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Charting a course for the past

Author uses maps to explore our country's 'violent, epic, adventurous' history

Sure, he’s a historian, archaeologist and geographer and has taught and researched at McMaster University, but Adam Shoalts also boasts one title few people hold today — explorer.

The 31-year-old Shoalts wrote his first book, 2015’s Alone Against the North, about his journey down the largely unexplored Again River in the Hudson Bay Lowlands near the Ontario-Quebec border.

Earlier this year, Shoalts completed another epic journey, a 4,000-kilometre solo trek across Canada’s Arctic, traveling mainly by canoe. Before he did that, however, he penned A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land.

The book uses maps drawn by the early European explorers of what is now Canada as a springboard to tell the story of the people behind the cartography, going all the way back to a map made in the 16th century based on Viking explorations.

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Sure, he’s a historian, archaeologist and geographer and has taught and researched at McMaster University, but Adam Shoalts also boasts one title few people hold today — explorer.

British Library / Granger NYC</p><p>A portion of Pierre Descelier’s 1550 map, in which north is at the bottom. The bearded figure near the word CANADA and the St. Lawrence River is Jacques Cartier.</p>

British Library / Granger NYC

A portion of Pierre Descelier’s 1550 map, in which north is at the bottom. The bearded figure near the word CANADA and the St. Lawrence River is Jacques Cartier.

The 31-year-old Shoalts wrote his first book, 2015’s Alone Against the North, about his journey down the largely unexplored Again River in the Hudson Bay Lowlands near the Ontario-Quebec border.

Earlier this year, Shoalts completed another epic journey, a 4,000-kilometre solo trek across Canada’s Arctic, traveling mainly by canoe. Before he did that, however, he penned A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land.

The book uses maps drawn by the early European explorers of what is now Canada as a springboard to tell the story of the people behind the cartography, going all the way back to a map made in the 16th century based on Viking explorations.

And while map-making may not seem like riveting subject matter to some, in the hands of a history buff who moonlights as an adventurer, it’s totally compelling.

"We didn’t really have a book that brings to light just how incredibly fascinating and epic some of the stories from early Canadian history are," Shoalts says by phone in advance of his book launch at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Saturday night.

"In a way, you could say the book’s not really about maps so much as it is about the stories behind the maps — the flesh and blood of the characters who made the maps. The maps are kind of just a way into the history."

Shoalts was approached by his publisher, Allen Lane, about doing a book to be released in conjunction with Canada 150 celebrations. He convinced them to let him delve further back in time than Confederation, to a time where the land wasn’t yet clearly defined by European settlers and explorers. 

While teaching, Shoalts grew tired of hearing from students that Canadian history was boring. His exploration of pre-Confederation times was an attempt to smash that stereotype.

"My challenge in writing this book was to show that Canada’s history is anything but dull — it’s actually violent, epic, adventurous and unexpected," he says.

British Library / Granger NYC</p><p>Explorer/author Adam Shoalts, right, believes maps are the start of a great adventure.</p>

British Library / Granger NYC

Explorer/author Adam Shoalts, right, believes maps are the start of a great adventure.

He took inspiration from popular Canadian historians such as Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman, but his academic background ensured the book also contained proper citations and extensive end notes.

Different European colonialists struggled to define the land and claim it as their own. "You can take the maps as snapshots of different competing ideas of geography — a contest of wills, a clash of empires and of cultures and how Canada, for better or worse, was really forged," Shoalts says.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the early European explorers and Indigenous communities is often misunderstood, Shoalts says. "For European explorers to have been successful in the 18th century in Canada’s hinterland, it was essential they had good relations with Indigenous nations. It was an environment that was far away from their homes and they were in the minority by a ratio of at least 500 to 1. If an explorer didn’t get along with an Indigenous community, they tended not to survive for very long.

"In that kind of environment, respect from aboriginal colleagues was vital. It was fascinating to learn how Alexander Mackenzie and Samuel Hearne spent a lot of time around the campfire at night, with a guide or companion, practising and learning Indigenous languages."

Shoalts’ recent Arctic adventure also has ties to A History of Canada in Ten Maps; he planned his own expedition by retracing some of the routes of Mackenzie, Hearne and John Franklin, all of whose maps feature in the book. 

There’s certainly some excitement in Shoalts’ voice when discussing maps and his new book — perhaps the explorer in him thinking about his next quest.  

"Think of maps as the start of a great adventure — whether it’s pirate treasure, Indiana Jones or Lara Croft," he says.

"I didn’t want to just talk about the kind of ink they used to make these maps or the technical details. I wanted to talk about the flesh-and-blood people behind the maps, because that’s what really dramatic and exciting."

ben.macphee-sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca 

Read more by Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson .

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