Adventure educators Amy and Dave Freeman have built their lives around using technology to bring outdoor adventure into the classroom through their organization Wilderness Classroom. The Minnesotan couple, two of our Adventurers of the Year, just completed their three-year, nearly 12,000-mile North American Odyssey, which engaged more than 85,000 schoolkids. Here, learn more about their story and how they have followed their dream to inspire kids to get outside.
Adventure: Fellow Minnesotan Will Steger is a pioneer of using expeditions for education. Did he inspire what you and Amy are doing now?
Dave Freeman: Amy and I were not lucky enough to know about Will Steger when we were younger. However, he has inspired us in recent years. Will lives outside of Ely, Minnesota, where we live in the winter, and helped us when we were planning the dogsleding stage of the North American Odyssey. His commitment to climate change education and living in a sustainable way have really inspired us. We share a love for maps, wild spaces, and long challenging trips, so meeting with him at his homestead and pouring over maps was a real treat. Seeing the impact that he has had by educating people about the polar regions and connecting with classrooms over the last three decades inspires Amy and me to keep sharing our adventures with as many kids as we can.
A: What are the main tech devices you use to stay connected in the field?
DF: The communication equipment that we carry depends a lot on our mode of travel as well as where we are traveling, but typically we carry a laptop computer, a Sabre 1 BGAN satellite terminal for sending images, videos, and other data, a couple cameras, as well as a Delorme PN60 GPS which allows us to send our location and short messages in real time using a SPOT communicator. Delorme now has a new devise called the InReach, which will allow us to send and receive short messages and plot our course during our next adventure.
When we need a more compact communication system we bring a Iridium handheld satellite phone instead of our BGAN terminal. Iridium is about to release a new device called the Iridium GO, which basically makes a hotspot that you can connect your smart phone, ipad, or computer. It looks amazing and I think it will really change expedition communication when it is released. With a Iridium GO and a smart phone people will be able to easily publish content and communicate from anywhere on the planet!
We usually pack our electronics in Pelican dry cases to keep them dry and protected. In the winter we up a hot water bottle in the case to keep the electronics from getting too cold. Electronics typically don’t like -40 F!
A: What part of staying connected has gotten easier over the years?
DF: The satellite communication technology has gotten lighter, more energy efficient, and easier to use. It is becoming so much easier for people to share information during expeditions. One of our goals is to help other adventurers connect with classrooms and educate and inspire students. The advances in technology are making communication from the field easier and easier to do.
A: How do you keep powered up in the field?
DF: We use external battery packs and portable solar panels to power our equipment. During the North American Odyssey we went for up to 42 days between towns and were able to keep our electronics charged using solar power. We typically carry two battery packs: a GoalZero Sherpa 100 and Sherpa 50. We use to two Nomad 13s and one Nomad 20 folding solar panels to charge the batteries. We have learned that the key to having enough power is having the solar panels out as much as possible. We set them up when we get to camp, but we also will lay them out on top of our canoe, kayak, or dogsled when conditions allow. We also carry a Nomad 7 and a Guide Plus Recharger to charge our AA batteries. It seems like we are always using AA batteries to power our GPS and other small electronics.
A: What are you doing to keep innovating in the adventure education space?
DF: Lately we have been doing a lot of video conferences with classrooms. In the last 6 months we have teamed up with Skype in the Classroom as well as Google’s Connected Classrooms. These partnerships have proven to be a great way to communicate with classrooms and reach students in a new way. Video conferencing technology improving rapidly and educators are really starting to embrace it.
I think making learning interactive is key to fostering engaged and informed learners. Video conferencing allows us to connect with classrooms from around the globe in a very exciting way.
A: What was the best advice you ever got from the kids?
DF: The students have given us lots of good advice over the years. One of the best decisions they made for us was encouraging us to take a retired sled dog named Fennel with us when we paddled from the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories to Lake Superior. He was a constant source of entertainment and companionship during the 5 months we spent paddling with him. The kids loved his weekly Fennel’s Field Notes, which Amy wrote from his perspective. Fennel also joined us for countless school assemblies and always stole the show. He is now really retired and lives in Alaska with one our best friends.
A: Do you have a story about a kid growing up and telling you that you and Amy shaped their lives?
DF: We are lucky because we get a fair amount of feedback from parents, teachers, and kids. Last week I got an email from a mother explaining that her teenage daughter has decided that she wants to become a conservationist and wilderness guide after a recent dogsled trip with me, and a teacher just told us a fun story about how her students favorite activity on the playground is pretending to be explorers “like Dave and Amy”. I think we are reaching young people on a variety of levels. I really hope that we are impacting kids in the way the Will impacted you. That’s certainly what motivates us. Having kids tell us that they made their parents take them canoeing after meeting us, or that they are going to kayak around Lake Superior when they get older gives us hope.
A: When you are not on an expedition, do you and Amy have pretty normal lives?
DF: It seems normal to us, but it probably isn’t all that normal. It has been almost a year since we finished the North American Odyssey. We have spent about 4 months living on a small, 40 year old sailboat, about 4 months traveling around doing school assemblies and speaking engagements and 4 months leading dogsledding trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. We try to live simply, hauling water, generating power with solar panels, heating with wood, and spending a lot of time outside. However, we also spend a lot of time in front of computers writing grants, working on educational content, and running the Wilderness Classroom.
DF: The sled dogs are amazing animals. We work with about 70 Canadian Inuit Dogs at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. Wintergreen has the largest kennel of working Canadian Inuit Dogs in the world. They are the working dog of the High Arctic and some of them were even born in the Arctic. Paul Schurke, the owner, sometimes brings puppies back from Greenland and other places he visits during his expeditions. They love people, but they typically do not make good pets. They have so much energy and love to run and run and run, they are quite literally born to pull. My favorite is a dog named Bubba. Bubba is old now, but in his prime he pulled a 1,000 pounds in a weight pulling competition all by himself.
A: What’s next this year for you and Amy?
DF: We have two projects planned in 2014. This spring I am headed down to Brazil to canoe the Rio Roosevelt. President Theodore Roosevelt explored and mapped the river in 1914 during an epic adventure, which almost cost him his life. We have organized a team of experienced Brazilian and American paddlers and will spend about five weeks exploring the Rio Roosevelt and sharing our journey with classrooms through the Wilderness Classroom.
In the fall Amy and I are going to paddle to Washington DC from the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, it will take us about 100 days. There are several new mines being proposed near the Boundary Waters that we are very worried will pollute the pristine lakes in rivers where we live and work as wilderness guides. We will paddle a canoe signed by thousands of people to DC to draw national attention to this important issue and ask the government to not allow sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters watershed.