa with First Nations, Champlain, and the voyageurs.

"Another thing that has always fascinated me is the lore connected with forests and wilderness, (something that I hope comes through in my book when I delve into folklore), and the cave on the Mattawa or Porte de I'Enfer is a prime example of that. I once actually planned on buying property in Mattawa but it didn't work out---although it is still somewhere I could see myself living one day.” Here is my take on the Mattawa River and the map, for your upcoming summer adventure.

Ever since humanity’s beginnings, we have had a fascination with what is going on “next door” and on the “back roads.” He said, “The scope of our exploration has changed, but our ambition remains the same. “ Gripping and insightful, Adam’s books are classic adventure stories of obsession, physical hardship, and the restless sense of wonder that inhabits every explorer.

About Earth Day this Indiana Jones said, “I've been lucky enough to venture to some of the most remote wilderness on the planet. Yet, wherever I've gone I've seen the same alarming story...we're losing wilderness faster than we can explore it."

He will don his fedora at the Canadian Ecology Centre on the Mattawa River on Saturday, April 22, as part of its Earth Day Book Talk weekend. Come and meet the adventurer and Back Roads Bill. I also influence people so I am told.

I have written books and maps and am proud of the places I have been especially on the back roads of Northern Ontario; I just don’t have the hat or the hair. Here are about 140 Village Media Back Roads Bill stories starting on June 2, 2020.


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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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