Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

History Expeditions & Discoveries

Beyond the Trees

A Journey Alone Across Canada's Arctic

by (author) Adam Shoalts

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
May 2020
Expeditions & Discoveries, General, Historical Geography
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2020
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


National bestseller
A thrilling odyssey through an unforgiving landscape, from "Canada's greatest living explorer."

In the spring of 2017, Adam Shoalts, bestselling author and adventurer, set off on an unprecedented solo journey across North America's greatest wilderness. 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.

Between his starting point in Eagle Plains, Yukon Territory, to his destination in Baker Lake, Nunavut, lies a maze of obstacles: shifting ice floes, swollen rivers, fog-bound lakes, and gale-force storms. And Shoalts must time his departure by the breakup of the spring ice, then sprint across nearly 4,000 kilometers of rugged, wild terrain to arrive before winter closes in.

He travels alone up raging rivers that only the most expert white-water canoeists dare travel even downstream. He must portage across fields of jagged rocks that stretch to the horizon, and navigate labyrinths of swamps, tormented by clouds of mosquitoes every step of the way. And the race against the calendar means that he cannot afford the luxuries of rest, or of making mistakes. Shoalts must trek tirelessly, well into the endless Arctic summer nights, at times not even pausing to eat.

But his reward is the adventure of a lifetime.

Heart-stopping, wonder-filled, and attentive to the majesty of the natural world, Beyond the Trees captures the ache for adventure that afflicts us all.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence Award for English Non-Fiction

Contributor Notes

ADAM SHOALTS has been called one of Canada's greatest living explorers and in 2018 was named an Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He is also an historian, archaeologist, and geographer, and his book Alone Against the North was a #1 national bestseller. His second book, A History of Canada in Ten Maps was also national bestseller. Shoalts holds a Ph.D. from McMaster University where his doctoral research examined the influence Indigenous oral traditions had on explorers and fur traders in Canada's subarctic and Pacific Northwest. He has done archaeology in four countries and enjoys long walks in the woods.

Excerpt: Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada's Arctic (by (author) Adam Shoalts)

My passion was paddling wild rivers and lakes, and wandering silently through quiet forests, indulging my curiosity about plants, trees, and the mystery and enchantment of the natural world. Adventures I’d had and would continue to do so, because it came with the terrain of wandering alone through wild places. But I didn’t anticipate making any particularly long journeys in the Arctic.

Then, in the spring of 2010, I happened to visit a local nature club in the Short Hills—a region of wooded, rolling hills, tumbling streams, and waterfalls south of Lake Ontario—which put in motion a chain of events that led to my becoming windbound alone on an arctic lake. No doubt that’s a common occurrence stemming from nature club meetings, and a prudent reason to avoid them. As far as nature clubs went, this one had a youngish membership, the average age being barely more than mid-seventies.

It was there at the nature club’s meeting hall, after my presentation on canoe tripping had wrapped up, that I first heard the word “sesquicentennial” used in a sentence. I’d been chatting with a white-haired man, a retired professor of chemistry.

“Well, you know,” he said, “2017 is going to be Canada’s sesquicentennial.”

“Oh,” I said, nodding. In fact I hadn’t known this.

He kept looking at me, apparently awaiting a further response.

I wasn’t sure what “sesquicentennial” even meant.

“The 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation,” he elaborated.

“That’s right,” I replied.

“It’s sure to be a big deal. Huge celebrations,” he said with emphasis. “I remember the Centennial celebrations back in 1967. We went to Expo 67 in Montreal for that. ’Course, that would’ve been well before your time.”

The connection between my canoe trips and a 150th anniversary, which was still seven years away, wasn’t immediately obvious to me.

“It’ll be a very big occasion,” the old man resumed. “Have you given any thought to doing something special for it?”

“Er, no, I haven’t.”

He shook his head, evidently dismayed at the lamentable failure of my education. “Back in ’67 I remember there were people who canoed across Canada. Maybe you should think of doing something similar in 2017? There’s bound to be lots of funding opportunities and groups interested in that kind of thing.”

“Well, anything’s possible,” I said.

Still, 2017 seemed a long way off, and I thought it unlikely that something as obscure as a sesquicentennial would attract much notice beyond the ordinary July 1 fireworks. I soon put it out of my mind and returned to paddling wild rivers, observing plants and animals, wandering the woods, and, for a while, pursuing a passion I’d developed for the study of rare mosses found on certain rocks, especially the species ptychomitrium incurvum.

But a few years later, the old professor’s supposition proved correct. As 2017 neared, “Canada 150” seemed to crop up more and more in conversations and news stories.

A great many plans were underway. There would be public infrastructure projects. Free access to national parks. A ship travelling around Canada with a hundred and fifty passengers chosen from across the country. Trees planted in every province and territory. Tulips bedded in Ottawa’s public gardens (300,000 of them, a unique species) that resembled the country’s flag. An actual flag (a massive one) raised to the top of a pole (fourteen storeys high). Eventually, the federal government would fund nearly six thousand of these Canada 150 initiatives.

Meanwhile, over three years had passed since my encounter with the old professor at the nature club. I recalled what he’d said about the Centennial canoe trip. Maybe, I thought to myself, another cross-Canada canoe journey might, in some small way, inspire people to care more about the fate of the country’s ever-diminishing wild places. I decided to look up what exactly had been done in 1967. It was fortuitous perhaps, that I did so at a time when I was under one of those spells of wanderlust and adventure that had a habit of stealing over me whenever I was shut up inside for too long.

It turned out that ten teams of canoeists had paddled from central Alberta to Montreal. Dubbed “The Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant,” the journey involved ten people per team; six at a time would paddle on alternating days while the other four rested. The route included stops in cities and towns along the way, where parties and fanfare greeted the paddlers’ arrival. By starting east of the Rockies and ending in Montreal, the hardest portages and upstream travel were avoided. When it was all over it took 104 days to complete and covered 5,283 kilometres, ending in celebration at Expo 67.

Now that’s a remarkable journey, I thought to myself as I sat in my cluttered study on the ground floor of a rundown Victorian house I rented. And to recreate it fifty years later would be quite a thing. But nowadays, given that Canada’s a lot less wild than it was in 1967, I figured somebody could probably retrace that canoe route and stop in at a Tim Hortons every third day. What could I do in 2017 that hadn’t already been done?

I stared at the map of Canada on the wall above my desk (a dangerous thing—staring at maps, that is). What if, I wondered, I shifted the canoe route north? Roughly, say, two thousand kilometres north, beyond the trees to the tundra?

Unlike the 1967 route, a canoe journey that far north wouldn’t have a line of cities or towns to break up the journey and allow for resupply, not to mention hot showers and human encouragement. Instead of travelling through farmland and cottage country, it’d mean travelling across arctic terrain. The elements would be much harsher, with sub-zero temperatures, snow, bitterly cold winds, shifting ice floes, and probably no Tim Hortons. If something went wrong, help would be far away and a long time coming. To further complicate matters, there was no easy or obvious water route across the mainland Canadian Arctic. Four major watersheds would have to be crossed, meaning a lot of overland and arduous upstream travel would be required.

I suppose it was a mad idea. On the other hand, it was exactly the kind of undertaking that appealed to me, or at least appealed to me in my more adventurous moods. After all, as I often remarked to myself, you only live once.

Editorial Reviews

National Bestseller

“[Shoalts] brings us along on his solo journey across the Arctic, infused with the wonder of seeing this majestic land and the urgency of making it back before winter sets in.”
Toronto Star

“[A]mple moments of adrenaline and suspense and descriptions of breathtaking natural beauty in his voyages, but it’s his thirst for the unknown—the blank spots—that resonated.”
The New York Review of Books
“When reading Beyond the Trees, one gets the impression of author Adam Shoalts as a kind of Jack Kerouac meets Jack Reacher: an obsessive wanderer at his calmest in the midst of catastrophe.” 
—Atlantic Books Today

“[Beyond the Trees] might just soothe your need for adventure. . . . wonder-filled . . . [a] beautiful book.”

“. . . the adventure of a lifetime [told] in thrilling detail.”

“A wild adventure...riveting.”
Montreal Gazette
“[A] rousing adventure story . . .”

“[An] homage to the wilds of the Canadian North. . . . If you love an outdoor adventure, Beyond the Trees is for you.”
Kamloops Matters

Other titles by Adam Shoalts