Wilderness protector: Adventurer Amy Freeman

Amy Freeman has made a career out of adventuring. She and her husband and adventure partner, Dave Freeman, have logged about 30,000 miles of traveling throughout North and South America by canoe, kayak, bicycle and dogsled.

But their most recent trek – a 2,000-mile canoe trip from northern Minnesota to Washington, D.C. last summer – was different. This time, it was personal. Amy wasn’t just paddling, she was protecting the very wilderness she has built her life upon.

From the BWCAW to DC

Concerned about pollution caused by proposed sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the Freemans set out on Aug. 24, 2014, paddling a canoe that would eventually be tattooed in signatures from like-minded citizens they met along the way. Their “Paddle to D.C.: A Quest for Clean Water” trip ended in Washington 101 days later, on Dec. 2.

Before driving back to Minnesota, they met with several Minnesota lawmakers, showing off their floating petition and sharing information about the threats to the BWCAW posed by copper-nickel mines.

“Overall it was positive,” Amy says of their reception, which included a contingent of 45 strong from Minnesota. Awareness varied among members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, she says, and some still needed information about the damage to groundwater caused by drainage from the mines.

Celebrating a landmark

Another purpose of the trip was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964, a landmark conservation bill that guaranteed protection to the BWCAW and other designated spaces around the country.

“We were celebrating this great wilderness area that we have in our state, one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country,” Amy says. According to Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW), about 250,000 visitors descend upon the BWCAW every year.

Olivia Ridge, a staffer from NMW, provided support to the Freemans throughout their trip to Washington, helping coordinate the 40 presentations they made along their route. “We really wanted to get the word out about how great [the Boundary Waters] is and how this watershed needs protection,” Amy says.

Of all the wild places Amy and her husband have been, they haven’t found a place quite like the Boundary Waters, she says. “You can go out paddling, dip your water bottle in the lake to fill up and take a drink,” she says. “You can’t do that in very many other places. Clean water is going to become even more important. … People really need to pay attention to the importance of this resource and work to preserve the clean water that we still have in the United States.”

Nature educators

The Freemans were also paddling for thousands of students, primarily third- through eighth-graders, who followed the trip online through the Wilderness Classroom, an educational nonprofit founded by Dave in 2001 that teaches kids about nature. Dave serves as executive director; while as director of development, Amy is responsible for marketing, public relations and fundraising events.

She hasn’t crunched the numbers yet for last year’s Paddle to DC trip, but about 85,000 students followed the Freemans during their 2010-2013 North American Odyssey, a 11,700-mile trip across North America by kayak, canoe and dogsled.

Students aren’t the only ones paying attention to the Freemans; they were recently named 2014 Adventurers of the Year by National Geographic.

“We were pretty excited to hear about that,” Amy says, adding that it has helped their cause to both work with NMW and its campaign to save the Boundary Waters and to educate students about wild places.

‘I was hooked’

Amy, who grew up in St. Paul, took family trips to the Boundary Waters as a young girl. Those experiences eventually led to summer work at a canoe outfitter while she was attending Macalester College in St. Paul.

After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006 with a master’s degree in art therapy, Amy knew she needed a dose of wilderness. So she moved to Grand Marais, Minn., started work as a kayak guide and eventually met Dave. Their first big trip together, recalls Amy, was a seven-week kayak trip around Lake Superior in 2006. “From there I was hooked.”

When they aren’t on a Wilderness Classroom expedition, the Freemans are working in northeastern Minnesota’s sizeable tourist industry, which numbered 18,000 in 2009, according to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

Amy and Dave split their time between Grand Marais and Ely, guiding canoe and kayak trips and working as guides at the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

Mining threat

When proponents tout the number of new jobs created by the sulfide mining industry, Amy thinks about her own work.

“We see [mining] as a potential end to our own jobs, our own way of life,” she says. “We see our jobs as sustainable. They’re not dependent on a single resource or commodities prices. They’ll be around for the future so long as the water and the forest are intact.”

Amy’s next Wilderness Classroom adventure has yet to be planned. But if the past is any indication, she won’t stay in one place for long.

FFI: Social media contact info for Amy Freeman and the Wilderness Classroom:

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