MINNEAPOLIS — Two experienced adventurers who paddled, portaged and sailed 2,000 miles from northern Minnesota to Washington, D.C., say they plan to keep up the fight in the new year to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from copper-nickel mining.
Amy and Dave Freeman set out Aug. 24 from Ely. They canoed 180 miles through the BWCA, then portaged to Lake Superior. They strapped their canoe to a sailboat for the next 600 miles to Lake Huron, then switched back to the canoe for the final 1,300 miles, traveling mostly by rivers and canals across parts of Canada and the eastern states. They reached the Potomac waterfront in Washington on Dec. 2 — 101 days after they set out.
The Freemans wanted to call attention to the threat they say copper-nickel mining poses to the Boundary Waters and to mark the 50th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act, which protects pristine areas such as the BWCA. Their next plan is a bike ride across Minnesota in 2015 hauling another canoe to press their message.
But it won't be the same signature-covered "petition canoe" they paddled to Washington. They gave that to the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that oversees the BWCA. Dave Freeman said the bike tour, which is being organized by the Ely-based group Save The Boundary Waters, will last about six weeks and a large group of people will participate for a week or two at a time.
"I think it's going to be a lot of fun. We're going to try and hit as many of the college campuses in Minnesota as possible," he said.
Environmentalists are fighting copper-nickel proposals for Minnesota because the metals are in minerals that contain sulfides, which can leach sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. The project farthest along, PolyMet near Babbitt, isn't in a watershed that flows into the BWCA, but the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely is. Mining supporters say the minerals can be mined safely and the area needs the jobs.
The Freemans make their living by running canoe tours and dogsled trips. National Geographic named them to its list of Adventurers of the Year for 2014 after they paddled, dogsledded and hiked nearly 12,000 miles across North America over three years while 85,000 elementary and middle-school students tracked their progress from Seattle to Key West, Florida, via their Wilderness Classroom nonprofit.
After they returned home to Ely, they visited Sustainable Ely, a group that was gathering signatures on a canoe as a petition to protect the Boundary Waters. When they learned the group was planning to drive the canoe to Washington, they suggested paddling it instead.
One of the hardest parts of the journey was the Grand Portage, a historic 9-mile trail from the lakes and streams along the U.S.-Canada border to Lake Superior. Hard rain one night turned the portage into a slog through deep mud.
One of the most beautiful was a stretch across Ontario.
"We happened to hit peak fall color right as we were on the Mattawa River, so that was a fun time. It's a pretty steep river valley, so we just got a lot of gorgeous, gorgeous color," Amy Freeman said.
Among the scariest was crossing New York Harbor, dodging ferries and other commercial traffic in frigid waters.
Along the way they held over 40 events, meeting with over 2,700 people to raise awareness about the Boundary Waters. They gathered over 10,000 petition signatures and gave more than 50 interviews. In Washington, they met with the Forest Service chief, Thomas Tidwell, who accepted their canoe. The agency plans to display the canoe at its headquarters.
"It seemed like a lot of people, whether they were familiar with the Boundary Waters or not ... just really wanted to see protection for a wilderness area," Amy Freeman said.