DULUTH, Minn. — You’d think maybe Dave and Amy Freeman would be packing noodles and stuffing sleeping bags. On Sept. 23, the couple will paddle off into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at the edge of town — for an entire year.
But, no. On a recent day, the couple honored in 2014 among National Geographic’s “Explorers of the Year” was doing what Dave Freeman called “the boring stuff.”
“We’re making sure our bills will get paid while we’re gone,” said the veteran guide and educator. “Figuring out what to do if our website gets hacked.”
During their 365-day “Year in the Wilderness,” they’ll pitch their tent at an estimated 120 campsites and travel about 3,000 miles by canoe, dog team, foot, skis and snowshoes. They couple, who have lived in both Ely and Grand Marais in recent years, are making the trip as a long-planned adventure but also to call attention to America’s most popular wilderness area as copper mining is being considered close by.
“It’s all about being in this place, not trying to get someplace,” said Amy Freeman, 33. “The main purpose of being out there is bearing witness to the Boundary Waters and sharing it with as many people as we can.”
They’ll share it with people through their Wilderness Classroom website, through which some 85,000 students followed them and used their study materials during their three-year, 11,700-mile North American Odyssey that ended in April 2013. Transmitting images and updates from the trail, they’ll also share their journey through social media.
The Freemans are seasoned wilderness travelers in all seasons. They have both guided dogsledders for several seasons at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge near Ely. During their North American Odyssey, they traveled by kayak, canoe and dogsled, including three months of dogsledding in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Dave Freeman also has made two other dogsledding expeditions of six to eight weeks, and he once made a solo winter ski trip with a sled dog from Grand Portage to Lake Kabetogama. Last fall, the Freemans paddled a canoe (and sailed on Lake Superior) 2,000 miles from the Boundary Waters to Washington, D.C. That trip was aimed at drawing attention and opposition to proposed copper mine projects in the BWCAW watershed.
Copper mining proponents say copper mines planned for the Ely area will follow strict environmental standards and will not pollute the BWCAW watershed.
Long time coming
Dave Freeman, 38, has been thinking about a year in the wilderness for a long time.
“It’s an idea I’ve had since before I even knew Amy,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I thought that would be a really interesting thing to do. I think as the mining issue has become a bigger issue, and as we become more involved, this is the time for us to do this.”
The couple will be resupplied about every two weeks by friends and volunteers who paddle, ski or dogsled into the wilderness. The Freemans will paddle this fall, then travel by skis and sleds during much of the winter, using three sled dogs to help them pull their loads. They’ll return to canoe travel next spring and summer.
The trickiest traveling will come during the fall freeze-up and spring break-up seasons, when unstable ice conditions may require the Freemans to remain in one camp for an extended period. In preparation for this trip, Dave Freeman has interviewed Ely’s Will Steger, who last spring alternately towed and paddled a solo canoe for 200 miles during spring break-up on border waters.
Keeping in touch
Using a satellite terminal coupled with either a smartphone or laptop, the couple will send back images and text to social media and the Wilderness Classroom website. Those outside the Boundary Waters will be able to track the Freemans’ progress on their website thanks to a hand-held GPS signaling device that will post their locations.
They look forward to their year on the trail.
“We both sort of enjoy getting into that rhythm,” Amy said. “Our relationship is best when we’re out in the wilderness for that long. All these distractions, like driving in traffic or sitting at a computer — suddenly we’re not doing any of that. Life is pared down to the essentials…
And when you’re traveling that slowly, in a canoe or skiing along, you really witness the land.”
As for a year without hot showers — no problem, Dave Freeman said.
“In the beginning, sometimes you miss things,” he said. “You’d really like to take a shower, or your hands get cold easily. After a few weeks, it becomes just normal. A lot of things that make people think, ‘Oh, I could never be out there more than a few days’ — once we get used to a routine, the things in our daily lives at home don’t matter as much.”
A send-off for the couple is planned for 1:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at River Point Resort and Outfitting Co., near Ely. Participants should bring their own canoes or kayaks if they wish to paddle along.