By Conor Mihell
Images courtesy of Dwayne Wohlgemuth and Leanne Robinson
Canadian couple Dwayne Wohlgemuth and Leanne Robinson have always believed parenthood would enhance their wilderness experiences. But that conviction came into question in 2015, when Wohlgemuth and Robinson brought their infant son, Emile, on his first canoe trip. "The first day was terrible!" admits Robinson, who lives with her family in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. "It took a few days to find a rhythm. Had we started with only a weekend trip we may have never done another one."
Robinson's best advice for paddling parents: Be patient and make your child's first trip as long as possible. Within a few days, Emile was comfortable, happy and easy to care for in the outdoors—enough to inspire his parents to plan an epic family adventure for the summer of 2016. Wohlgemuth and Robinson mapped out a 750-mile, two-month loop through some of the wildest country in North America. The expedition demonstrates that parenthood doesn't mean an end to paddling.
Wohlgemuth and Robinson's combined outdoor experience was limited before they moved to Yellowknife from southern Canada, 10 and six years ago, respectively. But they quickly embraced the north, completing several extended wilderness trips together, including a three-month journey that combined a canoe trip on the historic Coppermine River and a four-week backpacking mission along the Arctic coast.
"Because we had done so many long trips already, we didn't get many negative comments from friends when we told them we planned to keep up the lifestyle with Emile," says Wohlgemuth. "Mostly they were excited for us."
Wohlgemuth emphasizes the planning, decision-making and gear that goes into canoe tripping with kids: Selecting a safe, reasonable route; keeping a close eye on weather conditions; and packing communication gear like a Delorme InReach and a personal locator beacon in case of emergency. "We thought through many scenarios and were always very conservative," he says. "Any wind and we were off the water. We had basically a zero threshold for bad weather and we took a lot of afternoons off."
Wildlife was Wohlgemuth's biggest safety concern. "A baby is more attractive to bears and wolves than an adult," he notes. "This was the biggest comment we got from local people who spend a lot of time on the land. Our solution was to keep Emile within 10 feet of us at all times."
Robinson was impressed at how quickly her son fell into the rhythm of canoe tripping. Riding in front of the bow paddler, Emile was quickly lulled to sleep by the motion of the canoe. In camp, he discovered the joy of natural toys. "The transition back to life at home was harder for him than adapting to a canoe trip," says Robinson.
The couple says they'll have fulfilled their responsibility as parents if Emile grows up feeling comfortable in the natural world. As for their advice for other parents, their main message is simple: "It's really easy to find an excuse not to do it," says Robinson. "Pick something you're comfortable with, research it and think about how you'd deal with various scenarios, then go out and do it!"
Dwayne and Leanne's Top Three tips for Family Canoe Camping:
Food "We consciously decided that I would keep breastfeeding for the trip," says Robinson. "That way Emile could feed in the tent and it was a big comfort thing for him."
Diapers "We carry a few waterproof outer diapers and use large flannel cloths as absorbent liners," says Wohlgemuth. "These cloths are about 30 inches square. They're often called 'receiving blankets.' The best part is they're easy to wash and the dry really, really quickly. That's the big challenge with cloth diapers: They take so long to dry. With ours, as long as it was sunny we could wash and dry them over our lunch break."
Routine "Emile dictated our schedule, mostly with his nap schedule," says Robinson. "We weren't always able to stop at the best campsites but he was happy—even happier than at home."
— Learn more about Dwayne, Leanne and Emile's trip at CBC.ca
— Be inspired by a family's canoe trip across Canada