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Settling in for a year in the wilderness

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Amy (left) and Dave Freeman squeeze their canoe between rocks after making a portage into Bald Eagle Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Sam Cook / / 10
Amy Freeman uses a device that measures water temperature, dissolved oxygen and conductivity. She and husband Dave Freeman are taking water readings on many of the lakes they pass through on their year in the wilderness. (Sam Cook / / 10
Amy Freeman prepares to throw the canoe on her shoulders as her husband, Dave Freeman, heads down the portage trail. The couple was making a day trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness north of Bald Eagle Lake. (Sam Cook / / 10
A whitetail doe and her two fawns swim across Gull Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely on an October morning. (Sam Cook / / 10
Amy Freeman nibbles a cookie as she watches the campfire at camp on Bald Eagle Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Sam Cook / / 10
Early on a cool October morning, Dave and Amy Freeman leave camp for the trip down Bald Eagle Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Freemans are spending an entire year in the wilderness area. (Sam Cook / / 10
Before a campfire on Bald Eagle Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Amy and Dave Freeman ponder spending all of the next year in the wilderness. (Sam Cook / / 10
Dave Freeman loads a barrel of food into the canoe as his wife, Amy Freeman, totes another before a day of paddling in the Boundary Wataers Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely. The Freemans have lived recently in both Ely and Grand Marais. (Sam Cook / / 10
A bald eagle takes flight over a Boundary Waters lake on an October afternoon. (Sam Cook / / 10

ON BALD EAGLE LAKE, BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS — The cool of an October evening has settled over the camp. Amy and Dave Freeman sit before a snapping fire of spruce and cedar at their camp on Bald Eagle Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The couple, who split time between Grand Marais and Ely, have been on the trail for 12 days. That’s a week or so longer than the typical canoe trip in this million-acre wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border.

But the Freemans are just getting started. They’re planning to spend a full year in America’s most popular wilderness area on a journey they call the “Year in the Wilderness.” They’ll be on the trail a full 365 days, through the fall freeze-up of lakes, through whatever a northern Minnesota winter can dish out, through the spring thaw and all of next summer.

The reality of that is setting in.

“As we entered the wilderness,” says Amy, 33, “it felt just like any other trip. But this is it. We’re out for a year.”

Though the trip may push their wilderness travel boundaries in some ways, the Freemans know something of long-distance travel. They were named among National Geographic’s “Adventurers of the Year” for 2014 after their three-year, 11,700-mile North American Odyssey by canoe, kayak and dog team. Together, they’ve logged about 30,000 miles of expedition travel by those means.

Part-time dogsledding and canoe guides, the Freemans also operate the Wilderness Classroom, a website for teachers through which they connect tens of thousands of students with the wonders they encounter on the trail.

Working in wilderness

Dave Freeman, 39, has been planning to spend a year in the wilderness since before he met Amy at a Grand Marais kayak shop in 2005. They’ve been married since 2010.

The Freemans have made much of their living in recent years in or near the Boundary Waters. They’ve both guided dogsledding trips for Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge near Ely, and this past summer both guided canoe trips for Ely Outfitting Co. After moving north from Chicago in the 1990s, Dave worked several summers for Sawbill Canoe Outfitters near Tofte. The couple passed through the Boundary Waters on their North American Odyssey from 2010 to 2013, when they traveled from the West Coast to the Arctic Ocean and eventually down to Key West, Fla.

But this year in the wilderness will be a contrast to their more far-flung treks. They’re making the trip in part to call attention to the issue of copper mining that’s proposed just outside the Boundary Waters southeast of Ely. But the trip will be different in other ways as well.

“On other trips, we were often in unfamiliar territory,” Dave says, “like dogsledding in the Northwest Territories or paddling down the East Coast. On those trips, there was always a need to get someplace. Now, we’re documenting our trip. If we want to spend some time taking photos when the light is good, we can do that. In the past, there was this constant pressure of getting from Point A to Point B.”

They started their trip Sept. 23 on the Kawishiwi River near Ely. They made five camps in the 12 days it took them to reach Bald Eagle Lake. On days off, they do laundry and send back satellite or smartphone updates from the trail to the Wilderness Classroom and social media outlets. They also use layover days to take water-quality readings for the U.S. Forest Service and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Cold coming on

Already, nights are growing crisp on the trail. Nearly all of the loons have left for the Atlantic or Gulf coasts. Each evening, migrating ducks and Canada geese descend into the wild rice where the nearby Isabella River enters the lake. The Freemans sleep in a teepee-style tent with a collapsible wood stove inside.

“In another two weeks,” Dave says, “we’ll be cooking in there. We’re just waiting to make sure all the bears are hibernating before we start cooking in the tent.”

Their route is loose and flexible, but over the next few days, the Freemans will work their way up the South Kawishiwi River to Lake One east of Ely, then up to Basswood and Knife lakes and beyond.

January should find them on lakes north of Grand Marais. Next May and June, they’ll explore the far eastern end of the BWCAW. They figure to reach about 500 lakes and rivers in their year on the water.

Outside support

About every two weeks, the Freemans will be resupplied with food by friends who volunteer to paddle, dogsled, ski or snowshoe into the wilderness. When freeze-up is imminent, the Freemans will get a larger resupply of food in case travel becomes impossible before the ice is safe. The same will happen in the spring when ice conditions begin to deteriorate.

Just before freeze-up, mushing friend Frank Moe of Hovland will come in to exchange the Freemans’ canoe for two toboggans and three of his sled dogs — Acorn, Ace and Tank. In spring, the dogs will depart and the Freemans will be paddling again.

Already, several paddlers have made day trips to visit the Freemans, bringing brownies, apple-rhubarb cobbler, cherries, tomatoes and zucchini bread.

“People bringing us fresh vegetables and things — that makes us realize there’s something more than just us in this,” Dave says.

“It’s been heartwarming to know people can be part of this and want to be a part of it,” Amy says.

The water testing they’re doing along the way will offer some discipline to their days.

“It provides some structure for us and gets us out there instead of sitting around camp,” Dave says. “We’ll see more things.”

During a day trip this past week, they saw a doe and two fawns swimming across a bay of Gull Lake, an otter in a small creek and fledgling jack pines coming on where the 2011 Pagami Creek fire swept through the canoe country.

Compatible paddlers

The evening fire burns down to coals. A mallard quacks in the darkness over the water.

The Freemans sit in the fire’s glow reflecting on the day and telling stories of previous trips. They seem perfectly suited for this venture. Together, they have biked and paddled across South America, paddled the entire shoreline of Lake Superior, traveled for weeks by dog team across Canada, paddled and sailed on Lake Superior.

In the Freemans’ relationship, there seems to be no alpha figure. They are interchangeable parts of the same team. They trade off paddling bow and stern. Sometimes Dave carries the canoe on portages. Sometimes Amy does. Both cook.

By nature, each is unhurried and deliberate. They respect each other’s judgment.

Where they differ, they complement each other.

“We’re good at different things,” Dave says. “Amy is into attention to detail and organizing. I’m more like bigger-picture and bulldozing ahead. She makes sure all the pieces I missed along the way get put in place.”

The first trip they made together was a 2006 circumnavigation of Lake Superior by kayak for two months.

“After that first trip,” Amy says, “we knew what it was like to travel with each other, and we knew we were compatible.”

As for the rigors and deprivations of this four-season Boundary Waters endeavor, the couple does not consider those hardships.

“You face challenges however you’re living,” Dave says. “I don’t see it any different out here than living in a city. If you don’t feel comfortable out in the woods, I think you’d have trouble understanding that.”

In the middle of the night, a pack of wolves lifts its mingling voices into a chorus of howls on two occasions. Their howling is a reminder that there are permanent residents in this wilderness and that even a yearlong sojourn in the Boundary Waters is but a moment in the long throw of time.

Before dawn the next morning, the ducks and geese lift off in a thunder of wingbeats. Once above the pines, they bank over the ocher ridges, headed south to their winter homes.

The Freemans load their canoe and paddle north into a light headwind on Bald Eagle Lake. They already are home.

One permit covers entire trip

Under Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness camping rules, visitors must have travel permits. The Freemans may travel in the Boundary Waters for a year with the appropriate permits but may not occupy the same campsite for more than 14 consecutive days.

More online

To follow Dave and Amy Freeman’s “Year in the Wilderness,” visit or go to