A flotilla of supporters escorted Amy and Dave Freeman as the couple departed Duluth on Sunday morning en route to Washington, D.C., with the trusty yellow canoe they’ve dubbed “Sig.”

Dave explained that the name pays tribute to Sigurd Olson, one of the early champions of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and it also is a playful riff on the hundreds of signatures that adorn their Wenonah Minnesota III. They’ve transformed the canoe into a sort of floating petition, signed by people concerned about the prospect of copper-nickel mines being developed on the edge of the wilderness.

The Freemans set out on Ely’s Kawishiwi River on Aug. 24, paddling north to Basswood Lake, then east along the border route to Grand Portage.

They warned that contamination from a proposed copper-nickel mine could travel the same route, poisoning some of the cleanest waters on the planet.

“Our goal is to show people all over the nation what a special place the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is and why it needs to be defended,” Dave Freeman said.

“Everyone deserves the right to dip a cup into the middle of Basswood Lake and drink it down just like I do,” he said.

Amy Freeman noted that other copper mines exploiting sulfide formations, such as the one now being eyed on Minnesota’s Iron Range, have inflicted significant damage to the environment.

Proponents of nonferrous mining in northern Minnesota argue that technological advances will allow for safe development of mines in the area and also tout the economic benefit of jobs that a new form of mining could bring to the region.

But Amy Freeman said that mining jobs will last only as long as the copper-nickel deposit remains commercially viable and could threaten the future of tourism in the area.

“Our jobs as guides and outfitters depend on the health of the ecosystem. About 18,000 tourism-based jobs depend on the pristine nature of the Boundary Waters,” she said.

Dave Freeman said that more than a quarter of a million people visit the BWCAW each year, making it the most popular wilderness destination in the country.

Once on Lake Superior, the Freemans traded in their paddles for wind power, lashing their 20-foot canoe to the deck of a 27-foot Ericson sailboat. With favorable winds Sunday, they expected to reach Cornucopia before nightfall. They aim to sail along the south shore of Superior, crossing into Canada at Sault Ste. Marie and then traveling up the north shore of Lake Huron.

Switching back to their canoe, the Freemans then plan to paddle the French, Mettawa and Ottawa rivers on the way to Ottawa, the capital of Canada and seat of its government. They will continue their 2,000-mile journey through Montreal and then south through Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, using canals to reach Chesapeake Bay and finally Washington and Capitol Hill by Dec. 3, if all goes according to plan.

Dave and Amy Freeman are no strangers to ambitious trips. In 2014, they were named National Geographic Adventurers of the year, in recognition of their three-year 11,700-mile North American Odyssey, which took them across the continent by canoe, kayak and dogsled. Along the way, the Freemans provided updates and reports to young people and educators through their nonprofit Wilderness Classroom.

It was shortly after the completion of that trip that the Freemans returned home to Grand Marais and learned of Sustainable Ely’s plan to drive a canoe covered with the signatures of copper mining opponents to D.C. They got to talking.

“We thought: Canoes are meant to be paddled, and maybe we should paddle it to the Capitol instead,” Dave said. After about a year of planning, the Freemans finally set out on their adventure a couple weeks ago.

The original canoe was so full of signatures that the Freemans had to break out another, which also is quickly filling with ink. The first canoe will be sent by road to join the one the couple is paddling to D.C.

Raven Blackmore, a sophomore attending Vermilion Community College in Ely, showed up on Duluth’s Park Point Sunday morning to demonstrate her opposition to copper-nickel mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters as well as her support for the Freemans’ mission.

“If there’s even the risk that this mining could harm the Boundary Waters, I don’t think we should do it,” she said.

Dave Zentner of Duluth said he believes the Freemans’ journey could help put the debate about copper mining in Northeastern Minnesota on a national stage.

“It’s a heart-felt, community-based effort to raise awareness about our concerns, and I think people will recognize the sincerity what they’re trying to do,” he said, predicting that the offbeat trip is likely to attract national attention.

Dave Freeman said he ideally would like to present the canoes to President Barack Obama.

“I’m hopeful, but obviously he’s a very busy person. I’m optimistic we will at least be able to give them to someone high up in the administration, who will listen to our views,” he said.

In addition to collecting signatures on their canoe, the Freemans also are seeking backers online. To learn more, or to register your support, visit paddletoDC.org.

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