Could you spend a year in the wilderness? This couple did.

Words: Mandy Burkholder
Photos: Dave and Amy Freeman

Meet the wilderness couple who ditched civilization to explore the wild and save the environment

Ever dream of ditching your day job and heading into the wilderness for good? That’s exactly what Dave and Amy Freeman did. But instead of chasing some kind of Chris McCandless pipedream, they spent an entire year in the wild fighting for the environment. 

On September 23rd, 2015, the Freemans said goodbye to civilization and entered Minnesota’s Boundary Waters with two goals in mind. The first, document the unique beauty of the region to help shine a light on the dangers of a proposed copper mine operation. The second? Stay alive.

Read more

What the couple, who have decades of survival experience, didn’t expect was that their biggest challenge would be technology-based. Or that by the end of the year, they wouldn’t want to leave.

We caught up with the Freemans to find out exactly what it took to survive an entire year in the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

morning, sunrise, lake, canoe, wilderness

THE RED BULLETIN: What inspired you to spend a year in the Boundary Waters Wilderness?

DAVE FREEMAN: Amy and I have been working as dogsledding guides and wilderness canoe tripping guides in the Boundary Waters for many years. After traveling more than 30,000 miles by canoe, kayak, and dogsled over the course of a decade through some of the most remote and pristine wilderness on the planet, Amy and I began to realize that the maze of lakes and rivers at our door step were like no other place on Earth.

In 2012 we started learning about a series of copper mines being proposed along the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. A mine of this type has never been built anywhere in the world without causing significant ground or surface water pollution. We decided to spend a full year in the Wilderness to support the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters’ efforts to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from copper mining pollution. 

What was the most important gear you used?
When we started in September of 2015, we were paddling a 19 foot Wenonah Itasca canoe and carrying our gear in Granite Gear backpacks. When the lakes started to freeze around Thanksgiving, we hauled the canoe across frozen stretches and paddle across the lakes that hadn’t yet frozen. This was the most difficult and dangerous time because the air and water were cold, and the ice was often very thin. 

At the end of December, volunteers hauled in sleds with our winter supplies and hauled out our canoe. Three sled dogs were also brought in for the winter and we spent January through April traveling across the ice on cross country skis, as our dogs Tina, Tank, and Acorn hauled all of our food and supplies on two small toboggans. In the spring, volunteers hauled out the toboggans and hauled in our canoe.

A couple of pieces of gear that were really valuable were our 8 amSeek Outside Tipi tent, which we heated with a portable wood stove, and our Helinox packable chairs that made life in the Wilderness much more comfortable. Our GoalZero portable solar panels and battery packs were also critical because they allowed us to share our experiences and encourage people to take action through regular blog posts, interviews, and social media posts.

Read more
ice swimming, frozen, adventure

How did you overcome your first unforeseen challenge? What was your biggest daily challenge and how did you make it work?

Our first unforeseen challenge was actually a logistical one. The day before we entered the Wilderness, we figured out that our satellite phone was broken and we had to ship it to the manufacturer to be repaired. Sharing our story was a huge part of why we were spending a year in the Wilderness, so for the first few weeks it was a real challenge sending blog posts and social media content out. To overcome this we had volunteers paddle into the Wilderness to pick up thumb drives with photos, text, and video clips.

The bugs and the cold, bumps and bruises, sore muscles and fatigue were all factors that ebbed and flowed with the changing weather and seasons, but we really became used to living outside— hauling water, gathering firewood, and living a very simple, but physical life. Our biggest fear was that people would forget about us and we would not be able to effectively communicate the need for people everywhere to take action and help protect the Boundary Waters.

How did you find food and how did you prepare it?
We caught fish throughout the year, gathered berries in the summer, and harvested about 50 pound of wild rice in the fall. Every 2 to 6 weeks volunteers would travel into the Wilderness to bring us food. We used a small white gas stove during the summer, or cooked over a small campfire. From late Fall through late Spring when it was cold, we did most of our cooking on the wood stove that also heated our tent. Pasta, rice and lentils, and oatmeal were some of our staples.

What did you learn most about yourselves?
We learned that food, clean water, shelter, companionship, and a clear sense of purpose are what we need to be happy. All the rest is noise that distracts us from what really makes us happy. We were surprised to find that we were far more apprehensive about leaving the Wilderness after a year than we were able entering in a year earlier. We were truly happy in the Wilderness and had everything that we needed. 

Read more

Next story