A Year in the Wilderness: a BWCA Adventure

The sunsets just as we arrive at our campsite on South Fowl Lake. Paddlers Amy and Dave Freeman.

Imagine living in wilderness for an entire year. Imagine living with only a canoe for transportation in the summer and only dogs to haul gear in the winter. Imagine living in a tent in northern Minnesota when the winter temps drop to -40. Imagine watching the northern lights over lakes so clean that you can dip your cup into them and drink the water. Imagine being away from it all for a full year. That’s what Amy and Dave Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are going to do next. They’re going to live inside the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), a million acre wilderness and America’s most popular wilderness area, for an entire year.

Amy and Dave are no strangers to this website. We’ve written about their The North American Odyssey Expedition and River of Doubt Centennial Canoe Expedition, and Dave has written How to Print Free Canadian Topographic Maps Quickly and Inexpensively. On a personal side, Amy and I guided together for a number of years and both Amy and Dave guided for my sea kayak guiding company. I’ve also had the luck of being able to join them three times on The North American Odyssey and hope to join them on The Year in the Wilderness.

There are two reasons that they’re doing this trip.

Wilderness Classroom Organization

Dave and Amy Freeman hug a tree.
The Freemans hug one of the largest and oldest white cedar trees in the BWCA.

The first is as an educational adventure for the Wilderness Classroom Organization (WCO), a nonprofit that they run. WCO reaches over 3,200 teachers and 100,000 students around the globe and provides educational content free of charge. The students help direct the expedition. WCO’s mission is:

The Wilderness Classroom started with a simple idea: to improve students’ core academic skills and appreciation for the environment by introducing elementary and middle school students to the wonders of exploration and wilderness travel.

Twelve years and over a dozen expeditions later, the Wilderness Classroom is a 501(c)3 that reaches over 3,200 teachers and 100,000 students around the globe.

We seek to instill a lifelong appreciation of the natural world while improving basic skills like reading, critical thinking and communication by highlighting the joy of discovery.

Since it is usually unfeasible to load a classroom of 4th grade students onto a plane and fly them to remote locations, we use a combination of interactive internet-based learning tools on our website, teacher training and live school programs to accomplish our mission.

If you have kids and want to get them involved, check out the WCO website and get their teacher to sign up for free. WCO offers free weekly lesson plans to go along with the expedition and educational content and exercises. As a nonprofit, they run off of donations and a meager budget. Any donations are appreciated. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of WCO).

Save the Boundary Waters

Dave and Amy Freeman on Key West after traveling there from Seattle, Washington.
Dave and Amy Freeman on Key West after traveling there from Seattle, Washington.

The second reason that they’re doing the expeditions is to help Save the Boundary Waters from sulfide mining. I’ve written about Sulfide Mining Near the BWCA before, and I’ve written about Wilderness and Public Lands: You Own Them. And part of PaddlingLight’s mission is to promote wilderness protection, so this is an important issue to us. It’s important for paddlers, because the BWCA and Lake Superior are two of the best paddling destinations in the United States. Both would be impacted by mining. The BWCA is THE premiere canoeing destination in the United States and the current proposed mines are only the tip of the iceberg. If approved they pave the way for future mines, and the state isn’t taking into account all the future mines when planning for the environmental impact. Sulfide mining has a track record of polluting everywhere that it’s practiced, and it has never been done in such a water rich environment as northern Minnesota. One type of pollution from this type of mining is sulfuric acid. It will take 100s of years of water treatment (from Polymet’s own EIS) before the water flowing from the mine is considered clean enough to stop the treatment. The mine will operate for only 20 years.

On a tangent: Recently, according to a local newspaper Polymet’s Environmental Impact Statement relies on calculations that make water run uphill away from the BWCA. It’s just another sketchy bit of information that has come out about Polymet’s EIS. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) actually discovered Polymet’s uphill water run by entering the correct water levels into the same modeling program (Minnesota never required an independent review of the modeling that was done by a private company paid by Polymet). The lead agencies draft response to the GLIFWC says that some imaginary force will develop that will cause the water to run uphill towards Lake Superior instead of the BWCA. Anyway, this is just another example of the problems in the system and the continuing problems with the EIS. The EPA flunked the first draft of the EIS. If this wasn’t America, it almost makes you wonder if there weren’t a few bribes paid to the public officials working on the EIS. The majority owner in Polymet is Glencore, a multinational commodity trading and mining company out of Switzerland. It has been caught in several bribery scandals, including one were it was fined €500,000 for bribing an EU official. It has a terrible environmental record.

PolyMet isn’t the only sulfide mining company prospecting in the area. Twin Metals is the other and it’s closer to the BWCA than the Polymet. It’s treated waters would run into the BWCA, although much of the proposed mine would be underground. Amy says, “Twin Metals would be 5 times bigger than Polymet and there are test drill sites within a half mile of the BWCA edge. It’s owned by Antofagasta, a Chilean mining company that hasn’t operated a mine outside of Chile.” Chile’s mining regulations are much more lax than the U.S’s, and the climate is much different. Most of the mines are in arid climates and not the water rich environment of northern Minnesota.

This is the second reason that they’re doing the trip. They’re trying to protect the BWCA from this threat.

Images from The North American Odyssey

Follow Along Regardless

The cool thing is that if after looking at the continuing problems with the Polymet’s EIS, the EIS itself and the facts about this proposed mine and the Twin Metal’s mine and somehow you still support it, then you can still follow along with the expedition without having to hear anything about the mining issue. The WCO’s lesson plans, blog posts, etc. won’t include anything about the mining issue.

Join Them for the Launch

Kick-off Party

  • WHAT: Kick-off celebration
  • WHEN: Sunday, September 20, from
    5-6:30 p.m.
  • WHERE: Piragis Northwoods Outfitting, 105 N. Central Ave, Ely

Launch Party

  • WHAT: Public launch with flotilla paddling out with Dave and Amy
  • WHEN: Wednesday, September 23, from 1:30-3 p.m.
  • WHERE: River Point Resort & Outfitting Company, 12007 River Point Road, Ely

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