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From the Freemans: New Canoe Sports, Loons and Mosquitoes

Thursday, April 21, 2016
Posted by
Amy Freeman

We have invented two new sports during ice-out here in the Boundary Waters Widerness: canoe-bobsledding and canoe-joring. While camped on Knife Lake, we made explorations to patches of open water. The canoe-bobsledding seems to work well for launching the canoe off an ice sheet into open water. The canoe-joring is ideal for smooth ice where Tank can easily pull the canoe.

Several days ago a small lake south of Knife– Bonnie– had a swath of open water along the north shore. We took Tank for his first canoe ride there. With lots of treats and encouragement, he did great. We hadn't gotten our fill of canoeing for the day, so we walked down to the narrows near Robbins Island and Isle of Pines on Knife. Here we scratched our heads as we debated how best to reach the open water directly from the thick ice that we stood on.

We determined that the canoe slid quite easily on the ice, so I could jump in before reaching questionable ice. Dave sort of straddled the canoe while he continued to propel it with his feet. Once the bow touched the water, he hopped in as the edge of sketchy ice crumbled under the weight of both of us in the canoe. And then, in an instant, we were floating. There was a stark contrast between the noisy bobsled ride of the canoe scraping on the ice to the canoe silently gliding through the water.

We honed our canoe-bobsledding skills over the next couple of days, making one more trip to the narrows and then to Portage Lake. At this point, I should probably share with you that we were exercising extreme caution while walking on the ice and scoping out patches of open water. The temperature of the water is still darn close to freezing and immersion would mean a quick onset of hypothermia for someone not dressed for it. We are drawing on years of cold water kayaking experience on Lake Superior as we horse around on the ice fringes now.

We were wearing drysuits, with wool long underwear, polar fleece tops and bottoms, and thick wool socks underneath. We were wearing our trusty MTI Adventurewear PFDs (personal floatation devices). We had ice picks strung around our necks in case we unexpectedly punched through while walking on the ice. We had a throw bag at the ready in case one of us needed to assist the other. We drilled test holes and measured the ice thickness with a ski pole periodically as we walked. We never stood or walked very close together– so if one of us went in, most likely the other wouldn't. Also, we've practiced rescues in cold water. I'll never forget the first intentional dunk I took in Lake Superior while practicing sea kayak rescues or the time I skied into a hole in the ice (and pulled myself out) on White Iron Lake as part of a dogsled guiding initiation. While it was scary the first time and the cold water quite literally took my breath away, I'm glad I have that experience to draw on now.

Over the past week, we have watched the ice conditions on Knife Lake deteriorate. Being such a massive, deep lake, it will still be quite a while until it is ice free, but we knew our days of walking on the ice were numbered. That is why we packed up and headed south yesterday and we discovered canoe-joring. I was intending to assist Tank with pulling our loaded canoe across the ice, while Dave scouted out a safe route in front. However, it quickly became apparent that Tank could easily pull this load on the nearly frictionless surface. So I relocated to the back to serve more as a brake– keeping Tank from overtaking Dave as he trotted across Knife Lake.

That was the end of our ice-walking though. Once we got to the portage into Bonnie Lake, we canoe-bobsledded to reach shore. We completed our first portage of the season in two trips– an amazing feat given the absurd amount of stuff we have with us. Dave came up with the concept of wedging the 11 foot Black River Sled toboggan into the bottom of our 19 foot Wenonah Itasca canoe. The toboggan remained in place even while portaging! The skis and poles were easy enough to carry while bundled up. Our Granite Gear packs are totally full, but not very heavy as they contain bulky winter clothes.

Reaching the first view of Bonnie Lake brought a smile to my face. A wide open expanse of water with a loon placidly floating across the surface greeted my eyes. We loaded the canoe and paddled across half the lake. When we reached the remaining bit of ice that stood between us and the portage into Spoon Lake, it crumbled in front of the bow of the canoe. We plowed through the ice and portaged into Spoon.

More ice greeted us here and it was slow going after our narrow lane of water on the south-facing shore ran out. Although we didn't travel very far,  all three of us are enjoying camping on a new lake. We're positioned to keep making progress to the west after a little more melting takes place. For now, we are content to sit back and observe more of spring as it unfolds.

There are a few sure signs that canoe season is not far off. Several mosquitoes lazily drifted in the air around us last evening. (We're eager to get our Cooke Custom Sewing Lean with our next resupply so we can cook in a zone sheltered from the hoards of mosquitoes that are sure to come.) This morning was the first time I was awakened by the call of a loon. Trees are beginning to bud and the grass is looking greener. What a wonderful time of year to be in the Wilderness!

Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.

From the Freemans: Ready for Anything, Especially Spring

Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Posted by
Amy Freeman

Changes are occurring rapidly out here. The sun is significantly more intense. In December we struggled to charge our batteries on non-cloudy days; now it seems that batteries charge in minutes. That same sun is working to diminish the snow and ice on the lakes. It is melting the snow that covered the ground all winter. A walk in the woods is suddenly made richer by the scent of earth, duff and pine needles– scents we didn't realize we were missing all winter, but now we inhale deeply and relish. The sun heats our tent like a little greenhouse; no fire needed in the wood stove on a sunny day. The length of daylight hours astounds me now– and they're still going to increase! We can travel so much farther in a day than we could back in November, December or January.

We have been busy making changes to the gear we have and our mode of transportation. Acorn and Tina have gone home to Frank Moe's kennel in Hovland (near Grand Marais). Tank is settling into his role as the sole dog, sleeping in the tent at night and lounging in the sun by day. When it is time to pull a load, Dave and I are helping Tank pull it, giving us a new appreciation for the hard work the three sled dogs did all winter.

Thanks to the hard work of many volunteers and Wintergreen sled dogs, we have a month's worth of food and all the necessary gear for the paddling season out here with us now. Two separate crews ventured out to supply us with all this stuff.

First, folks came with a heavily loaded dogsled towed by six burly Canadian Inuit dogs to deliver our human food and dog food on a 60-degree day last week. Then, just yesterday, a crew trekked across Moose and Newfound Lakes with our canoe, drysuits, PFDs and paddles in tow. We were all aware of the irony of their delivery of paddling equipment on a day when the high never surpassed freezing and a heavy snow fell from the sky.

One volunteer, Bobby Shusta, had been there on the day we traded our canoe for toboggans. It seemed only fitting that he would be leading the crew to trade our toboggans for the canoe. We enjoyed visiting with folks, as we were keenly aware that this could be our last human contact for a while. We were also floored by their generosity as they shared all manner of treats with us, from dehydrated sweet potatoes to fresh salad fixings to authentic Minnesota tuna noodle casserole (hotdish).

The resupply crew departed with our toboggans, some winter clothing and equipment that we no longer needed while we headed back to camp with everything they had just given us. We had to think creatively about how to travel with a 19-foot Wenonah Itasca Kevlar canoe in these conditions. Optimistic that we could just pull it across the lakes, we set it down on Splash Lake, loaded it and then Dave and Tank labored to move it a few feet. Realizing the grave mistake we had made, we headed back towards Newfound to catch the resupply crew that was now hauling our toboggans toward the Moose Lake landing. We retrieved the longest one, an 11-foot. Black River Sled, and devised a way to strap the canoe securely in place. It looks rather out of place, but it pulls like a dream!

As we returned to camp, we had to disassemble our rig a couple of times to portage over rocky portage trails like we would in the summer, with the canoe and a pack on Dave's shoulders and me carrying a pack with skis attached, paddles in hand, towing the empty toboggan behind me. It was a day for thinking on our feet and jury-rigging. This brought to mind two thoughts. One: this is just the start of creative solutions we will have to come up with as the seasons change. Two: this is one of the main things I love about time spent in the Boundary Waters. While the gorgeous vistas, rugged landscape and silent star-filled nights may be what come to mind first, the challenging moments are what make traveling in the wilderness memorable. There is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment and confidence built by meeting a challenge in nature head-on and working through it. Some call it character-building. Some talk about type-2 fun (fun when you're laughing and having a good time is type-1 fun; type-2 fun is maybe not so fun while you're experiencing it, but it is what you tell stories about after a trip is over). We experienced plenty of type-2 fun as we trudged 13 miles back to camp, with the east wind blowing fluffy snowflakes in our faces, snow rapidly accumulating on the ground and the sun sinking lower in the sky. Back in the tent, stomachs full of tuna noodle casserole, fresh apples and homemade brownies, we laughed at the absurdity of hauling a loaded canoe through four inches of fresh snow.

Now we're ready for anything. We have plenty of food and an eclectic assortment of winter and summer equipment. We have a canoe and a toboggan. We have paddles and skis. We have life jackets and down jackets. We're here, in the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, ready and waiting to see what Mother Nature dishes out as winter transitions into spring. It kind of feels like you're at the airport, sitting at the gate, boarding pass and luggage in hand, all ready to go, but you just heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that your flight has been delayed. We're ready to paddle, but honestly we have no way to predict when that day will come– that day when we will ply the surface of the lakes with our paddles instead of plodding across their frozen surfaces.

[PHOTOS: Dogs towing sled by Willy Vosburgh; Group with canoe by Chris Chandler; all others by Dave and Amy Freeman]

Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.

Resupply Report: The Freemans' Most Frequent Visitor

Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Posted by
Elton Brown

When a group of six intrepid Ely skiers recently dropped in on Amy and Dave Freeman, Dave said that I’ve certainly been their most frequent visitor during the first six months of their Year in the Wilderness. Let me count the days and ways that I’ve been thus privileged.

SEPTEMBER 23: I was at the September send-off and was part of the flotilla from River Point Resort & Outfitting Company. What a fine celebration that was! The Koschaks, whose beautiful resort is at ground zero for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, provided warm hospitality. That’s me, in yellow raincoat and green kayak, right behind Amy (photo, right).

SEPTEMBER 28: A few days later, on September 28, I drove down Glippi Road, paddled across Pickerel Lake, and portaged into the N. Kawishiwi River, hoping to find Dave and Amy -- and there they were, on their way to test the water in S. Farm Lake! I gave them a chocolate bar and some vegetables from our garden as we paddled together into a strong wind for a mile or so before I turned back.

OCTOBER 3: New Elyite Margaret W. and I portaged into Little Gabbro and fought strong winds all the way to Bald Eagle Lake. Whitecaps blocked our hopes to reach the Freemans at the south end of Bald Eagle. So we portaged to Turtle Lake instead, for lunch on a campsite, and later I delivered our edible gifts to the group that accomplished a resupply the next day.

MID OCTOBER: I noted on the DeLorme map that Amy and Dave were camped on Tin Can Mike Lake. I called around to find a canoe partner. Debbie H. was available, so we met and drove to the Chainsaw Sisters entry point. There we ran into Levi, the Freemans’ expedition manager, and some Patagonia employees, going out to resupply and camp with the Freemans. Dave and Amy met us on Mudro, and we all had a fine visit and lunch together on a Sandpit Lake campsite. During our paddle out, Debbie said, “Thanks for inviting me. This was the most fun day of my fall!”

NOVEMBER 7: My friend Tim L. came up from the Twin Cities and we joined a resupply paddle from Moose Lake entry point to the Splash Lake portage. The day was an early taste of winter, a beautiful sprinkling of snow on every branch. After the fun visit, my hands, in wet gloves, got so cold that Tim and I pulled into the winter portage for a walk across to Splash and back in order to revive my fingers for the return paddle.

JANUARY 15: The first of my visits with Amy and Dave by skis. Chris C., Chuck Z. and I brought some goodies and a charged battery to their camp at the far end of Fall Lake’s Mile Island. As we arrived, the Freemans were returning from gathering firewood on the Four Mile Portage. As the dog team and loaded toboggan approached, David put on the brakes, to stop for a chat, but the dogs would not be deterred from their mission, and so the visiting waited until all arrived in camp.

END OF JANUARY: I saw the Freemans three times in one week! On Sunday, the day after we raced “The Pepsi Challenge” on Giants Ridge trails, I introduced friend Greg K. to Dave and Amy during our skate ski outing to Basswood Lake via the Four Mile Portage. On Tuesday, my friend Margaret finally got to meet Dave and Amy on Fall, on our way to explore Ella Hall Lake. Then, on Saturday, more ski friends came from Mora (Phoebe M., David K. and their one-year-old twins). Pulling the boys in a pulk, we skied from Moose Lake, crossed to Basswood via the winter portages through Found and Manomin, and found the Freemans camped at a small island across from the Spirit Tree (a popular 1,100-year-old white cedar). The twins, Miles and Daschle, who never complained all day, were fascinated by Acorn, Tina, and Tank, especially when they commenced to howling as several Outward Bound dog teams passed us heading west.

EARLY FEBRUARY: Greg K. loved our first lake crust ski so much that he came up from the Cities again a few weeks later. This time we found Dave and Amy at the far end of Snowbank Lake. From there we cruised around Disappointment Lake, where we watched a lone wolf for a long time along the far shoreline.

MARCH 25: I still can't believe how far six of us skied and hiked on March 25. Somehow, an ambitious trek out to Knife Lake’s Thunder Point became a 40-plus-mile loop, partly I suppose because we weren't excited about retracing some of the tough winter portages we'd taken to get to Knife, and partly because we thought it would be fun to drop in on Dave and Amy on Fraser Lake, but mostly because the spirit of Ely backwoods ski trekkers is always to push the boundaries of time and distance and the rumored end of winter.

Near Dorothy Molter's Isle of Pines, the less-bold of us clambered over a little island to avoid the risk of open water and thin ice on both sides, but this was a piece of cake compared to the bushwhacks necessary to avoid open streams at our exits from Kekekabic and Fraser; even so, none of these compared in difficulty to slogging through the miles of brush tangles, weak ice, swamp hummocks and mushy snow of the winter portage from Thomas to Disappointment. Our brief visit with Amy and Dave was a nice mid-afternoon break. A broken binding, broken ski, and broken ski boot slowed our progress (along with strong wind and slower skiing on softened lake crust). Other than the Freemans, we saw no one. It was a great relief to reach the Snowbank landing, dehydrated, wet, utterly spent, and pile into a warm van to be shuttled to our cars back at the Moose Lake public access.

APRIL 3: The "spring" resupply for Dave and Amy. A group of six, walking across the ice into a cold and snowy east wind, pulled the Freemans' canoe and carried several packs of food. I wanted to ski, so headed out on Moose Lake earlier. There was lots of slipping on ice but some sections had enough snow for decent skate skiing. Heavy flurries sometimes made for white-out conditions -- beautiful and exhilarating! Took until Horseshoe Island for my fingers to thaw.  I walked the winter portage to Splash and skied on to Ensign, finally spotting dim figures in the distance about half-way down the lake. Turns out Dave and Amy were camped on Knife, near Thunder Point, so they'd already come a long way. Tank, their one remaining canine companion, was working hard pulling the toboggan loaded with winter gear no longer needed, often slipping on the ice as we skied back together towards Splash. After a while, Dave linked himself up front with Tank to share the pulling. We met the resupply party towards the end of the winter portage from Newfound (three young-adult VCC students, Becky Rom, Chris Chandler, and Lindsey Lang). After intros, lunch, and a good visit, I headed home, followed by the hikers, now pulling the toboggan. The Freemans plan to head to Basswood, where they hope to cross paths with Will Steger, who is making his way (pulling his loaded canoe) from Ontario through the Quetico on his way home to Winton. I am privileged to have had a part in the two "shoulder season" major resupplies.

I tell this story to illustrate the joys and challenges of the BWCAW: the great variety of lakes and routes, the beauties of the changing seasons, the exhilaration of traveling through unspoiled wilderness under one’s own power. Every day of this remarkable year, Dave and Amy’s blogs reinforce how special, how rare, how precious we find this vast natural preserve of undeveloped forest and clean water. I am very grateful that they are dedicating an entire year of their lives to helping all of us preserve the BWCA wilderness for generations to come.

Elton and Emily Brown retired to their Morse Township cabin seven years ago and have been active volunteers at Sustainable Ely and with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. During the years that Elton was the pastor of United Methodist churches in Minneapolis, they took their four kids on Boundary Waters canoe trips every summer. Elton is one of many Ely-area trekkers who love to ski into the Wilderness, especially in early spring when lakes are covered with a firm, fast crust.

Resupply Report: Bringing Music to the Wilderness

Thursday, March 31, 2016
Posted by
Ben Weaver

The far side of Snowbank Lake was hidden, stitched behind snow and wind. Atop it’s trackless white surface lay an ankle deep layer of slush. We set our bearings on a long island whose south eastern side was visible, estimating its mid point to be the location of the wilderness boundary, where we planned to meet explorers Dave and Amy Freeman.

The night before I had fallen asleep to rain, and woken up to snow. Blown from the north, it was wet and heavy, weighing down branches, pulling trees to the ground. I loaded my banjo, guitar and other supplies onto my bike. The roads weren’t plowed yet. Ely was quiet, headlights like fireflies winking through the handfuls of fat tumbling flakes. As I rode out of town towards Snowbank Lake, the wind blew the snow back into my eyes like spears.

Since beginning their expedition in September 2015, different groups have been volunteering to bring Dave and Amy resupplies every couple weeks. This was the nature of my trip, but the contents of my resupply were slightly different. I planned to resupply Dave and Amy with songs, poetry and conversation, oh …  and Bent Paddle did send me in with some insulated growlers of beer.

After a wet snowy ride along the Fernberg Road and Snowbank Lake road, I joined the rest of my group at the public boat landing: Levi Lexvold, expedition coordinator for A Year in the Wilderness; Bill DeVille, a DJ from The Current; and Nate Ryan, audio/video correspondent for The Current. Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current sent Bill and Nate in to document my performance and help tell Dave and Amy’s story of living in the Boundary Waters.

Since mechanized forms of transport are not allowed in the Boundary Waters, I left my bicycle in Levi’s truck, transferring my supplies to a pulk sled and walking into the Wilderness. As much as I love riding a bicycle, I believe there are some places they don't need to go.

We began crossing the lake, trudging through the heavy slush. Looking in almost any direction revealed nothing but white. A true snow globe. I heard dogs barking, and in the distance made out silhouettes, both human and animal. Drawing closer, several yellow stakes in the ice became visible, marking the wilderness boundary. Amy was on skis and Dave drove a small sled pulled by a three dog team. Greeting one another I could see the landscape in their faces, the weather, the rocks, the pine boughs. I could smell six months of wood smoke in their smiles. We continued slowly across the lake to their camp.

For dinner, we shared a pot of chili Levi made, the warm fire purring away in the wood stove at the center of the shelter. We laughed about how much better food tastes outside, after hard work and travel. As the sun began to fade, we stepped outside for some fresh air. The snow had subsided and as twilight soaked up the last daylight two black squiggly lines hopped and slid across the snow covered lake: otters. 

We gathered back around the stove in the center of Dave and Amy’s shelter. I sang songs and read some poems. In between, we talked about what makes the Boundary Waters so unique, and the importance of imagination when thinking about the future. If we cannot imagine new ways to live and work, then how can we develop them?

There is a connection between the restorative value of art and the restorative value of wilderness spaces like the Boundary Waters. They feed our souls. Inspire reflection. The Boundary Waters offers a chance to experience life at the pace of trees, water and animals, which promotes a stronger understanding for why it is so important to maintain these places on the planet. Where it will always be possible to hear the wind, drink water straight from the lakes, and hear the music made only by these natural ecosystems.

Bill DeVille had never been in the Boundary Waters before, and this was his first time sleeping outside in winter. His first time behind a team of dogs. His eyes were wide. It never ceases to amaze me how the wilderness transforms people. Even newcomers. It reminded me, it is not just necessary to tell people about the importance of a place like the Boundary Waters, but also to show them. To let them to stand on the ground and witness the power and beauty it possesses.

Dave joined us as we headed back across Snowbank Lake as we departed. There were two eagles perched in an island pine and a third one circling in the air above. We said goodbye at the wilderness boundary. Bill, Nate and I continued toward the boat landing. I stopped to look back at the open expanse behind me. Dave’s silhouette grew smaller and smaller until it completely dissolved back into the landscape. The moment he disappeared felt metaphorical. It reminded me of the eagles, the otters, and all the trees bearing the weight of the new snow. Quiet, yet extremely powerful. Part of the landscape. Without any words, Dave and Amy’s action to live in this vital and pristine place gives voice to its rare beauty and power. I know we can save it.

Listen to Ben's song, "Ramblin' Bones," from I Would Rather Be a Buffalo below.

Ben Weaver's resupply story will air on The Current during Bill DeVille's United States of Americana on Sunday, April 3 (8-9 a.m.). Ben and musician Mike Munson will perform a benefit concert for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters on Thursday, April 14, at the Byrant Lake Bowl & Theater (Facebook Event).

Ben Weaver is a songwriter and poet. The bicycle is Ben’s vehicle of choice for touring his music. His most recent bicycle-powered tours include tracing 1,500 miles of the Mississippi River from Saint Paul to New Orleans and circumnavigating Lake Superior working to raise awareness about fresh water. I Would Rather Be A Buffalo is Ben’s most recent record (listen to a selection of songs or buy). Follow him on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Resupply Report: Filming the Heart of Winter (February Flashback)

Thursday, March 24, 2016
Posted by
Nate Ptacek

Already exhausted after 20 minutes, I come to an abrupt halt and slump against the harness of my overloaded pulk sled -- a brief rest from the arduous task of breaking trail through knee-deep fresh snow. Heart pounding, the deep silence of the winter wilderness echoes in my mind, deafening in it’s sheer nothingness. Even the sound of my labored breath and the crunch of snow underfoot seem stifled by the sound-deadening pillows of snow plastering the forest. It’s a strange feeling – one that’s only underscored by the physical and mental fog of the most severe cold I’d had in years. After pausing long enough to catch my breath and see my partner, Matt, closing in behind me, I cough a few times, lean into the harness, and trudge onward down the undulating path to Angleworm Lake and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The heart of winter is certainly one of the most beautiful times to be in the wilderness, but it’s also a major test of skill and determination. Everything is harder, the stakes are higher, and there is little margin for error. Processing firewood becomes a daily necessity, gathering water requires an axe, and a lost glove can mean frostbite in the wrong conditions. All that aside, I knew more than anything else that it would be a tough week to film. In cold weather like this, exposed fingers quickly numb to the point of uselessness, batteries drain in minutes, and quick changes in temperature (such as entering a heated tent) fog lenses and expose delicate electronics to condensation. Snapping back into the moment, I heave the dead weight of the pulk sled up and over a small hill, looking up only to find a steeper, longer incline ahead. As we like to say in Minnesota, “Uffda.”

As I crest the hill, the silence is suddenly broken by sing-song commands and the barking of dogs, and I find myself face to face with a team of three Alaskan Huskies. In tow (quite literally) are my friends Amy and Dave Freeman, who appear happy, healthy and well tanned from a winter’s worth of snow-reflected sun. The Freemans are living out here in the BWCA for an entire year to draw attention to proposed sulfide-ore mines near the wilderness boundary, and we are visiting each season to help film the journey. Warm greetings are exchanged, and we have a lot to catch up on, but save any real conversation for the woodstove – the temperature is dropping, and we still have a few miles to go before we reach camp. Onward we go with a quickened pace, thankful for the lightened load as Tina, Tank and Acorn enthusiastically pick up our slack.


We soon arrive in camp - a low spot just off the lake, sheltered from the wind by an outcropping of granite and wreathed with snowcapped pines. Amy ties up the dogs and begins boiling water for their evening meal of chopped chicken, dog food and an extra hunk of lard to keep the inner fires burning until morning. Dave busies himself processing firewood (we’ll need to collect more before nightfall), while Matt and I unload our camera and camping gear from the pulk sleds. A stiff breeze sends plumes of spindrift across the frozen lake, heralding a cold snap with projected daily highs barely above zero, and overnight lows plunging well past -20°F for the next week straight.

As I step inside the Freeman’s tent, I’m overcome with a feeling of déjà vu. Save for the addition of hats and gloves hung near the stovepipe to dry, the tipi-shelter hasn’t changed a bit since our visit last October, more than three months ago. Sure, the Freemans have moved camp dozens of times since then, but the set-up is instantly familiar to me. In the very middle is a woodstove with a pot of water ready to boil, directly to the left of the door is a stack of firewood and birch bark, and in the back are the sleeping bags and pads, safe from snowy boots and errant sparks. The sweet scent of wood smoke permeates the air, and I’m happy to be a visitor in the Freeman’s home once again.

Later that night, we settle in around the stove for a dinner of venison tenderloin, a gift from my friend Andrew. The warm glow of the lantern illuminates the tent, and our jovial conversation inevitably trends toward all that has passed since our last visit: waiting out a long (and late) freeze up, tales of wolves fishing for spawning cisco, exchanging the canoe for a dog team and toboggans, and New Year’s Eve celebrations with visiting friends. Now halfway through their Year in the Wilderness, Amy and Dave seem to be doing well, and spirits are high. And they are especially happy for the added companionship of the dogs, on loan from a local musher named Frank Moe.

Tina, Tank, and Acorn each have their own unique personalities and strengths, and feel more like part of the team than hired paws. Acorn, the mother of Tina and Tank, is twelve years old but still a strong leader, even despite an injured tail that has her sharing the tent with us each night until it heals. The Year in the Wilderness is not her first foray into activism - she was also the lead dog in the 2012 Sled Dogs to Saint Paul, one of the early moments of advocacy around the sulfide-ore mining issue. Tina can be a bit skittish at first, but opens up after awhile and can pull hard in the harness all day. And Tank certainly justifies his name - at nearly twice the size of the other dogs, he serves as the anchor to the team, and really puts his weight into the uphill sections.

Eager to run every day, the only thing that really slows the team down is slush. Seemingly more often than not, perfectly good looking snow betrays us with large puddles hidden beneath the surface. Despite the bitter cold temperatures, the weight of recent snow has pushed the lake ice downward, displacing a layer of water that seeps up through cracks and settles unfrozen, insulated between the snow and ice. One moment we’re racing along, and the next, toboggans, skis, and paws alike are trapped in a quagmire of heavy slush that freezes instantly and requires a mandatory stop to scrape, chip, or lick off the ice before we can move on. But when the going is good, it’s an amazing experience to be cruising along the shoreline in the bright, crisp air of a bluebird winter day.


As the days progress and I find myself settling into life in the wilderness, the gravity of what Amy and Dave are doing out here truly begins to sink in. I have often thought about them since my last visit, but entering the rhythm and routine of their day-to-day brings me new perspective. I realize the extent to which I’ve generally taken for granted running water, electricity, and the warm climate of my adopted home in Southern California, while they have been out here the whole time - not only surviving, but thriving through the depths of the Minnesota winter. I think of all the ice holes chopped and pots of water boiled, the armfuls of wood gathered and processed to stay warm and cook, the many camps set up and taken down. The challenges are a little more immediate, yet the rewards are ever-present – moving efficiently with the dogs over fast snow, the satisfaction of a stove-cooked meal on a cold day, aurora borealis dancing wildly in the night sky. Life out here is still life, but it’s been boiled down to it’s very essence.

On the final night of our stay, the mercury plunges even deeper to a bone-chilling -27°F. In the morning we wake up cold, get the stove going, and boil up a pot of water. But before settling in for coffee and oatmeal, the four of us head outside for a science experiment. When it’s this cold outside, it’s said that a pot of boiling water tossed into the air will evaporate before hitting the ground. 3…2…1… BOOM! An explosion of white steam streams through the air like fireworks, backlit by the first rays of sunshine gracing the frozen expanse of Gun Lake.

A morning like this highlights the beauty of the winter wilderness in all it’s glory, but like our week visiting the Freemans, the moment is fleeting. The spring thaw is just around the corner, bringing with it new challenges - waiting for open water, freezing spring rains, and hordes of biting black flies and mosquitoes. But there will also be new growth in the forest, lots of fish to catch, and the warmth of sunshine on bare skin for the first time in months. And witnessing every single moment of it all will be Amy and Dave - bearing witness to the beauty of the Boundary Waters throughout the year.

Nate Ptacek is a native of Wisconsin and former Minnesota resident. He is based in Ventura, California, where he works full time as a video editor for Patagonia. Nate filmed Dave and Amy Freeman’s Paddle to DC last year for the film, A Quest for Clean Water and is filming Bear Witness for A Year in the Wilderness.

Six Months of A Year in the Wilderness

Thursday, March 24, 2016
Posted by
Ellie Bayrd

Six months ago, Dave and Amy Freeman departed from River Point Resort & Outfitting Company into the Boundary Waters Wilderness. They have six months to go on their journey to spend a year educating people about the danger posed to the Wilderness from proposed sulfide-ore mining and bearing witness to the changing seasons in the Boundary Waters so that people from Minnesota and beyond can understand the place at risk. Below are a few highlights of A Year in the Wilderness as we look back from the halfway mark.

The Journey Begins: September 23, 2015

WDIO covers the Launch

Dave and Amy start regular contributions to Canoe & Kayak Magazine blog, National Geographic Adventurer blog and WTIP radio.

MPR All Things Considered shares an interview and photo recap of A Year in the Wilderness.

The Star Tribune checks in with Dave and Amy at Christmas

The Duluth News Tribune takes a few trips into the Wilderness.

Dave and Amy on Minnesota Bound

Dave and Amy's Halfway Celebration Greeting Video

Visit the A Year in the Wilderness page, read their biweekly blog posts or follow the Freemans on social media (Instagram) for regular updates.

From the Freemans: Great News, Weather Roller Coaster & Many Visitors

Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Posted by
Amy Freeman

Greetings from Snowbank Lake on our 179th day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It has been amazing to be out here while catching snippets about recent developments in the news. First, Governor Dayton's letter, then news from the Department of Interior, then former Vice President Mondale's op-ed, not to mention the latest round of polling results! Dave and I are honored to be one small part of this massive effort made by so many people.

The best part is that we have been out here, and will continue to be out here, bearing witness to this special place. In the last week or so, spring seemed to arrive and then winter made a resurgence. We experienced several days in a row of significant melting and it was fun to travel during this thaw and make observations along the way. We made a move from Newfound to Knife Lake, passing through Ensign and Vera along the way. We've had many visitors in the midst of this weather roller coaster. A journalist, Conor Mihell, traveled with us on that route (he wrote about the Campaign for Canoeroots last year).

We then set up camp in our favorite spot on Knife Lake. Dave and I were reminded of our significant chunk of time spent on that campsite as we celebrated Thanksgiving and awaited the freeze up. It was fitting that we would spend a couple nights here during the beginning of a significant spring thaw.

The red squirrels, pileated woodpeckers and gray jays have certainly been out in force on these abnormally warm days. During our first night there, the temperature dipped below freezing under a cloudless sky and the lake cracked and boomed all night.

The next morning provided a perfectly smooth skating rink to travel on. We headed out towards Thunder Point and up into the North Arm of Knife. The three of us would do a skijoring day trip that would take us in a loop through Ottertrack, Gijikiki, Rivalry, Lake of the Clouds, Lunar, Cherry, Topaz, and Amoeber, then back to Knife. We cruised in the shade of the north-facing sides of most lakes.

The portages were untracked and we post-holed our way from lake to lake. Tina and Acorn were sort of swimming in the deep, untracked snow, so they ended up following in our tracks. Tank, who is a taller dog, developed a bounding leap technique to work his way through the deep snow.

On Topaz, we found a moose carcass frozen in the lake. Only a small section of the moose's side was exposed. Back on the wide open ice surface of Knife Lake, we slowly skijored back to camp. The wind was against us and the upper inch or two of ice had taken on a squishy snow-cone like consistency.

The next day, we arose early, making our way to Ensign, then Boot to Snowbank. The ice surface was again good and solid in the morning and soggy and rotten by the time we reached Snowbank in the afternoon. Our toboggans took on a few new scratches on rocky portage trails. Briefly, our dog team parted with the toboggans and Dave chased after them while Conor and I hauled the toboggans the rest of the way to Ensign Lake. It was a nail-biter until the dogs stopped in the shade to eat snow. Good thing it was a warm day!

We proceeded to skirt open water in the little ponds between Boot and Snowbank, leading the dogs on convoluted routes over rocks and muskeg. We were relieved to reach Snowbank, and after a good rest in the shade for the dogs and a chance for us to shovel snow under our baseball caps to cool ourselves, we made our way to a south-facing campsite amidst tall red pines.

We set up camp on land, watching the lake surface deteriorate in front of our eyes. Most of the forest floor was exposed, revealing a carpet of wintergreen and red pine needles. Although I haven't seen a nest yet, bald eagles must be nesting nearby, because we have seen and heard them regularly here. A couple of days ago, a thick fog provoked Dave to say "It reminds me of the Amazon" upon emerging from the tent. Indeed.

We've hosted many visitors at our campsite on Snowbank Lake. The various groups have all seen different faces of the Boundary Waters Wilderness as the weather changed daily over the past week.  First came a crew with Land Tawney, CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. They arrived in the sun and departed in a thick fog. Next came a group of dogsledders from Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. Folks from Chicago and St. Paul Patagonia stores arrived just in time for a good soaking rain. The rain turned to snow and we met musician Ben Weaver and DJ Bill Deville from The Current in a blizzard, guiding them to our campsite with a compass bearing in a total whiteout. Then Kevin Timms from Seek Outside, the maker of our tent, witnessed several gloriously sunny days.


The Boundary Waters Wilderness revealed a different face to each group of visitors, etching distinct impressions of this wild landscape. The memories of time spent in the tent or lounging out in the sun, having in-depth conversations and even hearing music and poetry will nourish us just as much as the food in our resupplies. We are grateful to be a part of this and humbled every time we see how many people care about this place. 

Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.

From the Freemans: Donuts, Visitors and a Polar Plunge

Thursday, March 3, 2016
Posted by
Amy Freeman

Today is day 162 in the Boundary Waters and we are camped on Fall Lake. We recently traveled from Tin Can Mike Lake to Pipestone Bay of Basswood Lake, then to Fall Lake.

We sat out some colder weather during our time in Pipestone Bay, as several inches of snow fell. As we took off, we planned our exit strategically, by heading out on a warm day. We figured that if we did hit slush, it wouldn't freeze to our skis and toboggans. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our skis, toboggans and dog feet stayed on top of an icy crust. What a difference! We cruised fairly efficiently across the bay, taking a short, wide portage into Back Bay.

Basswood is a massive lake, full of big, long bays that seem like lakes in and of themselves, especially considering that there are portages between the bays. It’s interesting to do a portage, but still be on the same lake when you reach the other side. I'm glad we did it, because it cut off significant mileage.

We were surprised that we couldn’t find a well used dogsled trail in Back Bay. From Back Bay, we followed the lakeshore to Hoist Bay. Once we rounded a point, passing through a narrows, we saw several ice fishing shelters set up across the way. We also saw wolf tracks. I think these tracks followed older ones in the snow, because they went exactly in the direction we needed to go. Maybe that old track was left by us when we traveled through about a month ago. I looked down in front of my ski tips to see the dog tracks mixed in with the wolf tracks. Every once in a while, I saw what was obviously a wolf track, standing out because it was significantly bigger than the dog paws. The wolf that left this track was sizable.

As we cruised across Hoist Bay, a dog team headed towards the Four Mile Portage on the well-used trail. Tina, Acorn and Tank perked up their ears and suddenly they shifted into a new gear as they took aim for the dog team. Once our three-dog team turned onto this well-packed trail, they were unstoppable. Both dogs and humans enjoyed our trip across the Four Mile Portage to Fall Lake where we set up camp. The warm day gave way to a warm night. As we settled into unzipped sleeping bags, we heard wolves howling from somewhere to the north.

The next few days were filled with a steady stream of visitors, including both of our fathers, who camped out for a few nights, along with friend and fellow guide, Don Watson and Grand Marais-based artist, Neil Sherman. Neil spent several days painting in and around our campsite. We also had a few visits from day trippers on skis, on foot, and traveling by dog team. This meant getting significantly more food than our usual resupply-- including mangos, homemade banana bread and a bag full of fresh donuts from Britton’s in Ely.

There's a little more to the donut resupply story. Five guys from the Twin Cities volunteered to trek out to our campsite, hauling our resupply of food. As they handed us the grease-soaked paper bag of donuts, they told us they heard that we really like receiving fresh vegetables and fruit in our resupplies– well, they said, they decided to go a different route. Dave quickly downed a donut the size of his head, while I slowly savored every bite. This crew happened to arrive on an unseasonably warm day. Because of the bluebird weather, Dave and I decided to take our monthly dip. The air temperature topped out at 46 degrees! As we greeted the resupply crew, we showed them the hole we had spent an hour digging with auger, axe and saw. It was big enough for a person to plunge in. I invited them to join us for a dip– and before we knew it, they used our tent as a sauna, and took a hurried dunk in the ice cold water. Dave and I were the last to go in. It was refreshing and felt quite good– after getting out of the water, down the path and back in the warm tent! We offered to reopen the ice hole for Neil, but he declined. Our dads didn't go for it either, claiming that at their age, they were concerned it would provoke a heart attack.

Cold weather returned, we got a dusting of new snow, and now it is impossible to tell that our polar plunge zone ever existed. There seems to be a steady stream of traffic on Fall Lake, as it is one of the major winter entry points for mushers, ice fishermen, winter campers and cross-country skiers. We've been here for four days and we've seen all of above each day. While the Boundary Waters sees the majority of visitors in the summer, it is definitely enjoyed by a variety of people in the winter as well.

[Top photo by Josh Bryant]

Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.

Resupply Report: Winter Is My Season

Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Posted by
Joseph Goldstein

Every season has its appeal, but something about the cold and the snow appeals to me, and seems to calm the chaos of everyday life. I wait for winter the same way that most kids wait for their summer vacation.

Winter makes no apologies – you’re either prepared to take it on, or you’re going to suffer until spring. Six years ago, when I was 8, I first learned to really LOVE it when my parents took me dogsledding with Wintergreen in the BWCA. Since then (except for last winter when chemo kept me on lockdown), I’ve travelled and camped in the dead of winter in the BWCA, Svalbard (Norway) and Greenland.

If you want to spend your winter outside, in the wilderness, you better be prepared to work for it. There’s no easy way to do it: No easy way to camp, cook, travel, get or stay warm. You have to plan, think, be prepared and earn the right to be there. 

What is the best thing about Winter camping in the Wilderness? Not many people can go do it, and the ones who can are the ones that you want to go spend time with. A few days ago, I took a dogsled into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to resupply my friends, Dave and Amy, during their Year In The Wilderness. I got to spend time with my dad and brother and our good friend Jason. I also got the chance to share my favorite place with awesome guys and hosts of the TV show Rock The Park, Jack and Colton!

This trip was amazing.  The first night was truly cold.  We got to hear the sap freezing and cracking the trees, saw huge icicles hanging from cliffs where small drizzles of water run in the summer, rolled around and played with the sled dogs and sat around the fire telling stories.

I’ve learned a lot about the world that grown-ups inhabit during the past year.  I know that at my age, I’m supposed to be itching to be an adult. Based on what I’ve seen, it is a pretty constrained place. So many needs compete with simply doing what’s right: political agendas, financial needs, protection of status. It gets complicated and messy, but it make makes me appreciate the simplicity of being a 14-year-old kid whose parents and friends and community support my simple Wish: to protect and preserve the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for everyone, forever.

So sign the petition, write your representatives, donate to the campaign and lend your voice to the thousands of us fighting to save the BWCA. This is how we stand up together and say, “Not here. Not now. Not ever.” to the mining that will destroy it.

[photos by Jason Zabokrtsky]

Joseph Goldstein (age 14) took his first trip to the Boundary Waters when he was around 8 years old. Joseph was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in October 2014. Since then, he committed to helping protect the Boundary Waters. Joseph traveled to Washington, D.C., last March to meet with federal decision makers and deliver 60,000 petition signatures in support of permanently protecting the Boundary Waters from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining. Joseph plans to to help Explorers Dave and Amy Freeman during each season of A Year In The Wilderness by resupplying the Freemans with supplies and food. Learn more about Joseph’s story in his own words.

From the Freemans: Winter's Bite is Slowly Fading

Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Posted by
Dave Freeman

It is the heart of the winter in the Wilderness. I just finished wading through thigh-deep snow while gathering firewood from a spruce bog near our campsite. Last week the temperature barely rose over freezing during the heat of the day and plunged to -15 to -25 at night. Some of the questions we hear most often revolve around how we "survive" out in the Wilderness in the winter. I would say we are not just surviving out here, we are thriving. I would like to share some of the things that allow us to live and travel comfortably in the winter woods.

This isn't our first rodeo. Amy and I have more than 20 years of combined experience leading winter camping and dogsledding trips in the Boundary Waters. We have worked for Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge for many seasons and over the years we have learned many tips and tricks for staying happy and healthy in the winter Wilderness.

Good clothing is extremely important and we layer our clothing so that we can add a layer if we get cold, or remove a layer if we get too hot. Believe it or not, our biggest challenge is overheating. When we are skiing with the dogs we do not need to wear very many clothes because we are working hard. When we stop, we put on a down jacket or our anorak to help trap in our body heat. In the winter, we wear clothing that is breathable so that any moisture that our body produces can pass through our clothing. We wear Merino Air long underwear that was donated by Patagonia, and on top of that we usually wear one or two fleece layers to help trap our body heat. Our outer layer consists of pants and an anorak made by Wintergreen Northern Wear. When it is cold, and we stop for lunch or stop moving for a while, we can throw our Outdoor Research down parkas over the rest of our clothing to help us stay warm.

Another way we stay warm is by gathering and burning a lot of firewood. There is an old saying that firewood warms you twice, once when you cut it and then again when you burn it. Each day, Amy and I spend about an hour gathering, cutting and splitting firewood. We gather dead wood that is well back from the lake and away from summer campsites. It is hard work carrying the logs through deep snow back to our campsite, cutting it into 14-inch pieces, and splitting it with our axe. The benefit is that we can relax in our Seek Outside tipi tent and soak in the heat from the wood stove. The wood stove is in the center of our tipi tent. We have a drying line that runs around the top of the tent, from which we hang socks, mittens and other clothing to dry. We also hang our ski boots and other heavy items off of the center pole. With good wood burning in the stove, it is easy to keep the tent 50 or 60 degrees at head level and 80 or 90 degrees at the top of the tent where the drying lines are. The ability to dry out our clothing using the heat of the wood stove makes it much easier to stay warm and comfortable out here in the winter.

Good food, and plenty of it, also helps us stay warm and comfortable. In the winter we eat about 3,500 to 4,000 calories each day. Our diet contains a lot of butter, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, cheese and other foods that are high in fat. I know it's pretty rough adding an extra dollop of butter to our pasta, a big spoonful of peanut butter to our oatmeal or an extra helping of chocolate after dinner, but we will manage. In reality, being able to eat as much as I want without thinking twice is one of my favorite parts about extended cold weather trips. On some of our winter trips, we have eaten as many as 5,500 calories each day! We are thankful for the steady stream of volunteers who trek into the Wilderness every week or two with supplies for us. They often bring brownies, chocolate, cookies, fresh fruit and other special treats. Thanks to the cold and our active lifestyle, we can polish off a batch of cookies in one sitting without thinking twice!

Luckily we have about six weeks of winter left, so there is still plenty of time for us to eat as many treats as we want. February and March are some of my favorite months in the Boundary Waters. The days are getting longer and the sun is getting higher in the sky each day. Winter's bite is slowly fading and spring will be here before we know it. We are approaching the halfway mark of A Year in the Wilderness. We are so thankful for all of the support we are receiving from the staff, volunteers and Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters supporters. Thank you for helping us bear witness to this national treasure and be a constant reminder of what is at risk.