The Slow Way in Boundary Waters

Dispatch No. 4 from the Freemans' year in our nation's most popular wilderness area

Year in the Wilderness, Amy Freeman.
Dave Freeman watches the mist burn off Sandpit Lake at sunrise.

Photos and text by Amy Freeman

Talking with a friend lately, he noted that A Year in the Wilderness might actually be the “anti-expedition.” We have not set out to achieve a first descent. We are not going for a new speed record. We do not even have a concrete route plan. We have set out with two goals: 1, spend an entire year within the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; 2, share the experience through blog posts and social media to raise awareness of the threat posed by upstream copper/sulfide-ore mining proposals.

We are traveling from campsite to campsite, aspiring to see as many of these wilderness lakes and rivers as we can, but we are making up the route as we go. This flexibility is freeing. Too many times on previous expeditions have I wished we could linger in a place. Sure, we paddled and set up our tent just as we are doing now. The difference is that then, we had our end destination in mind. If we spent an extra day exploring a patch of Lake Superior shoreline or waiting out the rain on the Mackenzie River, we might have not reached our destination by freeze-up. Now, we will experience freeze-up from the shore of whatever lake we happen to be on when it occurs.

Year in the Wilderness, Amy Freeman.
We paddled slowly past the frosted marsh grasses, observing each shimmering blade.

A few days ago, a northwest wind whipped up a sizable chop on Basswood Lake and icy rain fell all day. It wasn’t rough enough to prohibit travel; if we were on one of our past expeditions, we would have been out there. We would have been driven by a combination of fear of failure and a desire to achieve. So what did we do? We threw another log in the wood stove and boiled more water for tea, letting the rain and wind subside before heading out again.

Recently, a hard frost at night resulted in a magical morning of witnessing skim ice along shore and frost-encrusted marsh grasses. Instead of just paddling by, making a mental note of this beautiful scene and snapping a photo or two, we spent an hour paddling amidst the glistening blades of grass, filming and photographing — capturing images from a variety of angles. I also took the time to do something that I rarely have on past expeditions: I savored the moment, slowly dipping my paddle in the water and silently gliding past, taking the time to appreciate each white-frosted blade of grass that came into view.

I spent an evening sitting outside as the sunlight faded and the stars came out. I listened to the constant tumble of water in a nearby set of rapids, appreciated the loss of heat as darkness descended and was entranced by the glow of the nearly full moon rising over scraggly oak branches. If we had many miles to cover the next day, I might have been in the tent already asleep.

Year in the Wilderness, Amy Freeman.
We opted for the long route on the Basswood River, seeing each set of rapids.

With well over a month complete, I’m glad to have learned this lesson already. We are slowing down from the frantic pace we tend to lead back home. No traffic, no deadlines here. Everything we need fits into the canoe and we are free to travel when we want. We are also free to sit still when we want, letting it all soak in. How many people take the time to do this regularly? What benefits to well-being would be gained?

One doesn’t need to travel far to find beauty in nature. Although it is not the full Wilderness immersive experience, time spent sitting in a city park can help feed the soul. A local waterway is a great place to catch a glimpse of nature and paddlers are lucky in that regard. I hope you have a nearby waterway escape. I also hope you plan trips to truly wild places. Isn’t it comforting to know that Wilderness still exists? It may be in fragmented pockets or set aside in the form of National Parks, National Forests and Wilderness Areas, but at least some mountains, forests and waterways have been left undeveloped. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of a handful of places where you can go to experience Wilderness with a capital W. And maybe you don’t need an ambitious route, traveling from point A to point B. Maybe all one needs is to get out here once in a while, to sleep under the stars, experience life pared down to the essentials and listen to the wind in the trees.

— Dave and Amy Freeman will be sending in regular Dispatches from their #WildernessYear. (Read Dispatch No. 1: Why the Boundary Waters Matter, Dispatch No 2: Shoulder-season Tips, and Dispatch No. 3: Canoe-tripping with Teenagers)

— Learn more about the mining threat at SavetheBoundaryWaters.org, and check out the Freeman's educational info at WildernessClassroom.com, or follow them #SavetheBWCA and #WildernessYear.

— Check out the Freemans' Paddle to D.C. awareness-raising journey.