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Out of the wilderness: Freemans welcomed back to civilization after year in Boundary Waters

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Dave Freeman (center, in red) talks to some of the boaters who paddled out to meet him and wife Amy (in blue) on Friday near Ely after they left the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness after a year-long stay in the wilderness. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Dave and Amy Freeman near the end of their Year in the Wilderness expedition on Friday near Ely. Tank was one of three dogs that joined the couple for winter at freeze-up, and they kept him on for the rest of the trip. (Steve Kuchera / / 5
Amy and Dave Freeman (foreground) are greeted by supporters at River Point Resort and Outfitting Co. on Birch Lake near Ely on Friday. (Steve Kuchera / / 5
Longtime friend Johnnie Hyde (left) greets Amy Freeman with a hug at River Point Resort and Outfitting Co. on Friday. Hyde visited the Freemans in the BWCAW earlier this month. (Steve Kuchera / / 5

ELY — After a year spent entirely within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Dave and Amy Freeman of Grand Marais paddled out on Friday afternoon into a flotilla of well-wishers on the Kawisihiwi River south of Ely.

More than 100 paddlers in canoes and kayaks made their way up Birch Lake to meet the Freemans, and many more waited back on shore at River Point Resort and Outfitting Co. The paddlers greeted the Freemans with cheers and applause, then closed in, gunwale to gunwale, to visit with the wilderness travelers. Many of those gathered had made trips into the wilderness over the past year to resupply the Freemans and their dogs with food or gear.

The Freemans — Dave is 39, Amy 34 — spent the year in the canoe country to bring national attention to what they say are threats posed by the proposed Twin Metals copper and nickel mine just outside the wilderness. The Freemans received financial and logistical support for their trip from Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a coalition of groups that opposes sulfide-ore mining near the wilderness.

Re-entry begins

The colorful flotilla and the hiss of an occasional car passing by on the Minnesota Highway 1 bridge nearby was perhaps more stimulation than the Freemans had witnessed in a year.

"It is a little scary coming back," Dave Freeman said. "Coming out of the wilderness to this place where we're constantly stimulated is going to feel overwhelming at first."

The Freemans, with sled dog Tank sitting just in front of Amy, joined the flotilla for the return trip to River Point Resort.

During their 366 days in the wilderness, the Freemans paddled 2,000 miles, traveled about 500 lakes and rivers and camped at 120 different sites. They traveled by canoe, skis, snowshoes, dog team and on foot.

Forgotten on this balmy September afternoon were the 30-below-zero nights of January and the slush that made winter travel difficult. They had witnessed the fall departure and spring return of loons. They listened to moose in the rut grunting behind their tent. They were followed by several wolves over the ice a short distance one winter day.

To know the Freemans is to know people who are completely at home in the wilderness. Almost nothing fazes them, although Dave did have a close call during fall freeze-up when he fell through weak ice but quickly extracted himself.

A number of paddlers gather around Dave and Amy Freeman on the Kawishiwi River near Ely on Friday. Steve Kuchera / News Tribune

Outside contact

Although the Freemans roamed this million-acre wilderness for a year, it wasn't as if they were isolated from civilization. They beamed up daily blog posts and regular podcasts for social media and other websites.

In addition, by the Freemans' estimate, they welcomed 300 visitors who brought food or gear, dropped off or picked up sled dogs or just came to travel with the couple for a few days.

"Our greatest fear was being forgotten about once we entered the wilderness," Dave wrote in a recent blog post.

That fear turned out to be unfounded.

At the resort, the Freemans thanked all those who had supported them. An evening of food and music would follow.

"Amy and I are looking forward to the food and the music, then we're going to head back out there," Dave Freeman joked with the assembled well-wishers.

At one point Amy Freeman broke in tears and buried her head on Dave's shoulder. The tears were over the departure of Tank, who was returning to his owner, musher Frank Moe of Grand Marais. Moe had loaned the Freemans three of his huskies, and two were returned to him when spring arrived. The Freemans didn't want to part with all three dogs and kept Tank for the rest of the trip.

Seasoned travelers

The Freemans met in the mid-2000s working at an outdoor shop in Grand Marais. The first significant journey they made together was to paddle kayaks around Lake Superior. Deep immersion in wild places is not new to the Freemans, who earned National Geographic honors as "Explorers of the Year" in 2014 after their 11,700-mile North American Odyssey expedition by kayak, canoe and dogsled across much of the continent.

Since they met in 2005, they've also made a 3,000-mile traverse of South America, including the Amazon River. In the fall of 2014 the Freemans paddled 2,000 miles from Ely to Washington, D.C., to raise concerns about proposed copper mining adjacent to the BWCAW.

But this trip was different from all of those because the Freemans never came to settlements or villages. This time, they were always surrounded by wilderness, and they were on a mission.

"We'll never be the same, I think," Dave Freeman said. "It's changed us forever."

Mining issue

Twin Metals plans a large mining operation southeast of Ely along the Kawishiwi River, which ultimately flows into the BWCAW. Twin Metals officials have repeatedly said they will abide by all state and federal water-quality regulations and that the BWCAW will not be affected by its mining operations. The company has not yet submitted any proposal for environmental review but has suggested it would process its ore outside the BWCAW watershed.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has weighed in on the controversy, saying he opposes the proposed mining near the edge of the Boundary Waters. He has prohibited the Department of Natural Resources from allowing Twin Metals access to state lands as the company does exploration and preliminary environmental study.

Becky Rom of Ely, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said the Freemans' efforts have raised awareness of the Boundary Waters.

"I feel they caught the imagination of the American people," Rom said. "The fundamental question we, the American people, must face is whether or not an industry viewed as the most toxic industry in America belongs adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness."

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, an industry trade association, declined to comment for this story.

Pace quickens

The pace of the Freemans' life will increase dramatically now that civilization has embraced them again.

They will travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers on Monday. They will be working on a movie about their year in the wilderness, due out in October. A book also is planned.

This winter they will work part-time as guides for Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, where they have worked in previous winters.

For more information

Read more about the Freemans' year in the wilderness on their website,