11,700 miles by dog, ski and sea

This is my column for the Sunday, April 21, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. You can read more about Amy and Dave Freeman’s adventures here. I’ve posted some photos of their expedition below the jump.

11,700 miles by dog, ski and sea
By Aaron J. Brown

Anyone who’s ever paddled a kayak or strapped on a pair of skis knows the sharp tug of muscles straining for every mile. But you also know the wondrous sights seen only then, details so often ignored or overlooked at higher speeds.

Amy and Dave Freeman know these sensations well. Three years ago this northern Minnesota couple set out on an expedition that could have taken them from the port of Duluth to Leif Erickson’s front porch in Norway and back, but that instead traversed 11,700 miles of North American wilderness. And they did so by kayak, canoe, dog sled and ski.

Though this North American Odyssey took them over untamed tundra, along rocky coasts, through rivers and lakes unknown to most of the world, the Freemans were never lonely. They took 80,000 school kids with them in a virtual experience organized by their nonprofit organization, Wilderness Classroom.

I spoke to Dave Freeman over the phone last week as he and Amy recuperated from their epic travels which ended earlier this month. He said their goal was to share true untouched wilderness with kids and to help their teachers include unique wildlife, scientific observations and geography in their curriculum.

They’d cover 15-30 miles a day, depending on conditions, Freeman said. That distance was about the same whether they were in a kayak or a dog sled.

“We’d take rest days for storms or in interesting places,” said Freeman. “We weren’t trying to break records, we just tried to get to know the land.”

They would share photos and stories on their blog and in messages sent to participating schools. At different times the Freemans would leave the trail for a month to speak to school assemblies. But for three years until April 5 they powered their way across what explorers once called The New World with their own arms and legs or a borrowed team of dogs.

Dave and Amy Freeman near
Tulita, Northwest Territories (Ron Doctor)

Two aspects of the trip would have frightened the mukluks off most — dog sledding across the remote expanse of northern Canada and kayaking thousands of miles on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

“Dog sledding was a little harder, because of the extreme cold,” said Freeman. “There were a lot of -35 to -55 degree days of cold in the far north, so that part was more challenging. We’ll get forty below in Minnesota sometimes, but it will warm up during the day. Up there, it doesn’t fluctuate. The cold just stays.”

They would take turns skiing and riding the dog sled to get through that leg of the journey. As for sea portion, Freeman said that was a breeze.

“For the most part the ocean was a highlight,” he said. “Feeling the ocean swell, the giant waves from across the ocean, looking out to know that next land was another continent. That was pretty powerful, especially on a 17-foot kayak.”

Freeman said the trip was designed to showcase the land and animals of North America, which did not disappoint. The Freemans saw a wide variety of wildlife, even scaring away a grizzly bear by mistake while trying to take a picture of a moose and coming eye to eye with a massive humpback whale.

“When we were planning we were thinking of landscapes, the wild undeveloped roadless regions and wildlife — whales, caribou, sea turtles,” said Dave. “But the people we met were some of the most interesting aspects of the journey. In planning we hadn’t anticipated that.”

The Freemans took rest days to meet with kids in villages across Canada. They spent five days helping clean up after Hurricane Sandy on the east coast. Friends joined them for part of the trip, but other times they set out on their own.

This isn’t the first time Dave and Amy have taken their “wilderness classroom” on such a grandiose field trip. They’ve paddled the Amazon before and keep a busy schedule guiding people through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Later this year the Freemans have plans for a book about their experiences. Dave and Amy are going to take some time off in their dual hometowns of Ely and Grand Marais, but kids are already sending them ideas for their next journey.

“We’re not sure what to do next,” said Dave. “We’ve been gone for most of last three years, so were going to spend some time reconnecting with friends and family. There will be something next.”

Fortunately, Earth is big enough to keep Amy and Dave Freeman busy for a long time, showing that same world to students all over the country.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range.  He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.

See photos and footage of Amy and Dave’s North American expedition below the jump.

Find out more about Dave and Amy’s Wilderness Classroom organization at their website.

See the introduction video:

The Freemans dog sledding in Northwest Territories (Van Conrad)
Dave Freeman kayaks with two humpback whales on the coast of Alaska. (Amy Freeman)

Amy and Dave Freeman landing at Key West, Florida, on April 4 to conclude their journey. (Bryan Hansel)

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