Grand Marais couple completes epic wilderness journey

Amy and Dave Freeman, a couple from Grand Marais, Minn., paddled, dog sledded, and hiked 11,647 miles across North America. Their epic journey led them to be named among National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year.

Why did you decide to make this journey?

There were several factors that played into deciding on this particular journey. With the Wilderness Classroom (the nonprofit organization that we run, founded by Dave in 2002) we have done many expeditions, sharing the experience with kids online. Over the years, our adventures have increased in length and complexity. The North American Odyssey is by far the longest expedition we have done. Prior to the North American Odyssey, we traveled across South America by bicycle and canoe. North America seemed like the next logical continent to cross. Dave and I love studying maps and figuring out routes, connecting various waterways and places of interest. We also wanted to travel through as many ecosystems as possible.

What is Wilderness Classroom and how did student participation share your trip?

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. The Wilderness Classroom is a 501(c)3 that Dave founded with Eric Frost in 2002. Dave has conducted a dozen expeditions that kids all over the world have participated in through our website. Our mission is 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 impractical to load thousands of elementary and middle school students onto a plane and fly them to remote locations, we use a combination of interactive internet-based learning tools on our website: www.wildernessclassroom.com, teacher training and live school programs to accomplish our mission.

Our reach now is about 85,000 students and 2,700 teachers from around the world.

Dave and Amy demonstrate dog sledding gear in a classroom. (via DaveFreemanPhotography.com)

What type of training did it require?

Dave and I have worked as canoe, kayak and dogsled guides in northern Minnesota for a long time. We couldn’t have done the North American Odyssey without the wilderness tripping experience gained in all three modes of travel. We know all the necessary rescue skills, for example with kayaking, how to brace, roll, T-rescue, etc. We are also Wilderness First Responders. Before the expedition started, we certainly worked to get in shape by paddling our kayaks and running. During breaks between stages of the North American Odyssey, we would try to maintain our fitness by running, skiing and paddling.

Dave Freeman pulled by his team of dogs across a frozen lake in the boreal forest. (Via DaveFreemanPhotography.com)

Did you ever fear for your life? What was the most dangerous situation you found yourself in?

There were moments. Not too many, but they stand out. The first one that comes to mind is when we were hiking through Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon Territory. There were no trails and we had to make our way up and over several mountain passes. Down in the low country, we were working our way through a boggy area. Dave spotted a moose in a small pond ahead of us. We got quiet, pulled out our cameras and began sneaking up on the moose. Then we spotted brown fur behind a spruce tree about 15 feet away from us. We both assumed it would be another moose very close to us. Then the animal poked its head from around the tree. Not a moose– grizzly bear! We didn’t have much time to fear for our lives, only a couple of seconds. I dropped my camera and grabbed my bear spray. We held our ground and said a couple of words to the bear to let it know we were people. The bear huffed once and ran away, obviously as startled as we were.

After concluding your trek, what stands out as a couple of the more significant moments of your trip?

When we were kayaking the Inside Passage, we saw whales quite frequently. There was one day when we saw humpback whales feeding in the distance. We were a day or two south of Juneau, Alaska. We were in our kayaks, crossing a bay. We paused, floating there for a while, getting our cameras ready. Then we noticed two whales were heading straight for us. I briefly wondered if they even saw us and might plow right into us. They did see us. They swam right up to our kayaks and stopped. These whales came to check us out. We floated with these two humpback whales hovering right near the water surface for a couple of minutes. A friend, John, was paddling with us at that point and he was a little farther away. From his vantage point, he could see one of the whale’s eyes looking up at us. To float next to such a massive (40 ton), intelligent animal was simply the most awe-inspiring animal encounter of our lives.

The second moment occurred when we were near home, canoeing through the Boundary Waters. We camped at the top of the Grand Portage, poised to do the 8.5 mile portage in the morning and finish one long canoeing leg of the North American Odyssey. It was late October. We were sitting around the campfire and noticed a green glow in the sky. Soon the green covered the sky and then shimmers of red appeared. We were like children, running around the campsite, trying to get the best view of the Northern Lights dancing overhead. We had seen plenty of Northern Lights during the Canadian stretch of the North American Odyssey– especially dogsledding. But that night was the best display either of us has ever seen. The timing was significant to us– the last night on the trail for a while. . . It was as if we were being welcomed home.

On the banks of the Inside Passage. (via DaveFreemanPhotography.com)

Would you do it again? Are you planning another adventure?

Yes. No question. Both of us would love to do it again, maybe in reverse. However, we have a few other adventures planned before we would consider doing that same route again. We are planning to head down to Brazil in early May, to canoe the Rio Roosevelt. 2014 marks the 100 year anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition down the unexplored river that would bear his name.

Did you learn anything about wilderness preservation or education that you can share with us?

As we traveled, one thought did sink in. It is simply that in today’s world, wild places do need some people who actually get out there. It goes beyond the significance of enjoying oneself in nature. Wild places need people to bear witness to their beauty and importance– and these people need to be a voice for the land. Without that, who would stand up for these places? People need to learn about these places in order to develop any desire to preserve them. We all need to unplug and spend time in nature to truly appreciate the world. We found pockets of nature on the fringes of New York City. We all have “wild” places around us, especially here in Minnesota, and its important that we take time to appreciate the natural world around us.

Anything else?

We’d appreciate votes for the People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year. Folks can vote every day until January 31.

  • Paul Weimer

    What an adventure!