By Rick Schwertfeger
Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command
First of all, Adam Shoalts is cool. Jim discovered this guy with the outrageous job of Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Shoalts reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt’s statement about adventurer, hunter and author Frederick Selous: that Selous had lived with “just the right alternations between the wilderness and civilization.” For, combined with enormous wilderness adventures, and the books he’s written about them, Shoalts also earned a Ph.D. in history from McMaster University, with his dissertation focused on “the influence Indigenous oral traditions had on fur traders in the subarctic and Pacific Northwest.”
Making his writing even more interesting, Shoalts mixes in expertise in archeology, geography, and “wilderness folklore”!
From those Indigenous oral traditions Shoalts learned that tales of mysterious demons; terrifying animals sensed and feared but barely seen; and creepy, scary myths comprise a core component of wilderness folklore. Desolate land masses, with human settlements even hundreds of miles apart, seem to breed confrontations with beings frequently assumed to be supernatural. Transitory but incomplete, mysterious and frightening interactions that are not understood lend themselves to fearful interpretations that the creatures are otherworldly, demonic, even the Devil himself. And then the stories of the scary beings get told to others, in the process getting modified or embellished. Suppositions are made, and “facts” added to help explain the events and the beasts. Over time, a Loch Ness Monster, a Sasquatch, or a Jersey Devil, presented as a real, terrifying being, gets added to the wilderness folklore.
In The Whisper on the Night Wind: The True Story of a Wilderness Legend, Adam Shoalts and his neighbor Zach Junkin undertake an arduous journey into the wilderness of Labrador, seeking to understand the monster that haunted the remote village of Traverspine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While sharing their journey by canoe and some hiking, the reader also gets to accompany Shoalts through his scholarly efforts to deconstruct the scary myths surrounding the events, and, as the title says, reveal “the true history of a wilderness legend.”
The journey itself is so difficult that few of us, if any, would have completed it. It turns out that remote Labrador was the last region of Canada settled — with good reasons. The geography is combinations of dense forests, tundra, icy rivers, and inhospitable mountains. Even more, the climate and its weather are brutal. Getting from Shoalts’ home on the northern shore of Lake Erie in southern Ontario to the town on the Churchill River where they launched their canoe required a 32-hour drive.
Canoeing the big river to get to abandoned Traverspine was only the start of the extraordinary physical efforts required to complete the exploration. Shoalts and Junkin had to power their 15-foot canoe through the rough waters of Lake Melville — actually an inland salt-water arm of the Atlantic Ocean — just to get to the strongly flowing Kenemich River, their route to the Mealy Mountain range where Shoalts had deduced that the creatures of Traverspine myth might live. When they no longer had the strength to power further up the rocky river, Shoalts and Junkin endured a nearly impossible hike through a forest of dense trees, having their clothes torn to shreds by broken branches, scrambling over blown down logs, mucking through soft turf, and withstanding biting flies.
Combined with the exhaustion, camping in the wilderness forest while searching for the monsters of myth made each night an eerie, even scary proposition. They experienced heightened versions of what I experienced camping in mountains where we knew that the bears we’d seen in the daytime certainly were nearby. Sleep was nearly impossible, as every tree that cracked, or branches that rubbed against each other, or “the whisper on the wind,” made it difficult to get to sleep, and impossible to stay asleep. They heard nocturnal animals moving around the perimeters of their campsites. Were they the legendary monsters? They slept with knives and bear spray at the ready. Some nights were so windy that they wouldn’t have heard an intruding beast even right next to their tents.
Most nights were eerie, eerie, eerie.
As extraordinary as the physical journey was, the reader gets to share the highly informed and rational process that Shoalts goes through to develop “the true history” of the legendary Traverspine monster. Shoalts shares his deep knowledge of a number of wilderness Canada demons, presenting historical accounts of legendary tales told by Indigenous peoples and European trappers and hunters to traveling physicians, traders, and anthropologists. And Shoalts logically compares his knowledge of the real animals of the Canadian subarctic up against the legendary tales. It’s fascinating to see how step-by-step he eliminates aspects of the scary mythical tales, groping closer and closer to a “true history” that can be supported by fact. Eventually, Shoalts comes to pretty ironclad conclusions of what the Traverspine monsters really were. Objective accomplished, Shoalts and Junkin extricate themselves from the deep wilderness and make the long drive home.
We need to backtrack on Shoalts. For his previous wilderness adventures led to the highly praised books Alone Against the North and Beyond the Trees. And Jim is primed already for A History of Canada in Ten Maps, called “a brilliant book” and “a must read in Canadian history, geography, and exploration.” Finally, before reading any of the books, I recommend watching Canadian canoe adventurer Kevin Callan’s interview of Shoalts on his “Whisky Fireside Chats” podcast, in this case #84. You’ll really get to know Shoalts and have a good frame of reference once you dive into any of the books.
© Rick Schwertfeger firstname.lastname@example.org Austin, Texas Jan. 2022