You, the canoe, and two kids. For 110 days in the NWT wild

Last modified: April 11, 2019 at 11:16am

Could you take on a four-month canoe trip with a partner and two young children in the wilderness of the Northwest Territories?

Leanne Robinson and Dwayne Wohlgemuth are heading out on a voyage from the South Slave up through the NWT’s Barrenlands this summer, finally crossing Great Slave Lake home to Yellowknife.

The trip alone would test most NWT residents, but Robinson and Wohlgemuth will be doing it with their children – a three-year-old and a one-year-old.


This is not their first rodeo. In 2016, the two completed a two-month canoe trip with year-old son Emile along for the ride.

On Sunday, April 14, the two will host a talk at Yellowknife’s public library about how to go on long trips with little ones. Head to the library for 3pm.

Ahead of that talk, Cabin Radio welcomed Leanne and Dwayne (and their children) into Studio One to talk about what they’ve learned from their family trips, and what’s coming up this summer.

Listen to the full interview on Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News from 12pm on Thursday, April 11, 2019 >> Listen live

This interview was recorded on April 10, 2019. This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


Ollie Williams: How much paddling have you done with children in tow?

Dwayne Wohlgemuth: Our oldest son, Emile, was born in 2015. We took him on his first canoe trip in May, when he was about two months old, I guess – May long – just a little one on the Ingraham Trail, pulling him in his car seat in the canoe across some ice as well, because not everything was thawed by then. That first fall, when he was about eight months old, we went on a three-week canoe trip, again, just near Yellowknife, but that was kind-of the test for the next summer’s trip.

The next summer we did a two-month trip with Emile. We started in Whatì and we went up Lac La Martre, and up the Grandin River, and then down the Johnny Hoe to Great Bear Lake. We spent about a week on Great Bear Lake and then we came back down through Gamètì and back to Behchokǫ̀. That was our big, epic trip with Emile.

Last summer our second boy, Alexi, was born. We did a few shorter trips with him, nothing really long yet. This coming summer we’re planning a long trip and it will be with both of them – a little more challenging with two kids along.


Leanne, what goes into the sort of planning that you’d have to do for two months?

Leanne Robinson: Well, we’re right in the midst of it, so this is a good time to talk about it because we’re planning our next summer’s adventure right now.

Obviously food is a big one, but that’s going to be the same on any trip. Specifically related to little people, it’s things like trying to figure out what kind of gear they need and what kind of clothing they need – what size they’re going to be when they’re out there, and what size they are going to be when they get back. That’ll be a fun one for this summer. We don’t know how much Alexi is going to grow or if he’s gonna grow out of his clothes, so that’ll be fun.

What kind of footwear does he need? Is he going to walk? Is he going to crawl? We don’t know any of these things going in. So we are trying to pack while still not having any idea of what it’s going to be.

As you’re describing this, I’m imagining lots of parents listening thinking, ‘That sounds so stressful. They’re going to change clothing sizes while they’re on the trip. We don’t even know if this child is going to walk or crawl by the end of the trip.’

You’re going paddling for months in the wilderness and you don’t even know the mode of transport the child is going to choose. I think, for a lot of people, that would be a signal to maybe not do the trip. And that is clearly not even a consideration for you. What takes the stress out of it, for you, for all those different considerations?

Leanne: That’s a good question. I think, once you get out there, everything is just so much easier than being anywhere else. You’ve already made those decisions and so you don’t have to make any more of those specific decisions for the next couple of months.

I suppose you just live with those decisions.

Leanne: Really what’s the worst… whatever, they’re in too-small or too-large clothes, or they don’t have the right footwear, but really, they survived through it.

Dwayne: And you make sure to bring a sewing kit in your emergency kit.

Leanne: And a pair of scissors to cut the legs off of things if needs be.

Do you end up bringing a lot of stuff to make sure that a young one is well looked-after?

Dwayne: We did two months with Emile when he was about a year-and-a-bit old and, right from the get-go, with two months of food and no food drops, we were still doing everything in two portages.

Leanne: So, no.

Dwayne: Yeah. Considering we had a baby along and two months-worth of food, I think we managed to pack pretty light.

Leanne: You’ve got to get that sweet spot of having enough stuff so that everybody’s comfortable and everybody has something dry at all times, and not carrying around a whole bunch of things that you don’t need.

I have been on enough trips with enough children to know they need to be kept occupied. Now, it’s one thing being on a long train journey, to being on a two month-long paddling trip, because you would hope that the wilderness itself and the journey itself would provide a lot of that fascination, but I don’t know if you can rely on it. How do you plan for what your kids are going to end up doing for two months out in the wild?

Leanne: So right now we’re making a notebook of things. Every day we’re trying to put in something: say, a song we want to learn all the words to, so we write them down now because we don’t have lovely old internet when we’re out there. All of those things go into one little tiny notebook, and then he can either draw on it or we can choose an activity out of it. Lots of made-up stories. And we’re looking for ideas.

But I think the biggest thing is not getting too hung up on it – and I’m one that gets hung up on things, and Dwayne will just do things as they come along.

Kerry Wheler was talking about her kids and she said when they were young, they would bring a little dinky car along for them or whatever. And when her son was five, she asked him what toy he was going to bring along. He said he didn’t need any toys, there was so much to play with and so much to do. Really, I think that’s the message.

Never mind managing the kids, how do you manage yourself on a trip that long? It’s probably hard enough for many adults on their own without also having to manage the needs of kids who have a lot of different wants and desires. At the end of a really long day midway through a two-month journey, when you’ve got all these different things going on around you in the wilderness, how do you keep things going and keep everybody happy?

Dwayne: I think one of the keys for us is we enjoy being on the land. The goal for us isn’t the distance or the destination, and we don’t plan really long days. Most of our trips are an average number of kilometres per day, or probably lower than the average person. We don’t want to be in the boat paddling all day or have the stress of having to make a crazy distance every day.

Really, I’m looking at this completely wrong, aren’t I? Because I’m looking at this from the point of view of someone who’s bashing out for three days on a long weekend, and then they’ve got to be behind an office chair by Monday morning. For you, that would be far more stressful than what you are doing.

Dwayne: Exactly. And the long trips give you more flexibility. If you have a day where the weather is bad and the kids aren’t happy, we can just stop and stay put and, you know, enjoy some quiet time in our tent if the weather’s horrible and not need to make a specific distance on any given day – because we’ve got two months to make up that distance. When it’s sunny and there’s a tailwind, then we can paddle all day.

Leanne: And the nice thing about paddling with little ones is that you’re already used to kind-of giving up everything! It’s all about them usually anyways, so you’re already very much into that mindset.

You have canvassed a few other sets of parents in town to put together this talk that’s happening at the library on Sunday. I wondered what you’d learned and whether there were any little ah-ha moments speaking to other sets of parents?

Leanne: The biggest breakthrough, I think for us, in the ‘stuff’ category – like what stuff to bring – was with diapers. We use reusable diapers but there is this brilliant idea of using big pieces of cloth that fold out. You can dry them really quickly and you can wash them really quickly.

Where do you start? You guys are experienced. For families listening to this who think, ‘If we could only spend a couple of weeks this summer, but I’m really worried about taking the kids out in the wilderness for a couple of weeks, and making sure we’re doing it right.’ Where should they start?

Dwayne: Give it time, because the very first trip that we went with Emile… I mean, we had done a few in his first summer when he was less than a year old but then, the two-month trip that we did when he was a year and a bit? It took two days for him to get into the canoe routine and be reasonably happy and content in the canoe.

The first day he screamed the entire day, just being confined in the canoe, and it was hot too. So I think that was tough for him. And there were moments in the first day where we thought, ‘Are we just gonna end up turning around and going home again? What are we doing?’

But he got into the routine and then he was super happy, and it was amazing how well he entertained himself in the boat with throwing rocks and sticks into the water. So don’t judge it too quickly, you know? Kids can get into a routine, but that takes time. If you have a rough first weekend, try again.

Leanne: And I think that’s true for anything with kids, right? It takes a while to get into the routine. But what was interesting about that routine part of things was, you know, it took him two, maybe three days to get into it, and then he was into it. But then when we came back home, it took him about three weeks to get back into a routine around town. That was really telling, I think.

You have to tell us about this trip, this summer. You’ve already said this is going to be bigger, it’s going to be better. Let’s make everyone jealous already. Where are you guys gonna go? What are you planning to do?

Dwayne: We’re going to start just south of Fort Smith at Fort Fitz, and we’re going up a traditional Aboriginal route to the shield country into the tundra that goes kind-of northeast from that area, up the Dog River. And then eventually we come to the Taltson River.

From there we go through a whole bunch of big lakes that are along the headwaters of the Thelon and some of the Thelon River tributaries. Many people listening might have heard of Alex Hall, who passed away recently. This is country that he really knew well and travelled in a lot. We’ll be going through a lot of the headwater lakes of the Thelon and a couple of its tributaries, all the way until we get up northeast of Great Slave Lake.

We actually paddle a small portion of the Hanbury River and then we come back into Artillery Lake and south through Pike’s Portage to Great Slave Lake again. And then we paddle Great Slave Lake all the way home.

How long is that going to take, do you think?

Dwayne: Right now, we’re planning for 110 days. We’re leaving May long and planning to be back the first few days of September.

Self-sufficient, two kids, 110 days.

Dwayne: Yeah, that’s right. This time around, because of the length of the trip and with two kids along, we are getting a few food drops along the way.

Well that’s cheating, Dwayne, I can’t believe it.

Dwayne: It’s the first time we’ve ever done food drops and I think, with two kids and three months, I think…

I think you can be forgiven for that.