Amy and Dave Freeman: The Wilderness Protectors

Amy and Dave Freeman during the Year in the Wilderness Expedition

Amy and Dave Freeman during the Year in the Wilderness Expedition Nate Ptacek

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Like so many Minnesotans, Amy and Dave Freeman fell in love with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) as kids.

For Dave, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, northern Minnesota vacations began in junior high and blossomed into seasonal jobs during high school and college. For Amy, who grew up in St. Paul, the BWCA baptism happened at age 13.

“I was totally hooked after that,” Amy says.

So hooked, in fact, that the husband-and-wife explorer team spent 366 straight days in the BWCA from 2015 to 2016, an epic trip they describe as “witness activism.” Their goal? To raise awareness of the dangers proposed copper-nickel mines pose for the fragile, intricately connected waterways in and around the Boundary Waters.

The Freemans—seasoned worldwide explorers who were named National Geographic’s 2014 Adventurers of the Year—used social media to communicate the vulnerable majesty of their surroundings. They blasted off daily posts as they paddled, portaged, and dogsledded more than 2,000 miles across 500 bodies of water.

“We learned that the Boundary Waters is special not just to people here in Minnesota, but to people all over the country,” says Dave. “And that journey really inspired us to want to do more.”

Last fall the Freemans published A Year in the Wilderness, a lively account of their marathon BWCA trek and the activism that fueled it. In April, they’ll embark on a book tour, Freeman-style: a bike trip to Washington, D.C., with events along the way. They’ll be towing a canoe scribbled with the signatures of supporters of Save the Boundary Waters, an Ely advocacy group.

Mining is a white-hot issue in the Northland. Tensions elevated even higher last December, when the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era order that restricted mining leases near the BWCA.

“The science and data show copper mining near the Boundary Waters would not only have environmental impacts, but significant economic impacts as well,” Dave says, citing the potential for cleanup costs and lost tourism revenue.

But the neighborly spirit of Ely remains intact, he reports.

“We feel really lucky that when we go to the grocery store, or run into people on the street, we don’t necessarily agree, but everybody wants the same things: jobs, steady income, clean environment,” Dave says.

The Freemans split their time between Ely and Grand Marais, having met in the latter town in 2005. At the time, Amy was attending grad school and leading Lake Superior kayaking trips, while Dave was teaching via his nonprofit education website, Wilderness Classroom. These days, the couple pay the bills by leading BWCA expeditions in the summer and dogsledding adventures in the winter, as well as through public speaking.

“We’re better when we’re out in the wilderness,” Dave says. “Our relationship is better—about half our married life has been spent in a tent.”

Life in the woods presents obvious challenges, they both admit, but facing them together only tightens their bond. 

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.