2,000 Miles to DC—By Canoe—to Protect the Boundary Waters

Adventure educators Amy and Dave Freeman arrived in Washington D.C. last Tuesday—by canoe. Over the past hundred days, the couple has paddled and portaged 2,000 miles from their home in Minnesota to our nation’s capitol, collecting signatures on their 20-foot fiberglass canoe to show their commitment to keeping the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wild. “When we learned about the threats that the proposed copper mines pose to the Boundary Waters we felt like we had to do something to help protect this national treasure,” says Dave Freeman.  The Wilderness Classroom founders were recently honored as two of our Adventurers of the Year for paddling, dogsledding, and hiking 11,647 miles across North America while 85,000 students helped shape their course. Read more here.

We asked Amy and Dave to tell us about the gear they carried, how they spent their Thanksgiving, and the final destination for their canoe covered in 2,000 signatures.

Adventure: Can you give us a breakdown of mileage on this journey? How many miles were on rivers, lakes, portaging, etc?

Dave Freeman: Our total journey by water from the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota to Washington, D.C. was about 2,000 miles. We paddled 180 miles through the Boundary Waters, then we sailed 600 miles with our canoe on top of our 27-foot Ericson sailboat across Lake Superior and northern Lake Huron, and then paddled another 1,300 miles to D.C. During the canoe portions of the journey we portaged about 90 miles.

Photograph by Nate Ptacek @arborealis
Photograph by Nate Ptacek @arborealis

A: Why did you want to do an adventure like this with such a direct conservation message?

DF: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota has had a profound impact on Amy and me. Canoe trips in the Boundary Waters as kids gave us our first taste of wilderness and really helped shape who we are today. I have been leading canoe trips and dogsledding trips there for almost 20 years in between expeditions to other wild places around the world. There is no other place like the Boundary Waters on Earth. When we learned about the threats that the proposed copper mines pose to the Boundary Waters we felt like we had to do something to help protect this national treasure. There were plenty of other adventures that we wanted to do, but this was something we really had to do.

A: Give us a rundown of your gear and supplies. You used solar power, correct? How much did all your gear weigh?

DF: We were paddling a 20-foot Wenonah Minnesota 3, which we named Sig after Sigurd Olson. Sigurd was a wilderness guide and educator who was instrumental in the formation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness 50 years ago. Our “home” was a MSR Mutha Hubba, which is a three-person, three-season tent. For extended adventures we prefer a slightly larger tent because the added comfort and space is worth a few extra pounds when we are living out of it for months at a time. For cooking and eating we like to keep things simple. We used a MSR Dragonfly stove that nests in our single pot and prepared simple meals like rice and beans and oatmeal, which are nutritious and simple to prepare.

All of our equipment is stored in drybags. We really like Sea to Summit Big River dry bags, which are made out of 420D nylon, because they are durable, but also fairly light weight. These smaller dry bags fit into two larger waterproof backpacks, which stow nicely in the canoe and make portaging easier.

We used a 20-watt Goal Zero solar panel and two Goal Zero Sherpa battery packs to charge and power our phones, cameras, and other electronics. We would lay the solar panel on top of the canoe to charge the battery packs while paddling. With five days worth of food, our canoe and all of our food and equipment weighed about 190 pounds.

Photograph by Nate Ptacek @arborealis
Photograph by Nate Ptacek @arborealis

A: How much of the time did you camp? You also stayed with friends along the way, too.

DF: During the first 80 days we camped or slept on our sailboat almost every night. However, between New York City and Washington, D.C. we stayed with friends or with strangers who invited us into their homes almost every night. It was really interesting to meet so many new people and have a chance to connect with old friends.

A: What stretch of water was the most beautiful? How about the most degraded?

DF: The eight days paddling through the Boundary Waters were definitely the most beautiful. It’s a place we never get tired of exploring. Sailing across Lake Superior and paddling Mattawa River in Ontario were also spectacular experiences.

The most degraded was probably the Hudson River north of Albany, New York. We spent several days paddling through a giant superfund site, where the government is spending two billion dollars to dredge PCBs out of the river sediment. We didn’t want to touch the water. It was really nasty. Luckily I think their cleanup effort is working and the river is getting cleaner.

A: Which section posed the greatest physical challenges?

DF: I think the day that we walked the Grand Portage, which is an 8.5-mile trail linking the Boundary Waters with Lake Superior, was the most physically challenging day. It rained hard for 24 hours before we started the portage and we were walking through ankle to knee deep mud for large portions of it while carrying 80 to 100 pound loads. It was a tiring day.

A: How many signatures did you collect on your canoe?

DF: We estimate that Sig is now covered with over 2,000 signatures, and we collected more than 10,000 signatures on our online petition. We hope you will add your signature. https://www.savetheboundarywaters.org/sign-petition

A: Do you feel a special attachment to this canoe, and want to keep it?

DF: We have always hoped that we could leave Sig in Washington, D.C. We are excited that the U.S. Forest Service will display Sig in its Washington, D.C. headquarters so that more people can learn about the Boundary Waters and our journey.

A: What’s at stake in the Boundary Waters in the years to come?

DF: The Boundary Waters turned 50 this year and it is thriving. It is the nation’s most popular wilderness area, visited by approximately 250,000 people each year. This million-acre maze of lakes, rivers, forests, and wetlands is the largest National Wilderness Area east of the Rockies and north of the Everglades. Unfortunately, the mines being proposed on the edge of the wilderness pose the biggest threat to the Boundary Waters since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964. Acid mine drainage, heavy metals, and other pollution from the proposed mines would flow directly into the wilderness. The lights, noise, and air pollution from the mines would dramatically effect the character of this pristine place.

Photograph by Nate Ptacek @arborealis
Photograph by Nate Ptacek @arborealis

A: Can mining be done responsibly so that nature is preserved and the resources are extracted? 

DF: All mines are going to have some negative impact on the environment, but at the same time we need these resources. We are not opposed to mining. There is a long history of iron ore mining in northern Minnesota. We believe there are instances where mining makes sense, but there are also instances were mines do not make sense.

The new copper mines being proposed on the edge of our nation’s most popular wilderness area are in a sulfide ore body. When the rock is crushed to extract the small amounts of copper and other minerals, the sulfide is exposed to air and water. This produces sulfuric acid, which leaches heavy metals and other toxins into the water. This is an extremely toxic type of mining. In fact, a mine of this type has never been built anywhere in the world without causing significant surface and groundwater pollution, and there are more superfund sites from this type of mining than from any other activity.

We don’t think that sulfide ore mining, which the EPA considers to be the nation’s most polluting industry, is an appropriate activity for the Boundary Waters Watershed. The Save the Boundary Waters Coalition has some great resources https://www.savetheboundarywaters.org/media-kit that explain why.

A: How did you spend Thanksgiving? Turkey jerky in the canoe?

DF: The weather was really good on Thanksgiving, but it was cold and windy on Wednesday and Friday, so we ended up paddling until 10:30 p.m. to cover as many miles as we could. No turkey for us, but that’s OK, it is certainly a Thanksgiving we will remember for a long time. When the weather was good, we had to paddle as far as we could in order to reach D.C. on time.

A: How are you getting home from D.C.?

DF: We are driving back to Minnesota with our project manager Olivia Ridge, and we will stop in New Jersey, Chicago, and Minneapolis along the way to northern Minnesota.

A: What are you all up to this winter?

DF: We will be leading dogsledding adventures in the Boundary Waters through Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. They have 70 sled dogs and we are looking forward to seeing all our four-legged friends and introducing people to the winter woods. We will also be doing a lot of presentations about Paddle to DC and our other expeditions. We are really looking forward to spending some time back in the Boundary Waters before heading out on another extended adventure.