Paddles up

Ely couple begins 100-day journey to Washington, D.C.

K. Vandervort
Dozens of local supporters of Dave and Amy Freeman
Keith Vandervort

ELY – A rainy, windy August afternoon on the Kawishiwi River met David and Amy Freeman of Ely last Sunday as they began a 100-day journey to Washington, D.C. from the Voyageur Outward Bound School, near Ely.

From a distance their canoe looked like any one of hundreds of tan-colored vessels that can be seen on just about every vehicle around Ely during the summer.

But up close, this canoe looked different. That’s because this canoe has been displayed at Sustainable Ely for the past year, where supporters have covered the craft with signatures, silently voicing their support for continued protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from potential threats, such as copper-nickel mining.

The Freemans are paddling 2,000 miles from Ely to Washington, D.C. to ask President Barack Obama to prevent copper-nickel mining near waterways that flow into the BWCAW.

The Freemans have deep ties to the area and lead canoe, kayak, and dog sled trips into the BWCAW. They were named 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for their 11,647-mile, three-year trip across North America, connecting with school classrooms en route.

Their journey began with a send-off party at Outward Bound. Following a light lunch and a heavy downpour, supporters assembled into a paddle tunnel as the Freemans made their way to the river’s edge and the beginning of their journey. Almost 50 people in 18 canoes paddled with them for the first mile.

“A canoe is meant to be paddled,” David Freeman said just before they hit the water. He related how he and Amy visited Sustainable Ely on Sheridan Street last year and were told the canoe was going to be driven to the nation’s capitol with signatures and petitions. “We talked about it and decided we would make the trip with the canoe by water, the way it should be,” he said.

Amy Freeman read the first couple of paragraphs from Sigurd F. Olson’s “Singing Wilderness.” Then in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act (Sept. 3, 1964) by President Lyndon B. Johnson, they all sang “Happy Birthday.”

The Wilderness Act set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of wild lands throughout the United States, including the one-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area, for the use and benefit of the American people. Over the past 50 years, Congress has added over 100 million acres to this land preservation system. As many as 18,000 people work in the recreation and tourism industry in Northern Minnesota centered on the lakes, rivers, forests, wetlands, fish and wildlife of the Boundary Waters.

Copper-nickel mining in sulfide-bearing ore is currently being explored and studied. “Unlike taconite mines, the proposed sulfide-ore mines would cause acid mine drainage, threatening the pristine waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with sulfuric acid and other contaminants,” said Jerritt Johnston of Sustainable Ely. “Our jobs and our way of life are at risk and we are fighting back the only way we know, by canoeing from Ely to Washington, D.C. to tell our story to everyone who will listen.”

Follow their journey

After the canoe flotilla for the first mile, the Freemans made their way to Wintergreen Lodge on White Iron Lake and on Monday morning they headed into the BWCA, making their way this week to Grand Portage. They hope to hit Lake Superior by Sept. 1 and will lash the canoe to the deck of a 27-foot sailboat and head south to Grand Marais, Silver/Bay, Two Harbors and will be in Duluth Sept. 5-7 for a special celebration marking the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary.

“Along the way we will give presentations to community and school groups,” David Freeman said.

They will continue their journey along the south shore of Lake Superior to Ste. Sault Marie, Mich., on the east end of the lake, go through the Soo Locks and continue into Georgia Bay and the French River. From there they travel by rivers through Ottawa and Montreal to Lake Champlain, down the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay and hope to arrive in Washington, D.C. by Dec. 3.

They will be paddling about 1,400 miles and sailing approximately 600 miles. “We hope to make 15 to 25 miles per day,” David Freeman said. “Of course, the weather and other factors will ultimately determine our progress.”

Their journey can be followed at They will also be conducting educational programming along the way at

In addition, look for updates and photos in upcoming editions of the Timberjay.


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