Expeditious: Dave & Amy Freeman

Quick Interviews from the Edge of Adventure


What does one say about Dave and Amy Freeman? I struggle to find a description. Most complements are inadequate at explaining this iconic couple. It's not as easy as "explorers," or "conservationists," because they constantly do so much more. They've been awarded the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for 2014. And they are currently spending a year in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, of Minnesota, to preserve the threatened area. But they have a way of doing so much more with their adventures that truly educates and inspires entire generations. 

And that isn't an overstatement. Do just a little bit of research about what these two have been up to, you'll find them to be even more extraordinary. For example, the North American Odyssey took three years to complete and covered nearly 12,000 miles. Some might think 12,000 miles of wilderness would be enough to keep them busy. But they would be wrong. Dave and Amy took this expedition as an opportunity to teach. Around 75,000 students, from across the globe, actively followed them, and helped to shape the expedition. 

These are just a couple of reason why I consider them to be the the great adventure couple of our time. Therefore, I am honored and humbled at the opportunity to get a moment of their time, and to pick the brains of these two dedicated explorers. I encourage you to follow their current expedition, to preserve a million acres in the Boundary Waters, at: SaveTheBoundaryWaters.org.  

-M. Waterford



Mountain Folk Adventure: Dave, you said in the fourth grade that you knew you wanted to be an explorer. For those that look up to you now, can you describe how you got started? And at what point did you feel that you were that guy?

Dave Freeman: I have enjoyed being outside and spending time "exploring" everything from vacant lots full of weeds, looking at bugs, snakes, creeks, and forest preserves near my home. Slowly over time I started visiting wilder places and building more interest and experience in wilderness travel. The Boundary Waters was the first true wilderness I visited. I was about 13 years old, and I was hooked by my first visit and knew I wanted to return. That is one of the Boundary Waters' greatest assets; it is a vast wilderness, covering a million acres, but it is accessible to people of wide ranges of ages and skill levels.

I am not sure I ever had an "Aha" moment where I knew I was going to be an "explorer." I have always been drawn to wild places and it just came naturally. 

MFA: A Masters in Art Therapy is hardly an entry into an adventure lifestyle like you have. Amy, can you share how you got started into exploration? When did you feel as though your adventures needed to go full time?

Amy Freeman: My introduction to the BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) was similar to Dave's -- going on canoe camping trips with my parents when I was a similar age. There was the appeal of just being outside for me as a kid too, from playing with friends in the neighborhood, to doing homework in the backyard in the shade of our plum tree. This love of nature was strong throughout my whole life. Whenever we would visit the North Shore of Lake Superior or the BWCAW, I would feel a sense of loss during the drive home. My free time was filled with planning future canoe or hiking trips and reading Sigurd Olson books. So naturally, I sought out a summer job up here while I was in college. First I worked at an outfitter and then progressed to guiding kayak trips on Lake Superior. During Grad. school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I realized how much I missed northern Minnesota,  and so continued working "up north" during the summers of Grad. school. After finishing, I decided to spend a full year in northern Minnesota and was hooked. Dave and I kayaked around Lake Superior together and I realized that I would be happy doing more big adventures of that nature.

MFA: So many explorers set out on their own, how has travelling with a partner changed your experiences? 

D&A: We are able to accomplish things together that we would not be able to do on our own. We both feel lucky to have found a spouse that shares the same desires to spend extended periods of time in wild places. Its not always easy, but we typically work well together and are happiest when we are out in the Wilderness.

MFA: You (both) have inspired and touched the lives of thousands of young people all over the world. Are there any explorers from the past or present that are heroes of yours? (or) Who did you look up to as a child? 

Dave: I always loved reading National Geographic as a child and before I could read looking at all the photos. When I was young I wanted to be a marine biologist and looked up to Jaques Cousteau?

Amy: I also was into reading National Geographic. My grandma had a subscription, so any time I visited her I would get more magazines to read. I read every Sigurd Olson book by the time I was in high school. He definitely had a big influence on my love of nature. Other inspiration came from Rachel Carson, Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall.

MFA: That makes three of us that were inspired by National Geographic. And Dave, Cousteau was and still is an explorer worth admiring! 

You (both) know that it takes money to travel, and your ability to inspire exploration is obvious. What would you tell someone that comes from a low income circumstances, but wants to explore the world and do what you do?

Dave: Adventures don't have to cost a lot of money. In fact most of our adventures have been done on shoestring budgets. Camping is almost always available for free, the newest, greatest gear is nice, but not necessary, and rice, beans, and oatmeal are cheap. Airline tickets and fancy stuff are not necessary; grand adventures can start from your door step. 

MFA: Dave, you have said the risk to leaving family and friends for long periods to chase this incredible life. Has that risk been worth the reward?

Dave: We have given up many things in order to shape our lives in the way we have. Long periods of time away from our friends and family are one of the things that is hard. However, when we are able to spend time visit our family, or hanging out with friends, we are often able to devote a considerable amount of time to them. We might miss Thanksgiving and a few birthdays, but we also may visit ours parents for a full week another time.

Amy: I don't know that I would call our lack of family/friend visits a risk. It is a bit of a hardship. Friends have gotten married and had kids while we've been away. We are sad to have missed these big events, but we stay in touch through email, phone conversations and social media. When we return home, we seem to be able to pick up where we left off.

MFA: What would you say to someone considering that decision, and that might need a little encouragement to get them out the door, exploring the world around them?

Dave: Just do it. I would especially encourage people that are young, or at a transition in their lives, perhaps at a change in careers, or retirement to head out on an adventure. What that looks like is different for everyone. The important thing is to just get out and do it.

Amy: The best advice I ever got is that you don't need to have every last duck in a row before you head out. Yes, you want to plan and be organized, but if you get too caught up in the minutiae, you'll never get out the door. You don't need to have a super huge, expensive adventure planned. We didn't start by planning a 11,700 mile expedition across North America. We started by spending long weekends canoeing in the BWCAW. Over time, our skill increased and we pushed ourselves to go farther.

MFA: Of all the diverse climates that you both have experienced, which ones provide the biggest challenges to each of you? And why? 

D&A: Traveling in cold, winter climates is typically the most challenging because almost everything is harder in extreme cold.

MFA: What type of instances do you each find the most awe-inspiring on your travels (i.e. interaction with animals, good/bad weather, “acts of god” like wild fires, hurricanes, etc)?

Dave: We have had so many amazing instances during our wilderness travels. It is hard to pick a few. Swimming with pink river dolphins in the Amazon, coming eyeball to eyeball with humpback whales while kayaking in southeast Alaska, and dogsledding across Great Bear Lake in a blizzard are a few that come to mind.

MFA: I’ve had a few sketchy moments on my travels, and I’ve not been out nearly as much as either of you. Thinking back on all of your expeditions, has there ever been a moment where either of you have thought, “I might not get out of this one?” If so, would you briefly share that story with us? And what got you through it?

D&A: We're quite conservative when it comes to risk evaluation during our expeditions. If the weather is really bad and there is a small craft advisory, we're not going to launch our kayaks that day. It may make for fewer tales hair-raising adventure, but it means we live to travel another day.

Traveling during the blizzard on Great Bear Lake is up there in terms of risk. . . but we were traveling with two friends who we trusted and we knew the abilities of our sled dogs. We evaluated the risk and went for us. A tailwind pushed us along and we made it across McVicar Arm of Great Bear Lake. Once we made it to the other side, we would stay hunkered down for another 48 hours before we could travel again. Once we arrived in the next community, we found out how bad the weather had been-- closing most of the winter roads, knocking down power lines, blowing off roofs in Inuvik, and taking the life of one local elder who attempted to ride his snowmobile from his cabin to town in the thick of it.

MFA: You both spend so much time in the wilderness. Have you experienced any sort of culture shock coming back after a long trip? or is it a harder transition away from the comforts and familiar faces of home?

D&A: We are pretty used to transitioning. I think many years ago we had more profound feelings when we were transitioning after an adventure. In a nutshell I think our adventures have made us realize that we don't need a lot to be happy and life can seem excessive and wasteful when you transition from living out of a backpack to living a more mainstream life. Over time we have found ways to simplify our lives because wherever we are living we have found that living simply works best for us.

MFA: If you had to pick one, what is your favorite way to travel in the wilderness? (i.e. Canoe, Dog Sled,Kayak, Bicycle, Skis) And why?

D&A: Dogsled is our favorite way to travel because we love working with the dogs, and even though it is a very challenging way to travel it is very rewarding in many ways.

MFA: Of all your many accomplishments, what sticks out to each of you as the most significant (i.e. Nat. Geo Award, interaction with students, interactions with locals, gathering of data on your research projects, your conservation efforts, etc)?

D&A: Being picked as Adventurers of the Year by National Geographic in 2014 was a real honor and has opened a lot of doors for us, but the people that we have met during our adventures really stand out. Kids that have come up to ask questions after school assemblies, visiting with elders in remote communities in the Amazon and across northern Canada. Folks that opened their homes in communities of all sizes and given us a glimpse of what their lives are like. 

MFA: One year in the wilderness...AWESOME. Hows it going?

D&A: Things are going well. We have been out in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for about 2 months and are really settling into a rhythm now.

MFA: Can you briefly tell us about the camp gear you’ve chosen (sleep system, cooking essentials, etc)?

D&A:: We are using a tipi style tent made by Seek Outside and have a collapsible titanium woodstove, which we use to heat the tent and cook during cooler weather. It is proving to be an ideal shelter.

Right now we are using Sea to Summit Talus 2 sleeping bags, and we will switch to our -40 winter bags in about a month. 

We pack our food and communication equipment in two 60 liter blue barrels that fit into a barrel harness made by Granite Gear. We have found barrels to be a great way to store, organize, and carry our food and fragile items like our communication equipment. We do most of our cooking on our woodstove, but in the summer when it is warm we use an MSR dragonfly. 

MFA:  Are there any nonessential comfort items you bring on a trip such as this (i.e. entertainment, foods, etc)? 

D&A: We have Helinox chairs, which are probably our biggest luxury. They are super comfortable and only weigh a pound or two. We also carry a tiny radio and a Kindle. We love to read and often read out loud if we have time in the evening before we go to bed.

MFA: What are you most looking forward to over the next year? What are you least looking forward to?

D&A: We are looking forward to experience the Boundary Waters in every season, especially the freeze and thaw because we have spent very little time in the Wilderness during those times. We are not sure what we are least looking forward to, we typically try to focus on the positive.

MFA: What can readers do to help save the Boundary Waters?

D&A: The most important thing they can do is visit SaveTheBoundaryWaters.org and sign the petition. They can also call or write their elected officials to let them know that the Boundary Waters Watershed needs to be protected from the proposed sulfide-ore copper mines. They can also follow @savetheBWCA and @freemanexplore on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, share this issue with their friends and people in their communities and encourage them to sign the petition and take action.

MFA: Other than SaveTheBoundaryWaters.org, what are some other good organizations you would suggest to readers to get involved in conservation?

D&A:There are many good conservation organizations. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society are two that Amy and I support. It is great to support organizations that are working on both local and national level if you can. 

MFA: Last one! What is your favorite way to cook fish in the wilderness?

D&A: It depends on the type of fish. I love breaded walleye fillets pan fried in hot oil. Lake Trout is delicious grilled with the skin on over a bed of hot coals.

MFA: Thank you both so much for taking the time to share a bit more about yourself and your travels. We, here at Mountain Folk Adventure, wish you continued success and all the luck in the world!