With a shiny new masters in art therapy and a permanent record chock full of honor rolls achieved, expectations met and rules followed, Amy Freeman (then known as Amy Voytilla) faced two options — a nice nine-to-five job, or a physically daunting two-month kayak trip around the 1,100-mile perimeter of Lake Superior with her then-boyfriend. The year was 2006.
“I felt like I should continue on my career path, but I just couldn’t do it. It would have squashed my soul,” said the ever-beaming 31-year-old, laughing at the melodrama. In Amy’s relaxed world, decisions are either right or righter. “Plus, we wanted to see if we could really do it. What’s around the bend? That’s what drives us.”
Amy and Dave Freeman did circumnavigate Lake Superior, and have continued to build a life, and a livelihood, based on outdoor adventure.
The potent mix of curiosity, love of the outdoors and appetite for challenge has fueled many an adventurer, but unlike others who were funded by wealthy families or lived in exotic locales, the Freemans’ adventuring spirit sprung from modest, ordinary Midwest circumstances. So the fact that these kids from the block crossed the Canadian wilderness by dog sled and paddled the Amazon makes their life at once attainable and cinematic.
Growing up outdoors
Dave Freeman, 37, grew up in suburban Western Springs, Ill., playing hockey, soccer, football, car camping with his family — anything outdoors. A church-sponsored canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in his junior high years sparked a lifelong connection to that region. “I was just hooked,” he said. At 16, Freeman talked his parents into letting him go on a five-day solo canoe trip there.
“Being outdoors, the physicality of it, being able to travel and eat and take care of myself outside — I couldn’t get enough,” he said.
Still, like his suburban peers, he did college. He attended the University of Colorado, studying anthropology and biology because they seemed likely avenues to an outdoors job. He worked canoe rentals his junior year of high school and soon started guiding excursions through the BWCA for Sawbill Canoe Outfitters. Days off were hoarded for solo ventures. The summer after he graduated from college, in 1999, he returned to Sawbill.
“When fall came, all my friends were getting jobs,” he said. “Instead, I paired up with one of the experienced guides at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely. I got food, a place to live and $1,400 per month plus tips. It was apparent I could make a living doing something I loved.”
In the winter of 2001, Freeman and Eric Frost, a friend with an education degree, developed the idea of Wilderness Classroom to bring the sort of real-world excitement to schools that Freeman wished he’d had as a child. He sent posts and tiny photos via SAT technology during a six-week dog sled trip to five elementary schools.
“I was blown away when I visited the schools later,” Freeman said, “because the kids remembered everything I posted. They were really engaged. I thought, I’ve really stumbled across something here.”
Wilderness Classroom was registered as a nonprofit in 2002, offering free curriculum that followed the spring and fall expeditions Freeman funded by dog sled and canoe guiding. He sought out sponsors who donated gear.
Amy Voytilla’s pleasant St. Paul childhood also demonstrated a predilection for being outdoors, though her family’s first BWCA experience was anything but encouraging — too much gear, too many portages, horrific bugs.
“I only remembered the good parts — lying on a rock at the edge of the water, listening to loons, the outline of pine trees against the sky,” she said. “I started craving being there.”
Like Dave, her energies were spent getting to wild places by whatever means necessary, including such schemes as joining the cross country ski club at Macalester College (“I was not a good skier”), where she majored in art and psychology, working summers for an outfitter in Grand Marais, and in summer 2003, guiding kayak trips with Superior Coastal Sports. The fact that she was a self-taught recreational paddler was only a minor impediment.
“I admitted I had never used a spray skirt and didn’t know rescue techniques, but John Amren [owner of Superior Coastal Sports] was willing to teach me,” she said.
The voyage begins
Amy and Dave met in Grand Marais in 2005. Adventure ensued. They married in March 2010, outdoors on White Iron Lake near Ely.
The Freemans have adopted a yearly cycle. They generate revenue during the winter and summer by guiding dog sled and canoe trips, while also writing grants when they’re not on the trails. This has enabled ever longer and more complex expeditions come spring and fall.
By letting kids help pick their destinations, they’ve crossed South America by bike and canoe (2007 - 2008), visited polar bear country near Hudson Bay (2009), and trekked 11,700 miles through North America by dog sled, canoe and kayak (2011 - 2013). Wilderness Classroom curriculum, used by 85,000 schoolchildren worldwide, is still free, but school presentations run $500 apiece.
There’s a synergy of scale: As more schools are involved and expeditions expand, media coverage increases. The Freemans were recently named 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, for example.
Recognition like this makes it easier to secure sponsors. Wenonah and Current Designs have provided the Freemans with canoes and kayaks from their very first expedition, but now they also have the support of Clif Bar, North Water Paddle Sports Equipment, ExOfficio clothing, Granite Gear and others in the outdoor business.
The Freemans have never taken out a loan, and keep costs low by doing everything from bookkeeping to web design on their own. “We’ve made choices to live simply,” said Dave, referring to their small property near Grand Marais complete with a mortgage-free, off-the-grid yurt. They share a Toyota Yaris and a single cellphone.
Yes, adventuring is a low-budget operation. Unless you’re Teddy Roosevelt. Rainforests being especially popular with their virtual crew, and this being the 100-year anniversary of Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazonian River of Doubt, the Freemans will retrace Roosevelt’s jungly path May through June of this year. It’s another long day at the office for these modern adventurers.
Sarah Barker uses writing to fund adventures from her home base in St. Paul.