Within the boundaries: Adventurous couple returns after enjoying a year in the BWCAW

A small wood burning stove was their heat and cooking source. A tent was their shelter. A hole in the ice was a source of drinking water and--when deemed necessary--a place to bathe.

Dave Freeman (front) canoe dog Tank and Amy make a portage in the BWCAW. Photo by Nate Ptacek
Dave Freeman (front) canoe dog Tank and Amy make a portage in the BWCAW. Photo by Nate Ptacek

A small wood burning stove was their heat and cooking source. A tent was their shelter. A hole in the ice was a source of drinking water and-when deemed necessary-a place to bathe.

Such things were the amenities for a married couple that stayed married while spending 366 days in the wilds of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They can both confidently say the wilderness became home.

"We were happy," Dave Freeman said about the experience.

With such basic conditions at hand, the couple thought sleeping in a bed again might be nice when they paddled back into Ely Sept. 23 to a crowd of friends and family eager to see them both return in good spirits and health. The couple returned from the wilderness following a year long journey that allowed them to camp at approximately 120 different sites, explore 500 lakes, rivers and streams, and travel more than 2,000 miles by canoe, foot, ski, snowshoe and dog team.

The Freemans, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, returned back to civilization to cheers from crowds. Amy noted the day was bittersweet.


"We love this place and honestly wouldn't mind staying a bit longer, but we are eager to catch up with family and friends, share the experience with others, and find new ways to contribute to the effort to protect this very special place," she said.

The Freemans support the efforts of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which is leading the effort to seek permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, America's most visited wilderness, from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining just outside its borders. The campaign largely supported them with finances needed to remain in the wilderness for a full year. The Freeman's said they were also supported by other groups with the gear needed to survive in the elements through all seasons. Individuals helped deliver food and supplies. Others just came to share a song or bring warm tidings.

The Freemans previous adventure advocacy effort, the Paddle to D.C. in 2014, included paddling and sailing 2,000 miles and 101 days from Ely, to Washington, D.C. certainly enough adventure to wear on their bones.
But that's nothing compared to the time they paddled, dogsled and backpacked nearly 12,000 miles up the Inside Passage, across the Northwest Territories, through the Great Lakes, and down the East Coast. Or the time they completed an 1,100 mile circumnavigation of Lake Superior by kayak. Or that time they paddled the Amazon River through South America. After that, the BWCAW was like going home.

Freeze up

"Physically, the most difficult times were probably the freeze up," Dave Freeman said.

"The lakes froze later than normal so it really was Christmas time before the lakes were really frozen enough where it was safe to travel. ... We almost ran out of food. We had five weeks of food brought into us in November and it was Christmas time before people were able to come in with more supplies. We had to sort of ration our food."

Volunteers normally brought the pair food every two weeks, but during the time of freeze up and thaw, it was very difficult and dangerous to traverse across a lake to make a delivery. In those times, the Freeman's held to five campsites over a six-week period, much less than their usual routine of portaging, paddling and dog sledding to visit as much of the wilderness as they could.

While the adventure was one most would find difficult, the two found themselves quite comfortable there.


"Not that it wasn't hard, but we really felt at home out there," Dave Freeman said. "We felt like we had a job to do to educate people about the Boundary Waters and why it's important and the threats sulfide mines bring to the region.

"There were parts of it that were hard ... we never could turn on the heater, or we had to chop a hole in the ice ... but overall we were happy, we didn't want to leave the wilderness, we didn't feel a need to go to the outside, we didn't have a desire to go into a building or take a shower ... it just became normal," he added.

Dave and Amy have worked together for years in guiding in the eastern side of the Boundary Waters and out of Ely, so they were able to work together to get through any obstacle on their journey.

"We weren't really worried about 'Oh what's it going to be like to spend this much time with my spouse?'" Amy said. "But one cool thing about being out there and really depending on each other, was that if we ever did have some issue that arose, it was something that we knew we had to deal with right away."

On a journey where extra baggage is out of the question, there was no dog house and the thought never came across their minds to bring two tents.

With the wolves

Both adventurers explained that the best part of the trip was the wildlife interactions. The two watched several packs of wolves living in their environment just 100 yards from their campsite, acting natural all the while knowing the campers were not far away. They enjoyed watching the freezing and thawing of the water in the morning and evening. And seeing things come to life in the spring. Watching the sunrise and sunset over a new body of water from day-to-day never got old. The only thing the two seemed to miss was time with family and friends.

"That was interesting watching everything wake up in the spring," Dave said.


"We had a chance to really get to know the wilderness area and part of that had to do with noticing the little differences in the landscape as we were traveling through it," Amy said. "I feel like there really is a core part of the wilderness area where we saw more moose than other parts."

A new normal

After a year sleeping in a tent in the untamed stretches of the BWCA, the comforts of a house should have been welcomed. But the return to that soft bed has not been as good as hoped. Both complain of difficulties sleeping weeks after returning.

"It has been kind of strange," Amy said. "It was weird to be inside a building and sort of separated from the outside. Sleeping in your tent you know what's going on, you are aware of the air temperature and the weather."

"Honestly I think we were more nervous coming out of the wilderness than we were about going into the wilderness, just because it had been so long," Dave said. "I think it will continue to be a transition."

The hustle and bustle of life has got them yearning to return to the wilderness. But the two are rolling right into a busy schedule with a film and book coming forth that blossomed from their year-long trip.

"We are proud of the momentum that our year of bearing witness to the wilderness has fostered, but our work will not be complete until the watershed is permanently protected," Dave said. "We all must continue to speak loudly for this quiet place."

A documentary film about their year in the wilderness, "Bear Witness," will premiere at the Fresh Coast Film Festival in Marquette, Mich., on Oct. 15. Dave and Amy are also writing a book that captures their experience. Their book will be published by Minneapolis' Milkweed Editions in fall 2017.

The goal

The two are still trying to keep some simplicity in life and help others learn to appreciate the natural world more. They can't help but share the message that the 3 million acres of the Superior National Forest, all public land, is at risk.

"Our overall goal is to permanently protect the boundary waters watershed from copper sulfide or copper mining and the pollution these mines cause," Dave said. "I think there have been a lot of positive things that happened over the course of a year while we were out there."

From their campsites in the Boundary Waters, the Freemans have watched the seasons change and followed many exciting developments in the efforts to protect the wilderness they aim to protect. In March, Governor Dayton expressed, "strong opposition to mining in close proximity to the BWCAW." In April, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the Boundary Waters Wilderness a "special area" that should be re-examined to "better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development." In June, the Bureau of Land Management "requested that the Forest Service provide a decision on whether it consents or does not consent to the renewal of the [Twin Metals] leases." In response, the United States Forest Service stated the agency is "deeply concerned by the location of the leases within the same watershed as the BWCAW" and initiated a public input period. The input period ran from June 20-July 20 of this year and received more than 72,000 petition signatures in support of protecting the watershed of the wilderness from sulfide-ore copper mining.

To those that have never been to the Boundary Waters or have no opinion about the place, the Freemans say it's too important of a resource to potentially cause harm.

"Whether it's a place that you've been to 50 times or a place you're just hearing about, it's something that belongs to all of us and so we all need to think carefully about whether we want to risk this very special place by putting a massive industrial mining zone, that has a long track record of causing significant pollution, right on the edge of this very pristine place, where you can still drink the water right out of the lake.

"It's like no other place on earth."

You can visit to find out more about their journey and other info about their project.


By the numbers

Super National Forest: 3 million acres

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: 1.1 million acres

Miles traveled by Freemans: 2,000-plus
Lakes, rivers traveled by Freemans: 500-plus
Days in wilderness: 366

Campsites stayed: 120-plus

What To Read Next
Former Brainerd Warrior Olivia King is enjoying her senior season as a member of the University of Minnesota Gopher women's hockey team.
The Central Lakes College Raiders traveled to Ely to face Vermilion.
The Central Lakes College Raiders landed six student-athletes on Elite Team
Quigley enjoyed a big week for CLC.