Learning From Learners- Alone Against the North

An in-depth character case study of Adam Shoalts as a learner through his memoir, Alone Against the North.

Who are we? How do we know what we know? How do we come to understand the world in which we live? It has long been said that people learn through watching and replicating. From birth, you begin your journey as a learner through the watching and replicating of those close to you. In school, you learn to listen and absorb the information that you are presented from your teachers and peers. You are consistently bombarded with information from the surrounding world. Your interactions with this environment and the people within it help define you as a person and as a learner. Through interactions with your environment and with the people in your life, you begin to form an identity. This identity is molded by the accumulated experience of living within that world and the choices that you have made throughout these interactions. Why are these experiences so important and how do we learn through experiences within our natural world? How and why is experience related to the understanding of oneself and the formation of one’s identity? We can begin to answer these questions through looking at the character of Adam Shoalts and examine how he has learned within the informal context of the Canadian North using his memoir, Alone Against the North.

Before beginning to break down Shoalts’ experiences, relationships, and identity, it is important to understand the definition of identity. Identity refers to “the organization of the individual’s drives, abilities, beliefs, and history into a consistent image of self. It involves deliberate choices and decisions, particularly about work, values, ideology, and commitments to people and ideas” (Hoy, Winne, & Perry. 2016. Pg. 85). Through understanding this definition, we can analyze how Shoalts learnt about the different aspects of his personality and identity as a whole. Simultaneously, we, as the reader, begin to understand and reflect on the ways in which we learn through the interaction between “the reader, the text, and the poem” as discussed by Louise Rosenblatt in her book The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Another interesting aspect to consider when looking at the formation of identity is psychologist Erik Erickson’s theory of “The Eight Stages of Man.” “This [The Eight Stages of Man] psychosocial theory emphasized the emergence of the self, the search for identity, the individual’s relationships with others, and the role of culture throughout life” (Hoy, et al. 2016. Pg. 82.). As we delve deeper into Shoalts character, we will look more specifically at the Intimacy vs. Isolation stage of Erickson’s theory. Intimacy vs Isolation refers to a “willingness to relate to another person on a deep level, to have a relationship based on more than mutual need. Someone who has not achieved a sufficiently strong sense of identity tends to fear being overwhelmed or swallowed up by another person and may retreat into isolation” (Hoy, et al. 2016. Pg. 87-88.). It is interesting to view knowledge through a psychological lens because it can help shed light on some of the predispositions towards learning that one may have. This psychological lens is the first view into the character case study of Adam Shoalts as a learner through experience.

It is interesting to look into the memoir Alone Against the North to find examples within the text that are illuminated by Erikson’s Identity vs. Isolation stage as well as the definition of identity itself. It also helps reveal many interesting threads of Shoalts’ personality. As the reader interacting with the text, we gain the opportunity to go back in time with the author to relive the events that led him to the profession of exploration. Right off the top of the memoir, it is established that Adam Shoalts is a little different than your average person. When most people actively avoid the cold, wet, and harsh environments especially within the Canadian North, Shoalts praises the unexplored expressing the sentiment that it is a “blessing to be born in a land of almost limitless wilderness” (Shoalts. 2016. Pg. 9). Shoalts agrees that the unknown wilderness is scary and often dangerous but, instead of avoiding it, he actively pursues the exploration of this unknown because of his “desire “to escape from the commonplace of existence,” as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it” (Shoalts. Pg. 48). We learn that the author understands he had a different upbringing because, while the other kids were out playing and socializing, he was trudging through the woods attempting to hone his wilderness survival skills. Although this seems totally unnatural to many others, to Shoalts, this was where he felt he belonged. He describes how he feels at home in the woods because of its perceived comforts such as its surreal quietness and natural beauty. Shoalts feels as though the wilderness can provide him solace and a calm that is unachievable in the industrialized and technologically dependent world. Nature is free from all the buzzing of signals flying through one’s head as well as all the other commotion that is commonplace in “civilized” society. Especially in today’s society with the multitude of phones and satellite signals, one can sympathize with Shoalts wanting to “unplug” and retreat into solitude. However, the extent in which Shoalts excludes himself from society is slightly unnerving albeit impressive. When looking at it from the Intimacy vs. Isolation stage of Erickson’s theory, it could easily be speculated that Shoalts’ single-minded determination to become an explorer alienated him from his peers and caused him great difficulty in forming lasting or meaningful relationships. Furthermore, the lack of relationships in society effectively became a catalyst in his drive towards his goal of exploring the Canadian wilderness in relative isolation. This becomes even more apparent after his relationship with his friend Wesley Crowe dissolves because Crowe wants “normal” things such as a wife, kids, and a roof over his head. This domestication is completely foreign to Shoalts and he doesn’t understand how Crowe’s priorities could have changed from wanting to chase adventure to chasing a family. This goes to show how self-absorbed Shoalts becomes in his quest because he believes that everyone has the same motivation and inclination towards adventure as he does. This is a wonderful learning moment for Shoalts as he has to take a step back and realize that everyone is different and that, generally, people prefer human contact over isolation. This brings up an interesting point because it is both admirable and silly that Shoalts cannot understand not chasing a dream, even though it isn’t truly Crowe’s dream. It is admirable because Shoalts has a dream and he sticks to that path and never strays. This is unfortunately not the case for many people. How many people wanted to be a firefighter or a policeman when they were young but never chased their dream because someone told them it was foolish or dangerous? Therefore, the reader can admire Shoalts decision to stick to his dream of becoming an explorer even when The Discovery Channel (falsely) stated that the world was fully explored (Shoalts. 2016.). Yet, it is silly because Shoalts refuses to understand another point of view. This especially comes to light in Shoalts’ recruiting of sidekick, Brent Kozah.

When looking at the relationships within Alone Against the North, we get to see how Shoalts tries to manipulate his companion’s mindset so that they accompany him on his journeys. He tries to get them to stay through guilting them, bolstering them, and not telling them all the information. When you look at Shoalts and Kozah’s relationship, it is very apparent that it is held together by necessity. Shoalts, knowing the dangers of solo exploration, needed Kozah to be able to complete his trip and Kozah needed Shoalts to break him out of his rut and take him on an adventure. This is not the deep relationship that Erickson is referring to. This is a very surface level relationship that heavily favours Shoalts because he uses the absence of information to help further his goal of exploring the unnamed river. Shoalts also just expects Kozah to understand wilderness survival techniques because Shoalts grew up working and expanding his survival knowledge within the wooded areas around his home. Shoalts doesn’t realize or accept that Kozah doesn’t have the same wilderness experience and survival skills as Shoalts himself has. As the reader, we see a definite divide in priorities, skills, and mentality that Shoalts does acknowledge his apprehension over. Yet, he completely and recklessly overlooks these in his blind pursuit of his goal, the unnamed river. This is very apparent when Shoalts describes his motivations in comparison to Kozah’s for exploring the river saying:

To him [Kozah], the nameless river we were seeking wasn’t some nameless prize, but just another subarctic river like all the others we had paddled on our journey. To me, however, this river represented something more— it was a mystery, and a promise of a pristine place untouched by the modern world, a river so obscure that no known person had ever previously explored it, That made it irresistible (Shoalts. 2016. Pg. 2.).

He overlooked these obvious warning signs because he foolishly believed he was resourceful enough to completely change Kozah’s attitude on the trip. Shoalts believed that he could instil his own values into Kozah by showing him his drive to find the river and that Kozah would eventually come around because of Shoalts’ determination. At this point, the reader wonders whether or not Shoalts has learned anything at all because he once again proves that he is unable to comprehend another point of view. This gets him into the mess of being alone in the North. The reader feels the urge to shout “Don’t be stupid” at the book when Shoalts repeatedly makes these same mistakes. This brought to mind Rosenblatt’s theory about the “two-way, or…circular process…in which the reader responds to the verbal stimuli offered by the text…[and] draw selectively on the resources of his own fund of experiences and sensibility (Rosenblatt. 1978. Pg. 43). This makes the reader appraise their own thoughts and decisions and shows how stubborn and unaware we sometimes are to others feelings, thoughts, and opinions. This also brings to mind Erikson’s psychosocial theory because it makes the reader delve into what makes a healthy relationship. Part of that healthy relationship is having an understanding and a partnership between the two parties involved. Deeply rooted relationships cannot be forced and manipulated because it alters the power balance between the individuals and, thus, creates a division between them. Because Shoalts is not establishing these deep rooted relationships, the reader witnesses a slow decent into isolation as Shoalts decides to continue his mad pursuit “flushed with confidence and practically half-mad with a long suppressed desire to pry open the secrets of this obscure waterway” (Shoalts. 2016. Pg. 189). With this idea of goal-oriented madness taking hold of the reins, Shoalts makes a series of very rash decisions such as not taking a satellite phone, shooting unknown rapids, and going into the Canadian Wilderness alone. The last one, most of all, makes the reader shake their head, especially when Shoalts provides many different accounts of tragic solo journeys and lists the many dangers of solo wilderness travel. It makes the reader wonder how close the line between courage and stupidity really is. Yet, this obsession gives a small glimpse into the true heart of what it means to be an explorer. It is about reaching that elusive end goal and besting the odds even when they are stacked against you. Exploring is to be daring and reckless while simultaneously being cautious and careful. The explorer Ernest Shackleton’s family motto points out that “by endurance, we conquer” (Shoalts. 2016. Pg. 123) and this holds very true to the ideals of the explorer. However, as we have examined within the relationships above, to be an explorer is to be lonely. Explorers are never content within the “civilized” world. This is echoed by the many accounts of explorers that have committed suicide when restricted to the confines of society that Shoalts discusses in Alone Against the North (Shoalts. 2016.). This reluctance to form relationships as well as the inability to remain and settle within society once again harkens back to Erickson’s theory on the Intimacy vs. Isolation stage of man and becomes one of the major influences on the identity of the explorer. Therefore, to be an explorer is not only about being lonely but choosing to be lonely.

We look at our identity as the accumulation of all our experiences and interactions with others both positively and negatively and the beliefs and values one creates for themselves because of these factors. As is extremely apparent in the case of Adam Shoalts, identity is also shaped by our surroundings and the environment in which we decide to plant ourselves. When one’s experiences with people in society are more negatively inclined, a trend towards Erickson’s idea of isolation occurs. It is in this isolation that Shoalts believes he learns best and, thus, has a very large impact on his relationships and connection with others. Although Shoalts has explored many unknown expanses of wilderness, the only exploration that he has been unable to conquer is that of other people’s motivations and values. This creates a separation in understanding but allows Shoalts to learn in a very different informal environment. Shoalts’ successful trip to the Little Owl River as well as down the Again River was a combination of all the prior learning that he had done. This trip was the ultimate test of his skills in which he had two options, pass and live to document the rivers or fail and perish on his quest. As the reader, we get a front row seat to the author struggling to discover what works and doesn’t work for him. This view helps us better understand what it is we know and gives us a template for understanding how we came to know it. Adam Shoalts’ personal motto is “you are what you make yourself” (Shoalts. 2016. Pg. 91), and Shoalts has certainly made himself into an interesting character.

Works Cited

W. Hoy, P. H. (2016). Educational Psychology Sixth Canadian Edition. Toronto: Pearson Canada.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Shoalts, A. (2016). Alone Against the North. Toronto: Penguin Group.


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