Two young families from Vancouver found an extreme way to get their kids to unplug this summer — paddling 1,800 kilometres down the Mackenzie River.

Kevin Vallely, his wife, and their two young daughters left their lives and iPads behind to paddle from Hay River to Inuvik, N.W.T., this summer. They teamed up with another couple and their nine-year-old son to make the epic journey.

In an interview from their tent in the tiny community of Wrigley this week, Vallely set the scene: his daughters, 10-year-old Arianna and 12-year-old Caitlin, were playing cards, and his wife Nicky was looking at a map.

Vallely and his young daughters wait out a thunderstorm. They encountered some bad weather at the start of their trip. (submitted by Kevin Vallely)

“If I was at home, they’d be on the iPad, I tell you that much,” Vallely says.

The young father says the wilderness adventure has been an eye-opener for his daughters — and for him. As many southern adventurers before them have learned, traversing the North is no easy task.

“It’s been tumultuous, I’ll be honest — a little more difficult than we had anticipated,” Vallely says.

The first leg of their trip was a tough go along the Mackenzie River. So tough, in fact, that the family the Vallelys were travelling with decided to call it quits in Fort Simpson, finding the trip too difficult for their son.

“It was windy, boy. It was scary, in fact, at one point,” Vallely says.

“Some crazy spots along the way — fires and some wind and you name it, thunderstorms of course — but all in all just an amazing time.”

Locals impress

What’s helped turn things around, Vallely says, is the kindness and valuable advice from locals they’ve met in N.W.T. communities along the way.

“We’re talking to the people and we’re learning how to travel on the river from community to community,” he says.

Paddling Deh Cho bridge Vallely

Paddling the Mackenzie River under the Deh Cho bridge. Kevin Vallely says Fort Providence is one of the family’s most memorable stops. (submitted by Kevin Vallely)

“We learned something very important in Fort Providence — we got a smudge every day,” he says. “It’s something we’ve started to do. In some respects I feel that things have changed for the better because of that.”

A smudge is a cleansing smoke produced by the burning of medicinal plants.

“It’s been pretty magic.”

Fort Providence stands out for young Arianna, as well. She says it’s one of the most memorable stops so far.

“The community was just a very nice community and people were always stopping by and asking questions. They were, like, all super-friendly people,” she says.

‘I kinda wish I had an iPad’

But Arianna hasn’t forgotten about her screen.

“Yeah, I kinda wish I had an iPad, but we’re out here now so…” she trails off, as her father laughs in the background.

But she admits it’s gotten easier to unplug as the trip goes on.

“I don’t really miss it as much now cause there’s so much to see now.”

Vallely says there’s a moment that sticks out for him when the girls heard wolves in the wild for the first time, and he knew the trip was making a difference.

Wrigley paddling Vallely family

‘Waiting out a north wind in Wrigley.’ The family is updating their travels on Instagram. (Kevin Vallely/Instagram)

“Rather than virtually living it… they’re beginning to recognize the value of the wilderness and being out here,” he says.

For the young girls especially, paddling up to 70 kilometres a day has been no easy feat, but Vallely says the family is being “very, very cautious.”

“[We’re] probably moving a little slower than we could,” he says.

“What do you do? Do you not take your kids, and not expose them to this amazing experience? They really are changing … learning about the culture here, learning about the people.”

He points to another fond memory from Fort Simpson, when former Premier Jim Antoine showed them around and welcomed the families to a celebration.

“The wonderful thing I’m discovering with the people here is that they’re generous with their time and they’re generous with what they have. They share,” he says.

“These are the values I want my kids to understand and hold dear.”

Despite going “unplugged,” Vallely is blogging about their adventure and updating an Instagram account along the way.

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