Intrepid NWT paddlers described their children’s awe at meeting muskox up-close during a three-month excursion through the territory’s eastern barrenlands.
Leanne Robinson and Dwayne Wohlgemuth, already known for their canoe adventures across the territory, took their children – a four-year-old and a one-year-old – on the 107-day trip from Fort Fitzgerald, south of Fort Smith, up through the barrenlands and Thelon River tributaries to Great Slave Lake and home to Yellowknife.
They were accompanied by a team producing a forthcoming documentary about the trip, to be entitled Family Routes.
Speaking to Cabin Radio before they set out, Robinson and Wohlgemuth had billed the 1,500-km journey as a getaway from the pressures of urban life. “Once you get out there, everything is just so much easier than being anywhere else,” Robinson said in April.
However, on their return, Wohlgemuth acknowledged: “It was definitely a challenging trip for a few reasons.”
Top of the list of challenges? Diapers and fish.
While the kids “were always warm and dry,” said Robinson, diaper changes were not the easiest in conditions that often proved less than summery.
“Five layers on the bottom, plus bug jacket, rain suit, life jacket and whatever else,” said Robinson. “It was a lot of layers.”
Wohlgemuth added: “Leanne is so good at it. I’m not as good at it. So for me, it’s a more daunting task.
“But she’s such a star at getting the kids in and out of their layers and changing diapers in the cold and wet and rain. We did a lot of diaper changes under leaned-over canoes to keep out of the rain and the wind.”
Fish, fish, fish
Meanwhile, with the adventurers packing ultra-light – and relying on occasional food drops – Wohlgemuth was in charge of catching enough fish to feed everyone, including the documentary producers.
“On the food side, I think I signed up for a little more work than I realized,” he admitted.
“Being the only person who fishes in a group of four adults and two kids, having to catch and clean and cook fish for that many people every single day… it definitely occupies a lot of time.
“I’d still be out there for three hours trying to catch fish when the wind is howling and it’s like five degrees. There were definitely moments when I thought, ‘I wish we didn’t rely on fish so much.’ But then out of that, too, I tried so many more techniques for fishing that I had never done before.”
Wohlgemuth confirmed screaming at the fish had been one of the new techniques learned.
‘Special for the kids’
However, for all the challenges, the parents expressed joy at seeing their children “interact with the wildlife and with each other” on the kind of trip very few young kids get to experience.
Robinson described Emile, the couple’s four-year-old son, getting out of the tent one morning only to run back in and exclaim: “There’s a muskox!”
She said: “So I go to make sure that he’s identified his animals – and it’s not a grizzly – and sure enough, there’s the muskox and he’s not so far from our tent.
“You know, he’ll probably remember that for a while. It’s pretty special for the kids.”
“The kids were amazing,” agreed Wohlgemuth. “Emile, he’s only four and he walked pretty-much every single portage all summer long.
“Pike’s Portage, which is five kilometres, he walked with this backpack on. And there were only a couple of little, wet, boggy stretches along the way where we’d carry him over, so he wouldn’t be up to his waist in water.
“But he hiked Pike’s Portage as a four-year-old. That was just like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.'”
The family made it home earlier in September. Despite Wohlgemuth’s many, many hours of fishing over the summer, he says not much has changed since their return.
“Within a few days, Leanne and I were like, ‘We need to go to the Wildcat,'” he said.
“And it was fish. We both had fish. I’m not tired of fish at all.”