True Craft: In Conversation with Adam Shoalts


The idea of being in the woods with no cellphone reception might sound like a horror movie to some. We daydream that escaping into nature is a practical idea, away from the comfort of the skyscrapers we inhabit. Still, the reality is we are comfortable here in our giant city bubbles. It’s why we pay exorbitant amounts to live here each month. Not everyone is built to live outdoors for extended periods. We might be mammals, but we’re far from animals. Adam Shoalts, however, is constructed differently.

Shoalts is a Canadian writer with a focus on exploring nature. He’s a modern-day explorer and a part of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He’s written three books and travelled all across Canada. He’s seen sights and things most people will never experience. Canada is his home; day by day, he’s uncovering more of it. He spoke about his adventures recently from a forest in the boonies of Ontario, outfitted in vintage-looking ECCO Staker boots in oiled nubuck and brown leather, available as part of ECCO’s new Heritage collection. He had a busy weekend ahead, leading guided hikes for nature enthusiasts and curious wanderers, which is something he does every year during the fall. Guided walks start at 8 a.m. and go on all day, giving people a chance to escape outside their norms for a short period.

In one of his earlier expeditions, he talks about his expedition partner that just up and left halfway through the journey. His partner said, “the whole exploring thing was much more glamorous to read about than to actually experience,” so he hopped on the next float plane back to civilization. This predicament left Shoalts between a rock and a hard place, as this was his first genuine expedition, and he was on the coast of Hudson Bay surrounded by polar bears, but he didn’t want to back down from the challenge, so he completed the journey on his own. This tale turned into a story in his first book, and when readers got their hands on it, they started emailing Shoalts about coming with him on an expedition. The requests kept coming as his books grew in popularity, and eventually, these became the start of his annual fall hikes.

He picked fall as it’s his favourite time of the year; it’s the perfect time to be outside. There are no bugs to nip at your exposed skin, the weather is crisp, luscious fall colours surround you, and it’s the best time for learning about mushrooms. Shoalts picked out three of his favourite locations in Ontario to give people the opportunity to join him. Hikes are only once a year, but sound like a magical trip for those that want to try something that doesn’t involve them hunched over a computer. The hikes take place in Temagami old-growth forest, Algonquin Highlands, and in Queenston Heights, on the Niagara River in southern Ontario.

True Craft: In Conversation with Adam Shoalts

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Participants will learn about ancient trees and how to identify and appreciate them on these hikes. They will also learn to identify hardwood and softwood trees, and which trees have edible nuts. Shoalts teaches about medicinal and edible plants and mushrooms. He says, “There’s always some exciting mushrooms they find on these hikes.” Often, he will also teach Canadian history on these trips so participants can better understand the surroundings. He wants to show “how the natural world, the natural geography, influences the history of the country and the development of Canada.” The hikes are not typical; they are a memorable once-a-year experience.

Being an explorer is about being alone and comfortable in your skin and with your thoughts. Shoalts likes to be alone; he jokes that he was social distancing “before it became mainstream.”

He’s primarily known as a solo explorer, meaning he spends weeks or months alone in the wilderness in some of the most remote places on Earth — places where the nearest cell tower, road, or human is hundreds of miles away.

This lifestyle is peaceful, if perhaps lonely, but it requires a level of diligence and seriousness that takes nothing for granted. To not only survive but thrive in the great outdoors, Shoalts relies not only on his wits, but on formidable equipment, including footwear. With its functional, premium-quality Heritage collection, ECCO combines superior Nordic craftsmanship with a slew of timeless workwear, with versatile, premium pieces that are both durable and stylish. Ideally suited for those who, like Shoalts, are unafraid of roughing it alone, the Heritage collection is all about simplicity, functionality, and quality.

Shoalts recalls a solo journey he took last summer that lasted three months and seven days, from Lake Erie, at the southernmost point of Ontario, to the Arctic. At the trip’s start, he was not in the most remote locations you can imagine. Southern Ontario is littered with both small and large towns. But eventually, the cities became a distant memory as he travelled on his journey, not seeing another human being for months.

When asked how he manages to be alone for such a long time, he says, “I don’t even think about it.” He thinks that might be the secret. People overthink things. “I don’t tend to overthink things. I take the bull by the horns and get on with it,” he says. When he was a kid growing up, he was surrounded by forests. He didn’t have sidewalks or immediate neighbours; he was one with nature, and became accustomed to being outside his own four walls at home. “If you love being in the forest and with nature, then you don’t really feel alone.” He continues, “That’s what I love about going out in the woods. It’s just so full of life…the wild plants, mushrooms, trees, and the incredible diversity of different living things. The birds, the wildlife, the forest tells a story.”

ECCO Track 25 ($300)
ECCO Track 25 ($300)

He compares the forest to reading a book; when you’re looking at the tracks on the ground, you start to build a narrative of what came before you. He says he “can get swept up in the story” about the place he is travelling. “When you’re so caught up in all of these things, the fact that you’re alone doesn’t even cross your mind.”

Shoalts does not overthink the journey. It’s a simple philosophy and one that will surely be daunting for most. It’s not like he has much time to stop when he’s out on adventures. He is constantly on the move, and when he stops for the night, that’s when he finds the time to start writing his next book. His days begin at 4 a.m., and he doesn’t stop till 9 p.m. Before he falls asleep is when he starts writing about his day in his journal. He likes to take what he sees during the day and put it on paper; perhaps something as simple as a cliff reminds him of an ancient castle. Those daily journal entries become the basis for all his books.

Shoalts will admit he does not spend time thinking about philosophical questions, including whether people should spend time alone with nature. He likes what he does. He doesn’t second-guess, and he doesn’t think about it any deeper. What you see is what you get. He believes to each their own and knows it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to spend all their time outside alone. But he thinks protecting wilderness is important.

“We need to preserve more vast wild places. It can be as simple as protecting these places for people to see and explore but leaving them in their natural habitat,” he says.

adam shoalts ecco interview

In his recent book, The Whisper of the Night Wind, there’s an afterword about what it would mean if we lose all these truly vast wild places. He suggests “that we would lose an essential part of human culture and heritage. Suppose you look at cultures all over the world. In that case, it’s fascinating how the natural world has cast such a long shadow over our collective imaginations. You can see in different mythologies about wild places, and even today, if people don’t step foot in these ancient forests, just the mere fact of their existence on the edges of our civilization has always exercised such an extraordinary pull over the human imagination.” He suggests we would be losing something in the future if we no longer have access to vast space, we might have outer space, but it’s different. “It’s fundamentally alien; it’s not our home,” he says. It’s not something obtainable to 99.9 per cent of us.

Until the 1930s, most of Canada lived in rural farmlands and towns. It’s in our DNA as Homo sapiens; it’s in 99.9 per cent of our roots that we used to live outdoors and not have roofs over our heads. We’re in incredibly uncharted territory, putting people in developments and highly dense cities. It’s the rise of the mega city. That’s why Shoalts thinks millions of people all over the world instinctively find going out in nature a refreshing, relaxing experience.

Shoalts set out to write light-hearted adventure books full of humour, but at the end of each, he passionately speaks about the value of natural places and their importance to the Earth. He finds great value in unplugging, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. It’s essential to get outside and get some fresh air. Not everyone needs to make a three-month journey, but experiencing nature as much as possible is an integral part of life. It helps people de-stress. We’re overwhelmed by the 9-to-5 grind, always on social media and connected to the 24/7 news cycle, too busy to stop and look around. The world we live in is new; it’s essential to get outside and experience it.