A 90-day canoe trip with a 4- and 7-year-old? For this N.W.T. couple, it's a way of life

Yellowknife's Leanne Robinson, Dwayne Wohlgemuth and their two sons — aged four and seven — just finished a 90-day canoe trip through the remote N.W.T. backcountry.

Leanne Robinson, Dwayne Wohlgemuth and their 2 young sons just spent 90 days in the bush

A family stands on a large rock with a canoe resting beside them.
Yellowknife's Leanne Robinson, Dwayne Wohlgemuth and their two sons — aged four and seven — recently finished a 90-day canoe trip through the N.W.T. backcountry. (Submitted by Dwayne Wohlgemuth)

You could call it the canoe trip of a lifetime, but for Leanne Robinson, Dwayne Wohlgemuth and their two young boys, it came to feel less like a trip and more like ... just life.

"We didn't have an A-to-B [route] that we had to finish. It was kind of pick and choose where we wanted to go while we were on the tundra," Wohlgemuth recalled this week.

"It just felt a lot more like we were just living somewhere on the tundra, you know?"

The Yellowknife family recently finished their 90-day journey through some of the N.W.T.'s most remote lakes and rivers. They started in Behchokǫ̀ late in the spring, and travelled the Snare River, as well as the Winter, Starvation, Coppermine and Daring Rivers, doing about 60 portages along the way.

"We wanted a family route, so mostly that excludes whitewater," said Wohlgemuth, recalling how they planned the trip.

A man kneeling beside a lake with two young boys holds a large fish.
Wohlgemuth and the boys show off their catch of the day. (Submitted by Dwayne Wohlgemuth)

"We had one more criteria," Robinson added. "I wanted the boys to see caribou."

The boys — Emile, 7, and Aleksi, 4 — have already spent a good chunk of their young lives sitting in canoes and camping on the land. Baby Emile enjoyed a two-month, 1,100-kilometre canoe trip in 2016, and three years ago, the family — this time with one-year-old Aleksi in tow — did a 107-day trip across the tundra.   

On those earlier trips the parents were still facing a steep learning curve as they adapted to travelling and camping with kids. Challenges included keeping a supply of dry diapers, and learning how to fend off the bugs while breastfeeding.

By now, though, camp life has become a bit more comfortable for the young family and not just because the boys are a little older.

"It doesn't feel so strange, you know?" Robinson said.

A man sits in the bow of a canoe on a lake with his two young sons sitting behind him, reading magazines.
Aleksi and Emile catch up on some reading while the parents paddle on. (Submitted by Dwayne Wohlgemuth)

Wohlgemuth said it's still a bit different with kids.

"You have way less slack downtime because you're always playing with them or cooking or whatever, entertaining them. But it's so much more rewarding in the way that you see them interact with the world, and explore each new campsite, and what gives them excitement," he said.

Robinson also got her wish — the family saw plenty of caribou. The first spotting prompted one of the boys to declare it the best day of his life, she recalled.

"Just to see that excitement was really, really fun," she said.

A group of hikers on the tundra watch a caribou from afar.
The family — also joined by friends for some of their journey — chose a route where they would likely see some caribou. They weren't disappointed. (Submitted by Dwayne Wohlgemuth)

Wohlgemuth and Robinson, meanwhile, were particularly struck by the names given to so many of the geographical features and landmarks along their route. They were travelling through many of the same areas as Sir John Franklin's first overland expedition two centuries earlier, and they read some of Franklin's journals along the way.

"So, you know, being in that same place and you know, camping out on Starvation Lake and knowing why those things have the names that they do — yeah, it was interesting to read, in that place," Robinson said.

Other spots bear the names of long-dead British admirals, or family friends of Franklin, Robinson said.

The kids have clearly caught the canoeing bug. (Submitted by Dwayne Wohlgemuth)

"It's crazy," Wohlgemuth said. "We have all these colonial names imposed by some British expedition that have really no meaning to the locals. And we've kept those names, you know, for 200 years."

Back home now, the family has no concrete plans for another major trip but Robinson says they'll surely be making new plans soon.

"It's such an important thing. I've come to sort of need these trips, and I've become a little bit addicted to the mind-clearing that happens," Robinson said.

"My brain was in need of that cleanse, I guess."

A man, woman and two young boys pose on a hillside with tundra and lakes visible behind them.
'I've come to sort of need these trips,' said Robinson. (Submitted by Dwayne Wohlgemuth)

With files from Marc Winkler