Dave and Amy Freeman sat atop a loaded toboggan parked on the white expanse of Basswood Lake.
Lunch time. March 3. Day 164 of the Grand Marais couple’s year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Three Alaskan huskies — Acorn, Tina and Tank — basked in the midday sunshine. Only a slight breeze stirred from the west.
“It’s hard to believe,” Dave said. “It seems like winter is almost over.”
“We like winter,” Amy said.
The Freemans entered the Boundary Waters on Sept. 23 near Ely for a trip they call “A Year in the Wilderness.” They plan to spend 365 days camping and traveling in America’s most-visited wilderness. Since that day in September, they’ve paddled or traveled by toboggan and dog power about 800 miles and visited 126 lakes. Moving every few days from camp to camp, they’ve seen temperatures as low as 28 below zero and taken a quick plunge through the ice on a 46-degree afternoon.
They started their trip paddling a canoe and switched to dog-assisted toboggan travel in late December. Dogsledding friends met them inside the Boundary Waters to haul out their canoe and bring in the dogs. At some point this spring before ice break-up, the couple will bid farewell to the three huskies and reclaim their canoe.
The Freemans — Dave’s 39, Amy’s 33 — are spending the year up here to bring attention to the million-acre wilderness and to raise concerns about copper mining proposed just outside the Boundary Waters south of Ely. Copper mining opponents say the projects could produce toxic runoff that would endanger the Boundary Waters. Proponents say Minnesota’s stringent environmental laws will ensure that the proposed mining would be done in a way that protects the land and water while providing needed jobs in the area.
Time on the trail
Deep immersion in wild places is not new to the Freemans, who earned National Geographic honors as “Explorers of the Year” in 2014 after their 11,700-mile North American Odyssey expedition by kayak, canoe and dogsled across much of the continent.
Since they met in 2005, they’ve also made a 3,000-mile traverse of South America, paddled around Lake Superior and paddled from Ely to Washington, D.C. In 2014, Dave and a team of Americans and Brazilians retraced President Theodore Roosevelt’s historic first descent of Brazil’s Rio Roosevelt, or River of Doubt.
Unlike most of those adventures, this year in the Boundary Waters allows them to travel without deadlines.
“I think we’ve learned to slow down,” Dave said. “We’re not so focused on making miles. We’re really focused on documenting and sharing this place and helping people understand how important it is.”
They’ve seen wolves on several occasions and paddled through ice during the fall freeze-up. In this relatively warm winter, they — along with other canoe-country travelers — have been plagued by slush that forms atop the ice and beneath the snow.
“It was like traveling over little land mines,” Amy said. “Every once in a while, you’d plunge through, or dog paws would plunge through into the slush layer, and get all wet.”
The Freemans welcomed the more predictable conditions that arrived this month, with a solid crust making for easy travel. On this day, they would travel nearly 13 miles from Fall Lake to make a new camp near the east end of Basswood Lake.
“March is the best time to travel the Boundary Waters,” Dave said. “Sun’s out. Warm. Great travel conditions. Long days.”
“No bugs,” Amy added.
Plenty of company
Do not get the impression that the Freemans have endured a lonely existence in their five-plus months in the wilderness. The original plan was for friends from outside to resupply them at least every couple of weeks. As it turns out, the couple has had a lot of company.
“We’ve had many more small groups of people come in to say ‘hello’ and to drop off supplies than we had anticipated,” Dave said. “They bring us all sorts of treats. People have figured out we really like chocolate, so lots of chocolate bars. And lots of fresh fruit — apples and oranges and mangoes. Fresh bread. Plus our normal supplies — rice and beans and pasta and oatmeal.”
They load their food, along with a roomy teepee-style tent and woodstove, on their toboggans for travel over broad lakes and narrow portage trails.
“We have two toboggans that we make into a little train,” Amy said, “and the dogs pull that. Usually, we have one of us hooked up to the back of the train to function as a brake.”
The other person skis free of the train unless deep snow or tricky navigation requires a trailbreaker up front. The system is amazingly efficient, allowing the Freemans to glide along at a much faster pace than if they were hauling the loads themselves, and yet not maintain — and feed — a large dog team.
They move camp every few days, traveling a couple of miles up to 15 miles into new territory.
They’ve had overnight guests about 25 of their 164 nights and many more day-tripping visitors.
“I think we were a little concerned that we’d come out here, and people would forget about us,” Dave said one morning, sipping coffee in a warm tent. “That hasn’t happened at all. We had set resupplies up every two weeks, but the reality is there are way more people who want to come. So, we’ll get dog food one week and our food the next week.”
Sharing the journey
During the day, the Freemans shoot photos if opportunities arise. In the evening, sitting in camp chairs by the stove, they post updates and images to social media sites and their own Wilderness Classroom website, where they reach thousands of students following their travels.
They’re committed not only to spending the year on the trail but to sharing the experience with others.
“It’s lots of fun,” Amy said. “But it’s not like we’re on vacation. It’s work to be out here. The time spent on blog posts, social media and documenting is all work, too.”
That evening on Basswood Lake, the temperature was on its way to near zero. The night was calm. The heavens looked so close it seemed a person could have tapped Orion with a ski pole. The expanding ice groaned and growled.
The light from inside the tent was the only glow for miles in any direction. Tank and Tina were each curled tail-to-nose on their stake-out chains outside the tent. Acorn — at 12, the oldest of the three — is allowed to spend her nights in the tent.
Silence lay deep over the border country. Somewhere far in the distance, a saw-whet owl’s shrill hoots drifted over the lake.
Earlier in the winter, the Freemans had ventured down nearby Moose Lake to meet incoming visitors. The couple approached the wilderness boundary closely enough that they could see buildings on the lake’s shore. The structures were the first the Freemans had seen in months.
“We talked about it later,” Amy said. “Neither of us had felt a desire to be inside a building.”
They won’t have to worry about that for another couple hundred days.