"For the first couple of days he screamed his head off," recalls Leanne Robinson. "But once we got into a routine he was happier than he's ever been."
The screaming came from one-year-old Emile, as he lay in a canoe being paddled and pulled upstream by his mother, Robinson, and her partner Dwayne Wohlgemuth.
It was the beginning of a two-month, 1,100-kilometre wilderness paddle from the tiny N.W.T. community of Whati upstream to Great Bear Lake and down a traditional Tlicho route of lakes and rivers to Behchoko.
The Yellowknife couple, who are in their late 30s, have taken long wilderness trips together in past summers, including a three-week test paddle last summer with Emile when he was just five months old.
But this was their first extended trip with their first child.
'A good family route'
The trip involved a lot of research and preparation.
The couple had a friend drive their canoe and food barrels to Whati up the ice road last winter. (The community can be reached only by plane during the summer.)
They dehydrated much of their food — space and weight was a challenge since they were not counting on any food drops for the two months.
Then they planned what Wohlgemuth calls, "a good family route."
It began in Whati, pop. 492, and followed rivers and a few lakes northwest to Great Bear Lake. The family then paddled about 100 kilometres northeast along the shore of the massive lake and connected to the historic Idaa trail, a traditional First Nations route of portages, lakes and rivers between Great Bear and Great Slave Lake.
"There wasn't any crazy whitewater, not too many portages," Wohlgemuth says.
"The portages kind of interrupt Emile's naps. If there's too many or they're too frequent, he gets tired. He needs an hour and a half in the canoe twice a day."
Hand-washed diapers, natural toys
The couple said they were inspired by other Yellowknife couples they know who've done multi-week paddles with young children.
"It was really neat to see him gain so much confidence out there," says Robinson. "He saw things before we did in a lot of cases... There was a lot of hand-washing of diapers, but you've got a lot of water at your disposal, so it wasn't as much of a hurdle as you might suppose."
"He didn't need any toys when he was out there," says Wohlgemuth. "He found so many other things: caribou jaws, sticks, rocks, pine cones — he always had things to play with."
The family had a close encounter with a wolf one day on Great Bear Lake.
The wind had picked up and they decided to make camp. A few minutes after arriving, they saw a few wolves walking along shore away from their camp.
"About 20 minutes later, I was cooking fish over the fire when something made me look up," says Dwayne. "One of the same wolves was sneaking toward me, only about a canoe length away. I stood up and put my hands in the air and yelled. The wolf ran a bit of a ways, but not too far and started kind of doing a semi-circle around us."
Wohlgemuth grabbed his shotgun and fired a rubber bullet at the wolf.
"It jumped good and then just took off and never came back. I really gained an appreciation for rubber bullets, because we didn't have to kill the wolf and we didn't have to let it get close enough for bear spray."
Wohlgemuth says that during the trip he also developed an appreciation for something he's never missed on other wilderness trips — countertops.
"Having to prepare food and cook with a fire at ground level with a one-year-old around you, trying to prevent him from throwing his bucket of sand in your soup and keep him away from the fire — it was difficult."
Robinson says despite the rough start, Emile ended up having a tougher time adjusting to life back home than he did to life on the water.
"It took a long time to get him to nap like he did on that trip. He was so comfortable and happy there."
Wohlgemuth says that was evident in a touching gesture Emile made a few days after their return to Yellowknife.
"One of the most special moments when we got back, for me, was him grabbing my shoes, walking over to me and tossing me my shoes. He's not talking yet, but it was a clear message, 'Papa, let's go outside, we haven't been outside yet today.'"