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A Year In The Wilderness

April 22, 2016

In celebration of Earth Day, we caught up with two of our ambassadors who have made preserving the wilderness around them a lifestyle.

Dave & Amy Freeman are explorers who work as canoeing and dogsledding guides in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. The Boundary Waters is an area comprised of 1.1 million acres of pristine lakes and lush forests. The Freemans are also environmental advocates who’ve dedicated their lives to protecting the land they call home. When a proposal for a sulfide-ore copper mine threatened the Boundary Waters, they decided it was time to do something bold. Enter, A Year In The Wilderness. Dave and Amy decided to spend an entire year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to gain support for the protection of this land. We spoke with them this week to learn more about what it’s like to live off the grid while fighting to preserve the land you’re living on.

Living in the Minnesota wilderness for an entire year is a long time. Can you tell us more about how you came up with the idea for this trip?

A Year in the Wilderness was actually inspired by another journey through some of the most populated parts of North America. In the fall of 2014 Amy and I began a 100-day, 2,000-mile journey by canoe and sailboat from the Ely, Minnesota through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to Washington D.C. to raise awareness about the threats that a series of sulfide-ore copper mines being proposed on the edge of our nation's most popular Wilderness bring to the region. Our jobs and local economy, which is largely based on tourism and the Wilderness, are severely threatened by these mines.

We paddled a canoe signed by thousands of people to the capitol to draw national attention to this critical issue. Along the way we did over 40 presentations at colleges, microbreweries, libraries, outdoor stores, and a whole host of locations. We were struck by the fact that at every event we met people who have been to the Boundary Waters and care passionately about protecting this national treasure.

During that journey (Paddle to DC), we began working with and decided the best thing we could do to help protect the Boundary Waters was to spent a full year in the Wilderness in order to bear witness to this place and help build a national movement whose goal is to permanently protect the Boundary Waters watershed from sulfide-ore mining.

We’re curious about the packing process, how did you decide what gear to bring?

One thing that has become apparent to us during our adventures and specifically during A Year in the Wilderness is that less is often more. We have come to focus on reducing the gear we carry to the bare essentials and focus on buying top-notch products that will last a long time. This is also a lesson we try to follow when we are outside the Wilderness, limiting our purchases to things we really need and buying things that will last. We have found this is better for us, better for our wallets, and better for the planet as well.

A couple items we really rely on are our Helinox chairs (they are portable and very comfortable), our 19 foot Wenonah Itasca Canoe, and Cooke Custom Sewing ground tarp, which helps us keep our gear clean and dry. We also really like our Fry-Bake, which allows us to bake cakes and just about anything else using the heat from our BioLite CampStove.

At this point you’ve spent over 200 days in the wilderness, have you fallen into a daily routine? Can you tell us about what a typical day in the life looks like for you?

Every day is different, they vary with the seasons, the weather, and our goals for the day, but there are some constants. We typically get up between 6:30 and 7:30 AM, boil water, make coffee and oatmeal, granola, or grits for breakfast. From September through May it is typically cool or cold, so gathering and processing firewood which we use to heat our tent is a daily task. In the middle of the winter when the temperatures plunged to -30F, this task could take an hour or more each day. Now that the ice is melting and the temperatures have moderated, wood gathering and processing is much easier.

During the winter (December - April) we were joined by 3 sled dogs who helped us pull our food and supplies on two long Black River Sled Toboggans. A couple weeks ago our canoe was hauled into the Wilderness by volunteers and most of our winter supplies were hauled out. Two of the sled dogs were returned to their owner. One of the dogs, whose name is Tank, is joining us for the rest of the year and will ride in our canoe.

We are in a transition now from cross country skiing and pulling toboggans to canoeing. Some of the smallest lakes are now ice free and the medium sized lakes are partially covered in ice and very dangerous to travel on. The largest, deepest lakes like Knife Lake (where we are currently camped) is still safe to travel on with extreme caution, but the ice is deteriorating each day. We will probably camp in the same location for about two weeks while the lakes are melting and travel is difficult and dangerous, but typically we move campsite about 3 or 4 times a week.

Setting up and breaking down our campsite and moving from place to place take up a lot of our time. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is over 1 million acres. It is the largest roadless Wilderness east of the Rockies and north of the Everglades. There are more than 500 lakes connecting a maze of over 1,200 miles of canoe routes. In order to try and visit as many lakes as possible, we are constantly moving around. When we don't move our campsite we usually go out on day trips by canoe during the paddling season and on skis being pulled by the sled dogs during the winter.

We spend a lot of time cooking and eating. During the winter we do most of our cooking in our tent on our collapsible wood stove. When it is warm we typically cook outside and we have found our BioLite CampStove allows us to cook without the need for a gas stove and the use of fossil fuels.

We also spend a lot of time documenting our journey through social media; you can follow us through daily posts at @freemanexplore, as well as regular blog posts for Save the Boundary Waters, National Geographic Adventures, Canoe a Kayak Magazine, the Wilderness Classroom, and a variety of other websites. Our main purpose is to share the Wilderness with as many people as we can and inspire them to take action to help protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Do you have any advice for people interested in spending an extended amount of time outside and off the grid?

I would recommend that people do shorter trips into the Wilderness each season to build their skills and develop a system for organizing and packing the massive amounts of food as well as the different clothing and equipment that are required in different seasons. It is also important to think about filing your taxes, paying bills, and taking a care of random things that are required even when you are out in the Wilderness.

More than anything, if you head into the Wilderness for a day or a year, slow down and take time to appreciate the multitude of natural wonders happening all around you, the silence, the star filled sky, the untrammeled beauty.

Today is Earth Day and many people are looking for ways to make a difference and help protect our planet. How can the BioLite community support your campaign?

We encourage folks to sign the petition at and help protect this iconic Wilderness, which belongs to all of us and get involved in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters is a national treasure like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone; it is threatened and it needs all of us to be a voice for this quiet place.

We would also encourage people to spend time outside on Earth Day and bring a child, or someone who doesn't normally spend much time in nature outdoors.

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