1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Despite the human need for connection, we also have a need for space. Taking time to escape, explore, and dream is essential to living your life by design and not by default.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Make a list of ways you prefer to escape (e.g. meditation, morning routine, quarterly offsite, sabbatical).
  • Schedule a specific time to escape – even if it is only a few minutes per week.

3 Questions to Ask

  • Am I living a life I have designed?
  • What am I prioritizing in my life right now?
  • Have I chosen those priorities, or have they been chosen for me?

Key Moments from the Show 

  • The importance of preparing for solitude (7:16)
  • Adam’s biggest challenges along his journey (16:52)
  • Finding True North (19:18)
  • Adam’s most treacherous moment (21:41)
  • An encounter with a polar bear (30:43)
  • Balancing on a knife’s edge: near-death moments (35:44)
  • Yearning for more of less (40:00)
  • Rapid-fire Essential questions (43:02)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic by Adam Shoalts
The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’amour

Connect with Adam Shoalts

Instagram | Facebook | Website

Greg McKeown  0:06  

Come with me on an exploration of self-discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters.

As we unravel the chaos of day-to-day work, to learn how to build an essential life.

Welcome to the water central podcast. I am your guest, Greg McEwen. And I was just talking to somebody just today who when I asked them, what’s essential for you that your underinvesting in, said, solitude, time for themselves, time to think, time to meditate, time to pray even time to be away from all the noise of modern life who cannot relate to that sentiment. We live in a noisy world by every estimation. And while we absolutely need people, and to feel connected, we also need this sort of hybrid way space to escape, escape to think escape to focus.

And that is in short supply.

Unless you’re Adam Shoalts, who I’ve invited as my guest on the podcast today. Because he’s like, he’s like someone who has eschewed all of this modern norms of how you have to live with how it has to be, has been likened as a sort of Indiana Jones of our times, in a sense, but that itself doesn’t quite do it justice. But someone who, in a sense, inexplicably, has chosen the wilderness as his friend, not the only friend, but a friend has chosen to go on the grand adventures, but to go solo, we’re going to get into the most extraordinary story. And I think you will not be the same again, as a result of this episode, you’re going to learn the importance of that adventure, that solo adventure in life, to reconnect with yourself with what really matters most to you. And while you might not take the kind of adventure, Adam does, I think that you’ll feel inspired to create more space than you have right now. Adam Shoalts, welcome to the Watts essential podcast. 

Adam, can you just give us a sense of your journey? Like what? Someone who knows nothing about you? Who are you?


Adam Shoalts  2:52  

Well, my name is Adam Shoalts. And I’m a guy who likes spending a lot of time out in the woods in the wilderness. That’s really all I am. Ever since I was a kid, that was my favorite place to be. I started off just exploring the forest around my family’s home. And, you know, 30 years later, I’m still doing the exact same thing. But now I’m doing it professionally, for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. But basically, I often say I consider myself the luckiest guy in all of Canada. Because I get to do what I love, which is just spending as much time out in my canoe or out in the woods, exploring. And that is really what I love most. I think most people have experienced in their youth, a moment or an experience, maybe they went on a camp, they were lucky enough to be out there in the wilderness and they sent something out there.


Greg McKeown  3:51  

That’s freeing. That’s liberating. But normally they grow out of it. 

It reminds me a little of the movie Hook where Peter Pan grew up. And he sort of forgot the joy of that childhood sensation. But you didn’t you did? I shouldn’t say it that way. But you didn’t grow up. Is this a fair thing to say? Oh, yeah, that’s entirely fair. I wouldn’t object to that description. I never really grew up with the same feeling that I had as a five-year-old when I looked at the forest behind my family’s house. And you know, I found it this land of adventure, but also mystery and a little bit of fear that was definitely present. And as well, I still feel that the same way when I go out into the wilderness today. So now I’m going a little bit deeper than I did as a five-year-old but the feeling is still fundamentally the same. What what is that feeling? Like? What is it that you find out there in the wilderness?


Adam Shoalts  4:42  

Well, to me, I mean, the wilderness is just this amazing canvas where anything is possible. I mean, it’s just so full of mystery and adventure and possibility and I love the feeling of traveling through it. I mean, anything could be lurking around the next bend of the river or over the next ridge of hills are over the mountain. And to me, it’s an incredible thrill to get to travel to these very remote places where I can literally wander even today in the 21st century for months, without seeing another human being, and or coming across any human objects at all, no roads, no towns, no pop cans, no litter. It’s a pretty, pretty special feeling. And I guess in a way, it’s, it’s a feeling of, of really wild independence and freedom, because you’re just wandering to your heart’s content far from any other people. So there’s all it’s all bound up in this experience of being out in the wilderness that I find very appealing. And I don’t think I’m the only one I think that many other people feel the same way. 


Greg McKeown

And I think certainly if you look to the past, you can see throughout history, many people felt the same sort of Call of the Wild and the same feel that I feel today, we actually spoke already. And we had a great conversation. And at the end that being a miscommunication between agents and so on, and they’d sent me your new book, where really you had asked that a previous book be sent to me. And it really led us to say, well, let’s, let’s do that. Let’s do that conversation. Why did you choose that book for this podcast?


Adam Shoalts

Well, the book you’re referring to is Beyond the Trees, that journey alone across Canada’s Arctic, which is the story of my, my longest wilderness journey to date, which was almost four months solo across Canada’s Arctic.

You know, as far as Canada’s Arctic goes, you can’t get any more wild than that. It’s one of the biggest wilderness areas left on planet Earth. By wilderness, I just mean a place where you can travel for 1000s of miles and not cross a single road or highway or even come to a town. So it’s a pretty special place, because there’s fewer and fewer places like that in our world where you can still do that sort of thing. So that being pure wilderness and me being out there alone, you know, just going solo for almost 4000 kilometers. seemed like a good fit for the kind of themes that you’re interested in Greg? 


Greg McKeown

Hmm. Well, it was such a singular focus. You tell us how, how did you prepare for a four month solo adventure like that? What what is the preparation look like? I mean, it’s not the same as packing for a two week vacation, right? Like this is different. What’s the preparation process?


Adam Shoalts

 Well, I knew that it was going to be a pretty challenging journey. Because there was a huge variety of different landscapes or train I would encounter everything from mountains to ice fields, and icebergs are very dangerous rivers with canyons and whirlpools and waterfalls and whitewater rapids, but also, you know, vast areas, Arctic tundra, where there’s very little shelter, there’s no trees for firewood, nothing to protect you from the elements. lightning storms, almost gale force winds, like the strength of hurricanes sweeping off the Arctic Ocean.

So there was a lot to plan and think about. So really, seriously, not like the two week vacation that we normally plan for, right? Like, that’s just so extreme and said with such sort of Canadian understatement.

Well, you know, I didn’t I mean, my passion was obviously going out into the wilderness. So I’d done many journeys before, but this was the biggest undertaking I’d ever attempted. And I did a lot of, you know, thinking about it, and how would I prepare and how would I succeed on this journey? And I really wanted to visualize my journey beforehand and try to think of any obstacles I might encounter, like, what would I do for Bear, for example, came in the night and was aggressive and charged me or, you know, launched into the 10? How would I defend myself or, or maybe not attack me, but simply eat all my food rations, so I had no food rations? Well, then, what would I do? How would I get food but even more at the top of my mind was just my canoe and how would I take care of my canoe? If it were to be badly damaged in the ice? Like if it was crushed between ice flows or rock? Hit it and punctured the hall? What how would I repair it there? You know, when growing up as a kid, my father and I used to build canoes together using birch bark and cedar, but none of those materials are available in the far north, because you’re beyond the treeline, right, you’re on the Arctic tundra. So I had to think about, well, where would I come up with materials to repair my canoe. And at the same time, it’s not like you can just pack toolbox of endless amounts of materials because I have to travel light, right? That’s the most important thing is traveling as light as possible. Everything has to be able to fit my canoe and I have to be able to carry it over my head or on my back when I traveled between different bodies of water between different rivers and lakes. So traveling light is very essential as well. So there was a lot of thinking through different steps about you know, what’s, what’s essential. What can I carry, and what do I really need to get me through this journey?

But at the end of the day, you know, I just, I sort of said, Okay, well, you know, the time comes where you have to leave plans and theories behind and just sort of go for it really, you know, launch yourself out there and take whatever comes. So, at the end of the day, I really just sort of set-off and said, I think I’ve got a pretty good plan. But whatever I haven’t thought of, I’ll just deal with in the moment and take whatever comes my way, and then just handle it at the time. So that was kind of my mentality, how much weight can you bring. So in my canoe, my canoe is 15 feet long. It’s designed for one person really solo canoe and a pinch, you could fit into second person into it, but my solo 15 foot canoe, really tops out around 175 pounds comfortably of gear that I could fit into that canoe. So that breaks down to about three different packs. I usually travel with to waterproof barrels, like hard plastic barrels, and I put food rations in there, dried rations, and just any other survival gear, first aid kits, that kind of stuff I need. And then I have my backpack, which usually has my extra pair clothing, my sleeping bag and my tent, and just some bare essentials like a Swiss army knife and a hatchet, that sort of thing. But all told, you know, each of those packs weigh around 55 pounds, and then a few miscellaneous items. So you’re looking at a maximum of about 175 pounds, which is not very comfortable. That that I wouldn’t really would want to travel with that much. But that’s the absolute maximum I could 


Greg McKeown

hmm, is that what did you max out when you were making the plan? You got to 175 pounds at the very start.


Adam Shoalts

But then as I start eating, yeah, exactly. So the weight goes down, how much of that weight is just the food that you’re bringing? I mean that even that alone that you will literally not see anybody else. There’s no restaurant, not one, not a single other location, no one else to rely on, you have to have four months of food either with you or your ability to get that food. If if you were in an emergency, how much of the weight is that food, or food, the sort of food is the vast majority of the weight. And I should clarify that even that would not last me the full four months. So I did get resupplied. This is something I worked out ahead of time, it was a big part of my planning, which is, you know, the maximum I could go with food rations, which I should specify are really just energy bars. Granola bars, it’s a freeze-dried meals. So I really I only I only eat one meal a day. Yeah, no breakfast, no lunch. 


Greg McKeown

What was one meal? What was the meal? 


Adam Shoalts

It was usually something like lasagna, or some type of pasta, or rice, just something really basic where I would boil water and cook it. And that would always be at night when I stopped is during the day it was usually traveling. So the rest of time during the dry day, I was just eating energy bars or power bars, you know, high energy, high calorie foods that would feel me to keep going. And that but doing it that way that would only last for about a month and a half. Because I’m burning so many calories. I mean, if you’re back home, you know, a healthy young adult who’s pretty active might eat 2500 calories in a day. But there, the wilderness takes such a toll on you that you need more like three or 4000 calories. And even at that you’re probably still going to be burning more calories than you consume and losing weight. And certainly I was losing weight, even eating all those calories. So I knew that about a month and a half would be about as long as I could go and then my my food rations would be empty. Now, if I’m doing a different type of journey. Sure, I could live off the land, I could catch fish. I’ve done that sort of thing many times. That was the kind of thing I did in my childhood, you know, just going off with nothing on a trip no food, and living off the land, eating wild mushrooms and berries and plants and roots. And catching fish and doing that sort of thing. But this is a different type of journey. I mean, in the Arctic, if you’re going to try to just survive, you’re going to be stationary, you’re not going to be traveling to farms, almost all of your day is going to be spent with gathering food or hunting or fishing. But my goal on this journey was different. I was trying to do a journey, I was trying to travel across the whole of the Canadian mainland Arctic, which is a vast territory. So for that reason, I had to get a resupply, which is what I did. I mean, I arranged by what we call bush pilots, which are just little tiny single-engine planes that have floats on them so they can land on lakes. I had actually arranged for him to drop food supply for me beforehand, which is what people do in Canada’s north. It’s been a thing for the last 100 years. Going back to the 1920s there was still some concern that maybe I wouldn’t find the food ration or would get eaten by a Wolverine or a pear before I got to it. But that was the plan essentially. 


Greg McKeown

So just to be clear, you’ve got no satellite imagery. Do you do you have a phone with you?


Adam Shoalts

Yes, well, no, I have satellite imagery. But like I print out satellites for images for the most important parts of my route, but there’s big stretches where I don’t need it because I know how to navigate if I’m on a river for 300 kilometers so long as I keep going in one direction, I should be fine and stay to the main branch of the river don’t take any of the forks. So I have topographic maps, and satellite imagery. But even even in the far north, a lot of SAP satellite imagery is not high resolution, it’s not like what you would pull up if you’re looking at, say, the city of Los Angeles, or even Yellowstone National Park, right? That that imagery can be very crisp and very detailed for much of the planet, especially in very remote areas. That’s not what you would get if you actually go to the satellite image. It’s a very grainy and blurry image, showing you all the details, right. Um, but I, you know, I have basic maps, I mean, there can be some mistakes on them in the finer details, but I generally know just intuitively which direction to go because I’m moving from west to east. So navigating with the sun and with landforms, right, just moving with the sort of the the landscape crossing one lake going on to the next lake. So I have a very good feeling without the maps, where it is heading, which really is not as complicated as it sounds. I mean, think about it, if think of the United States, instead of being home to 330 million people was home to just a few 100,000. And you’re going to do a journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Right? You kind of know, like, we’re not, we’re not totally in the dark, you would kind of know like, okay, there’s the Rockies, keep going west, across the plains in the mountains, then get over these mountains and know all the river. 


Greg McKeown

No, no, Adam, I think you’re seriously overeating. The rest of us when you say that, I think you just kind of know that you are approximately in what? No, nobody’s like me. It’s pretty simple. You say there were unbelievable obstacles, shifting ice flows, swollen rivers, fog bound lakes, Gale Force storms.Yeah, piece of cake. Pretty simple. What was the biggest challenge you found as you went on your canoe on this 4000 Kilometer adventure? 


Adam Shoalts

Well, from a physical point of view, the hardest challenge was often the wind, because the wind, as we said, can be extremely powerful. And when you’re in a 15 foot canoe, it doesn’t really take a whole lot to sink you write for wave gets to a certain size three, four feet can come right over the canoe and flood it and swamp it and sink you. And even if even if you’re not in danger of of sinking, it could just be very difficult to canoe into very strong headwind, especially if you’re by yourself right to people and Canadian makes a world of difference. Then you got to paddlers using all their muscles and all their energy and strength together try to overcome that wind. But with one person, it gets difficult in ways that maybe aren’t immediately obvious, I would use the expression when I’m doing one of my journeys that can’t take your hands off the wheel ever. Because I just spent all day battling the wind in the wind is driving me in a direction I don’t want to go right it could be throwing me into cliffs or rocks, or just simply driving me back across the lake, I’m trying to traverse. And if I’m like, Oh, I’m desperate, I need to drink some water, I need to get my water bottle out. Well, that’s a problem when you’re by yourself, because now I have to set down my paddle and reach for my bottle. But there’s no one steering the canoe in the wind, I’m at the mercy of the wind, so it’s going to drive me. So you sometimes have long stretches where you can’t take a sip of water, you can’t eat anything, you can’t do anything because you just have to battle that wind until you get to a safe spot where you can anchor go into shore and relax. But that can be hazardous. Because when you get closer to shore, that’s usually where you get most of the surf. And the waves are starting to break. So dealing with the wind could be a challenge. And then especially if there’s other factors like ice, blocking the route map can make it even more complicated. And we were talking a little bit about navigating. And I said, you know, in a broad sense, I think it’s kind of intuitive, you sort of know, just keep going this direction. But when you’re on an Arctic lake, it can be very difficult to make heads or tails have the outline of the lake because you might be able to see like, Well, is there a river that flows out of this thing? Or is that a dead end Bay? Or is that an opening into another lake? I don’t know. It’s very difficult to see. So you’re navigating you’re battling the waves, you’re sort of multitasking and figuring out all these things. So yeah, those are some of the big factors wind essentially. 


Greg McKeown

You’re reminding me as you say this, like oh, yes, you know, you pretty much could walk you know any of us could walk a hiker, you know, adventure from west to east over 1000s of miles right which again, there’s there’s this research that’s been done on this idea that the people

the people without a physical object to look out without something clear to navigate towards do in fact, walk in circles.

So what is the true north so to speak, is you’re making this adventure. How do you make sure you’re not just getting lost along the way?


Adam Shoalts  20:00  

Well, again, I would actually say I have a pretty easy because north of the treeline, you, can navigate a little bit easier because there aren’t any obstructions, right, you don’t have spruce and pine trees blocking your view. So on the Arctic tundra, you can see long distances. And that’s what I would often do, you know, just navigate intuitively by saying I can see that mountain on the horizon, and I’m going to keep it in my sight. And that mountain might be in you for a long time, because I’m just getting closer and closer and closer. traversing this huge distance or might not be something as dramatic as a mountain, sometimes it was just a ridge, or, you know, high hill or something like that, or Boulder, even a boulder on the distance. So I can navigate like that for a long period of time. And also just coming to a river right find no, this river is flowing a certain direction, then for the next number of days or weeks, even all I have to do is follow this one river, until eventually, I might have to leave it and set off overland again. But So following the natural landforms helps a lot. Now, admittedly, if your father says it can be more difficult, if you’re in a dense forest, and you can’t see more than a few feet in any direction, then you’ve got to use sun at a more southern latitude. That’s what I do on my journeys. If I’m just south of the Arctic, in what we call in Canada, the sub Arctic forest, then I navigate with the sun to make sure that I’m not going around in circles. In just using, you know, just trying to remember everything I see which we spent a lot of time in nature, it’s not too hard to do. Because everything starts to look distinct, like oh, you know, that that ain’t that mushroom or that tree? I’ve seen that I’ve committed it to memory, I’m not gonna come back to it just like if you’re in a city or something you remember, a certain store street corner, right? 


Greg McKeown 

What did you find was the most treacherous moment of your 4000 Kilometer adventure? 


Adam Shoalts

The most treacherous moment overall?


Greg McKeown  21:54  

Was there a moment that you felt that you might die?


Adam Shoalts

And I might die? 


Greg McKeown



Adam Shoalts  22:02  

No, I don’t think I ever felt like I was in that I might die on that journey on some of my other adventures, maybe. But there were some white knuckle moments when I was far from land. When you’re canoeing far from land, like you could be literally a couple miles from the nearest bit of land. That could be a little bit stressful. You know, usually, I would only do that if the weather was calm. But even on a calm day, you just think, well, what if something went wrong, I’m far from land. And of course, the water temperature there. It’s only a few degrees above freezing, right? The water is very, very cold, even in the middle of summer, so don’t fall into it. It won’t take too long until you get hypothermia. And if you get hypothermia far from land, your limbs are going to seize up. Even the life jacket, you’re not going to get anywhere. So very important to stay calm, stay relaxed in those situations. How do you do that? Well, you just sort of think like, you know, it’s all mental, right? Like, every time you 


Greg McKeown

Hold on, every time you say, you know, I don’t know because I’ve not been two miles out in a frozen wasteland in the middle of the arctic, you know, 2000 kilometers in nobody around. No way of communicating. Like No way. I don’t know. What did you do in that moment? 


Adam Shoalts

Well, I just say you have to stay calm and tell yourself like even though you’re canoeing across an Arctic Lake, hundreds of miles from many other humans in the water is freezing cold. The actual physical component of the canoeing is no different than if you were on just some cottage, country lake on a warm July day, right? It’s same exact physical component, just paddle hand, don’t flip your canoe and you’ll be fine. So you just started relax, and then you start to enjoy. You know, look at the beauty. These these Arctic lakes are often very beautiful, like the water is crystal clear, you can see 100 feet down. The landscape is pretty beautiful. So I usually try to tell myself, you know, actually cherish all the good things around you. And you know, relax, and you’ll be fine. That’s what I tried to do. 

But you asked them the most treacherous moment. Yes, the most treacherous moment was actually not something that was immediately life-threatening to me, but just very difficult for the journey where I was actually traveling upper river. And because the river had to go up against the current, I mean, I there was no other option, right? If you’re doing a 4000 kilometer journey across the Arctic, there’s no easy way to do it. Inevitably, no matter what kind of route you devise, they’re going to be times when you have to travel against the current against the flow. So I was going up a river that had a very powerful currents so powerful, in fact that there was no way to travel. In the canoe, like paddling wouldn’t work. I would just get swept back down river so I was traveling along the the bank along the rocks and using a rope to pull my canoe down through the water right so I had a rope tied onto the bow of the canoe, and I’m actually hoisting the canoe through the water as I climb along the shore. And all of my gear everything I have all my survival equipment. It’s like food. Everything is inside this canoe. And most canoeists most Wilderness Canoe, it’s very reluctant to do this for good reason. Because it’s pretty much as is risky thing as you can do, right? Because they’re rapids there’s very strong currents and eddies. And there are hidden rocks just beneath the waterline. And if you’re not 100%, correct, your canoe catches the the current wrong way and Edie or a wave, it can easily flip over. And if it flips over, it doesn’t matter. If you’re the world’s strongest man, you have zero chance of holding on to that rope. Because think of a 15 foot canoe upside down in the water with all that current flooding, it’s gonna weigh a ton and get swept down down river, you’ll never recover it. So there was a moment where I came within about an inch of flipping the canoe where I was going up river, you know, just mile after mile. So I’ve been doing this all day, every day, and you’re just trying to stay focused and not not zoned out. And the bow of my canoe just started to catch a wave wrong. And, you know, my heart stopped for a second because I saw it happening where the canoe was starting to tip, and started to fall on its side, and the water started to lap over the gunnels. And in that moment, it was like a split second, if I was one second sooner, my canoe was gone, there’d be nothing I could do about it. In your instinct, all of your instincts are telling you to hold on to that rope for dear life, hold on as tight as you can. But that’s the wrong thing to do. If you do that skimo will loosen up right let out slack in let the current push the canoe back down river and it would write itself, which is what I did. But in that moment, out of my whole 4000 kilometer journey, I think that was the most heart stopping moment. And I had to take a second and be like,

Whoa, deep breath and be like that was really close. But then, once I let it that deep breath, I immediately continued and just went right back to what I was doing. Because I said you got to get back in the saddle. And don’t dwell on that just keep going. I love that image of what your instinct is, which is to pull. 


Greg McKeown

Why wouldn’t that work? Just explain the physics of that moment. 


Adam Shoalts

So if I pulled the canoe with the rope tied onto the bow like that, it’s going sideways into the wave, it’s just going to pull it right into the wave and the wave is going to flood the canoe. And it doesn’t matter how strong I am, I can’t overcome the force of this river flooding my canoe. So it’s just gonna make the tip, it’s gonna finish what’s already happening. So the only, the only option is actually, but the root rope goes slack. So the wave pushes the canoe back up, right, and it goes down river, which really is a bit nerve racking right when the room was slack. But that’s what I did. And the current carried the canoe back into sort of a little backwater, a little Eddy where I could recover it, and resume and I tried to resume as quickly as possible, right? When something like that happens, I really believe in getting right back in the saddle, and just going right back at it and keep going up river navigating in this sort of challenging way. Because I feel like if you take too much time to just sort of reflect on what might have been, then you have a psych yourself out, right? It’s like, Oh, I’ve lost my nerve. So it’s kind of like, okay, take a deep breath, and then just get right back at it. There’s no point in dwelling on what might have almost happened because it didn’t happen. And just keep going. So that was kind of my mindset, huh? 


Greg McKeown  28:21  

Yeah, I’m sure that’s absolutely necessary. I’ve been reading a really interesting book called,

called The Lonely Gods. Are you familiar with this book?

Adam Shoalts

I know I don’t think so. 


Greg McKeown

I want to seriously recommend it to you. It’s an It’s, I won’t get into all of it right now. But one of the observations of the of the author is this is it’s based in Los Angeles. But at the very, very beginning of Los Angeles, there’s a couple of 1000 people there. And it’s the main character is the son of a man who’s been his father who’s been killed while he was a child, and he’s had to be raised in the wilderness. And one of the things he observes, he said, the people that live out in the wilderness at this time, you know, there’s the Cowboys, really, I suppose, or what was then of course, called the Indians.

These people, he said, they might not have much formal education. They might not even be reading really, at all, he said, but every one of them has a certain particular kind of intelligence, because they have to solve problems that are no and never the same as the last problem. They have to deal with the reality of right now what it is, and so that they’re living in the in the roar, a sense of the word, and they it keeps their minds and his view, sharp and smart as they’re going. I love the description, and I thought you would just so appreciate it, given the experience. You have your thoughts? 


Adam Shoalts

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think if you think of like, as you were saying Los Angeles and 200 years ago, on the frontier in a very wild place, you had to be highly competent to survive.


Adam Shoalts

If you weren’t, then nature had a way of weeding you out pretty quickly. Because if you made a mistake and environment like that there was no margin for error. Right? If you made some mistake with a rattlesnake or you didn’t secure your horse at night and it bolted or something bad happened, you didn’t know how to fire water, you weren’t good at starting a fire. You got lost, you wouldn’t survive. So it would make sense because they had to be masters of their environment in order to survive there. Yeah. That seems to make perfect sense to me competent or die.


Greg McKeown  30:32  

Yeah, we were we’re very lucky nowadays in the 21st century. Lots of space to be somewhere on the competence continuum, and you can still make it. Tell me about this encounter you have with the polar bear. You’re in your canoe. Where are you at this time? 


Adam Shoalts

Oh, I was up near the coastal Hudson Bay, which is sort of like polar bear alley, especially late in the summer because when the sea ice melts on Hudson’s Bay, all the polar bears come ashore. And at that time of year, they’re essentially fasting because they don’t have any CLC. They can only unseals when there’s ice out on Hudson Bay. So generally try to avoid being on Hudson Bay, late in the summer, but this was 10 years ago, and I couldn’t avoid it. I was mapping a river there, to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. And I was alone. And I was coming down river when I saw in the distance, this huge white thing looming out of the water, which looked like an iceberg. But when the iceberg started to move, I realized this is actually the largest polar bear I’ve ever seen in my life. It was a massive adult male, like one of the biggest polar bears out there weighed well over 1000 pounds that had a big hump on its back. And I’d seen it 


Greg McKeown

Okay, hold on, hold on. What do you think in that moment? We see that? What’s the internal? I mean, I know you’re like Mr. Expedition. But I mean, in that moment, you think what? 


Adam Shoalts

Well, if I’m being entirely honest, I thought I might be able to get a decent photo of this one. Because I’d seen polar bears before as well as many other polar bears. And for the most part, they weren’t really that aggressive. Plus I was in my canoe, so I probably felt a little bit safer in my canoe than I would on foot. Now that said, polar bears can swim incredibly fast. They can swim faster than anyone can paddle a canoe. But still, I guess, psychologically, in my canoe, I feel like a little bit more secure. So I was thinking it’s hopefully going to go away. And I won’t be able to do that. 


Greg McKeown

But still, that that’s such a, that’s such an understatement. But still, I mean, so was the polar bear in the water. 


Adam Shoalts

No, it was, No, it was in the water. It was in the water, but it was so big that it could, other than in the very middle of the river can actually touch the bottom. So it turned around 180 degrees, because it heads back to me as I was coming down river and then, you know, either caught wind of me or heard my approach, but it turned around in the river, and it started swimming up river in my direction. But it didn’t have to swim very far before I could actually touch the bottom of the river. The river is no more than waist deep. And then it kind of rose up on all fours and approach that way closer and closer to me. And as it was approaching me. I mean, I’m not a fool.


Greg McKeown  33:12  

Oh, hold on. beds that you can’t take that. Of course, you’re not but I but you can’t take that for granted at this moment. You are how close to this polar bear? 


Adam Shoalts 

Well, it got to with the closest point it came to me within 40 feet 


Greg McKeown

40 feet. Nothing. 


Adam Shoalts 

No, not with a polar bear. 


Greg McKeown

There’s that and it’s coming straight at you. 


Adam Shoalts 



Greg McKeown

And you are doing what you are paddling fast. 


Adam Shoalts 



Greg McKeown

And why not? 


Adam Shoalts 

Well, first, I was recording with my camera. And then when it came within about 40, maybe 50 feet, I set the camera down and I picked up my shotgun. And normally I don’t carry a gun on my expeditions. But on this one I did because I was around so many polar bears mapping this river that I carried one with me. And you know the last thing I’d ever want to do is shoot a polar bear. But this one kept coming closer and closer. So it got to the point where I actually had my shotgun loaded the safety off and I was aiming and looking down the barrel square on the chest of the polar bears. It’s approaching me and it’s growling at me. So it’s clearly aggressive. But I was very resolute. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t actually pull the trigger unless it was literally a matter of life and death. And I know other people who’ve had encounters with polar bears and they’ve been like no, I opened fire immediately as soon as it came within 100 feet or something like that. But I was determined not to do that. And it got closer and closer and closer. But of course I’m not stationary. I’m I’m drifting in the water in my canoe and I could drift closer I could drift further away. I was hoping the current would carry me further away but it was a real dilemma because if I have both hands on the gun then I can’t steer my canoe. But if I sat down the gun and pick up my paddle and the bear charges, I won’t have time to pick the shotgun back up again. So I was just sort of trusting that the current would carry me away from the bear or that the bear would back off. The bear didn’t back off, it kept coming closer. But there was, you know, some quite a swift current in this river, some small rapids of things, and it carried me a little downstream. And when I got a little bit more distance between me and the bear, that’s when I felt okay, now is the time to sit down this gun and paddle and put some more distance between us and keep going downriver, which is what I did. 


Greg McKeown

What was the life and death distance for you? So 40 feet, isn’t it? What is it? 


Adam Shoalts 

It would actually have to charge? So it wasn’t charging, it was just moving towards me. But if, if it just kept moving, then that I didn’t feel like it was actually going to, you know, attack me. But if it actually started to charge, that’s when I would have pulled the trigger.


Greg McKeown  35:44  

Tell me speaking of making it tell me you said not on this trip. But there have been times on other trips where you have really felt like this might be the moment what’s one of those moments that stands out for you? 


Adam Shoalts

Well, there’s been there’s been a few of them very, very dicey moments, some canoeing on large bodies of water on saltwater on the Arctic Ocean far from shore and just battling big waves. And taking every ounce of my mental and physical stamina to get through that and just thinking like, you know, we are on a knife at knife’s edge here, my canoe and I if because if we flip, we’re far from land, there’s no one around for hundreds of miles to help us and the water is freezing cold, and we’re battling big waves. Now, I’ve been lucky. I’ve never actually capsized, you know, every time I make it through, but there definitely been moments where, you know, I call them white knuckle moments where I’m like, Okay, this is unpleasant. And I don’t really want to find myself in this situation, again, but it happens, right? But I try to try to be as careful as I can. In those situations. 

There’s been other ones. Once I went over a waterfall that’s flipped over and unmap waterfall on one of my expeditions. And that was a little bit of a challenge to get back up to the surface at the bottom of that thing. 


Greg McKeown

But, but that doesn’t count as capsizing.


Adam Shoalts

Oh, well, that does. But see as a canoeist, I think of that as a different category, which is not dealing with waves far from shore. That’s actually on a very narrow river where you’re doing like rabbits and rocks and things. So if you’re talking about rabbits, no, that’s different. Yeah, I have capsized more than once in rabbits.

But I don’t know in rabbits, you know, the shore is not too far. So you’re hopefully with a life jacket. You have a good chance of getting back to the shore. You really don’t want to capsize on the Arctic Ocean far from shore. That’s a different scenario all together. That’s really bad. Especially Yeah, by yourself.


Greg McKeown  37:37  

Yeah, you could.


Adam Shoalts  37:39  

Yeah, so those are some of the things that come to mind. Forest fires are another hazard two that you don’t necessarily think of right off the top of that you’re not the mind but they’re sometimes big forest fires in northern Canada that can burn up vast areas. And as you probably know, forest fires travel extremely fast, right? far faster than you can possibly travel on foot or in a canoe. Unbelievable speeds. 


Greg McKeown

I’ve actually I was in California, and listen to this. I feel so so so. How do you say so mortal in giving the example but I was there when the fires were coming through and we had a mandatory evacuation at home and, and that that the night that that we got the mandatory evacuations that fire is moving like an acre per second. That’s just like a speed that I think, you know, most of us just can’t even really comprehend. That fire can move that fast. And so you’ve have you been caught in that kind of fire?


Adam Shoalts  38:35  

No, I always try to avoid them. I mean, I’ve been out on many expeditions and journeys when I’ve had forest fires around me. When I’ve had to deal with the smoke from forest fires for weeks on end, there was you know, I couldn’t even see the sun because of all the haze and the smoke. But I try to avoid any area where there might be a forest fire. So I’ve been pretty lucky and I hope to keep it that way. If there’s a forest fire in an area, then I would try my best to avoid it.

You know, what would I do? Just as I’m paddling here, if forest fire suddenly appears, you know, pretty much the only thing I can do is canoe out to the center of the lake and actually do what I just said I wouldn’t want to do which is foot myself into the water and put a canoe over my head to protect myself and just sort of tread water holding on to the sides of the canoe with the haul over my head protecting me so I have a space to breathe. I’m in the water up to my neck and I’m sort of bobbing in my life jacket with the haul of the canoe protecting me as far out into the lake as I can get away from the shoreline until a fire passes. And then I’ll flag and go back to shore. 


Greg McKeown  39:57  

The contingency planning the sort of endless, I suppose if you’re totally solo as well, not just the preparation for it, but when you’re actually out there. You’re thinking about contingencies all the time with what’s going on around you. This is part of the sharpening I think that that is talked about in the Lonesome Gods. 

Tell me how did you feel when you actually get to your destination? Sure you get to Baker Lake, you’ve gone through all these maze of obstacles you arrive, what is your sensation at the completion of this, you know, singular mission for months to execute it, but of course, much longer to plan. What’s your sensation as you’re getting there? What was sort of bittersweet? 


Adam Shoalts 

I mean, there was a part of me that was, you know, happy to have successfully brought my journey to a close and I would be lying if I said, I wasn’t looking forward to some food, like yogurt.


Greg McKeown

Is that what you’re aiming at? Is that what you’ve been craving? Yogurt was what you’ve been craving? 


Adam Shoalts 

Yes. So I think if you go into the wilderness for like, a couple of weeks, you might end up craving a pizza, or something like that. But if it’s multiple months, then it’s, you know, all the things that have been deprived from your diet. So I just really wanted some orange juice and yogurt, or something like that. But so there was a study that wanted that. And, you know, I like I wouldn’t mind taking a shower, and having to clean their clothes. But there was another part of me that really didn’t want my journey dand and actually lingered towards the end, you know, where I could have gone faster, but I slowed the pace down because I was like, Ah, this is really bittersweet. There’s a part of me that is so loved this, this journey of the solitude and the majestic beauty of the North. And I really don’t want it to end I wish it could just keep going.

So it was a little bit bittersweet, because in some ways, you know, being out in the wilderness, the irony is, is that I often think of it as not being stressful, compared to modern life, right? No emails to worry about, no phone calls, no traffic, no noise. They’re just out there. Living in the moment, your only concerns are your immediate surroundings. You know, where do I Where do I call home for tonight? Where to put up my tent in a nice dry spot?

What’s the sun doing? What’s the wind doing? That’s all. That’s all you have to worry about. So, you know, there’s a part of that’s actually very appealing, especially as you become a bitchu ated to it and and adjusted to that lifestyle. So I think as soon as my journey ended, I immediately begin thinking about when I’d be setting off in the wilderness again, I was just as eager as ever to go off on another journey into the wild. I think that brings us full circle, because


Greg McKeown  42:17  

I’ve talked to a couple of people recently who are really taking what seems not as extreme as yours, but still extreme compared to what’s normally done to get away. Taking a month, two months sabbaticals. Yeah, cutting out social media for 30 days in a row, just these things. And as they’re experimenting with this, what they report back is a microcosm of what you just said that there’s so much they gain with what they’re giving up a sense of.

Well, just what you said, a yearning for more. One did it for 30 days last year. Now they’re doing it three months this summer. Like they really want more of that less. Are you? Are you game for a rapid fire set of questions? Sure. None of these questions should be rapid fire. They’re all fairly deep questions. But I still want your just instant answers to them. How’s that?


Adam Shoalts  43:14  

Okay, I’ll try my best.


Greg McKeown  43:16  

Adam, what’s the most essential thing to you in one word?


Adam Shoalts  43:21  

Well, my first answer was a Swiss army knife. So


Greg McKeown  43:25  

I love that answer. Why is that so important to you in one sentence?


Adam Shoalts

Well, Swiss Army knives are very useful in the wilderness. 


Greg McKeown

Do you have any special kind of knife that you use? Is it just the normal kind of? I mean, is this the same swiss army knife the rest of us would get? 


Adam Shoalts  43:42  

That’s what you know, I’m, I’m very much the traditionalist. I have the classic original Swiss Army Knife design, nothing fancy, just the original one.


Greg McKeown  43:50  

What have you said yes to in your life that you have most regretted?


Adam Shoalts  43:57  

What have I said yes to? I don’t have many regrets. You know, I, as I said, at the beginning of the podcast, I consider myself maybe the luckiest guy in Canada, you know, every day I wake up, I just feel thankful that I’m lucky enough to do the things I love. And I really don’t know how I could have gotten luckier, just being out in the wild. So I was actually try hard to just sort of think, you know, I’m really lucky that I get to do the things I love and spend the time in the woods. So I really couldn’t say that I have any any regrets? Yeah.


Greg McKeown  44:35  

What have you said no to that you’re most pleased about?


Adam Shoalts  44:40  

What have I said no to?

Well, I mean, I don’t know if this counts, but I said no. I’ve said no to plenty of media opportunities for TV shows and that kind of stuff. Where I haven’t really been interested in and that sort of thing. I often say no, to podcasts and interviews and this sort of thing because I feel Like, it’s not really, it’s not, it’s not really what I would love to be doing right. So it has to be when it comes to that kind of thing, media that I feel like there’s a connection there. Like your podcast, Greg.


Greg McKeown

This is high praise everything you were saying this sort of makes me feel especially good. And I already felt good about having you. What is something essential? That used to be hard for you? That you’ve made effortless?


Adam Shoalts

Some, something essential that used to be hard for me that I’ve made effortless? Yeah. Well, it’s all the non wilderness things that I struggle with. Yep, like terrible, and answering emails, and podcasts, and rapid fire, all these sorts of things that are outside my wheelhouse. But, but I hope that I’m getting a little bit better at them.


Greg McKeown  45:58  

I love that what something nonessential to you that you are over-investing in? Right? It’s not important to you, but you still feel like you’re giving too much time or energy or worry about it.


Adam Shoalts  46:12  

I try, I try not to do any of that stuff. I mean, I guess I could spend even less time following the news than I do. I mean, I probably consume far less news than the average person. And I cut it out even more probably wouldn’t make any negative impact on my life. So I could do even less of the news that I’m already doing. Well, I don’t consume that much news. But I could cut it back even more. I don’t, I wouldn’t. I don’t want to say that I totally ignore the news, because I think that’d be irresponsible. You know, I still have to know what’s going on in our world. But I feel like we really don’t need to consume as much news as we do. And if anything consuming so much news has made our society more bitter. needed to be?


Greg McKeown  46:52  

Well, so much of modern news isn’t really news. It’s sort of it’s sort of professional gossip. So it’s, it’s Oh, someone tweeted about so and so and let’s do a segment on the news now. And we’re analyzing that real time with no context and no expertise. And about that. And so we can be consumed with again, all of this noise. I remember somehow last time we were speaking that. I mean, what is your technology set up? I seem to recall, you had to go to your sister’s house in order to do this. So your normal world isn’t? isn’t connected? Yes. Is that correct?


Adam Shoalts  47:34  

I’m in my sister’s basement right now. I came here to do this. Because my internet where I live, I live in the woods, right? My house is surrounded by forest and hills. So there’s no high speed internet there. I couldn’t do live stream like this wouldn’t work. So I came to my sister’s to do the podcast with you, which is maybe another reason why I don’t do as much media as I otherwise would. Because it’s a bit of a hassle.


Greg McKeown  47:55  

When you’ve put an obstacle between it so that you can spend again, you’ve designed a life that you want to live rather than a life other people maybe would have designed for you. What something that’s lost two questions, what something essential to you that you are under investing in?


Adam Shoalts  48:16  

So it’s essential to me that I’m under-investing in? Well, I could give you an answer that would be very Canadian, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint you. But the first thought that came to my mind was hockey. I do have a very Canadian passion for hockey to be honest.


Greg McKeown  48:35  

Playing or watching? 


Adam Shoalts



Greg McKeown

You wish you were playing a little more?


Adam Shoalts  48:39  

Yeah, yeah, there’s, well actually I have a pond behind my house that’s frozen. And I like to shovel off the snow and go and skate on it and shoot some pucks around. And that is something I very much enjoy doing. And especially when I was younger, I used to do a lot more of it does take quite a bit of work to keep your pond in shape to be able to skate on it. Because every time you get a snow you got to clean that snow off, you don’t clean off the ice turn slushy underneath. So I actually really enjoy just the the simplicity of skating around a pond in the woods, shooting some pucks off the trees in the lawn. That’s a lot of fun.


Greg McKeown  49:14  

And what’s something you could do in the next 10 minutes to make space for that, you know, to make it easier for you to do?


Adam Shoalts  49:20  

Well I could close my laptop and go off into the woods.


Greg McKeown  49:26  

That’s what would get you there. It is fascinating to talk to somebody who has become singular in what you want to do. And in such a what I would describe a sort of gentle manner. As said, I’m just not going to do what everybody else is doing. I’m just going to continue down this path I’m going to trust my actual experience in life. Not just what everyone else is doing. It There’s something liberating about that. I hope for everybody listening. There’s something liberating to sense. Well, what would I do if I was living by design? Not by default? How might I create some more space? To explore, to think, to imagine to dream to go off alone? Maybe it’s a sabbatical. Maybe it’s a personal quarterly off site. Maybe it’s just a few minutes each day into a ritual, to get out, to be in nature, to go for a walk to spend time away from all of this noise. It’s been such a pleasure to have you, Adam, thank you for being on the water central podcast.


Adam Shoalts  50:43  

Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.


Greg McKeown  50:45  

We’ve come to that time again. It’s the end of the show. And if you have found anything valuable in this episode, please rate review on Apple podcasts. The first five people who write a review of this episode will get a copy of Beyond the Trees A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic. Just send a photo of your review to info at Greg mcewen.com. That’s ai n fo at GRE GMC KEOW en.com. And remember that you need to be able to escape to focus. Relax today. Enjoy this week, and I’ll see you next week for another episode of The What’s Essential podcast.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai