By Conor Mihell
The Freemans live like time travelers, roaming the wildernesses of the Canadian arctic, the Amazon rainforest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area by canoe, foot and dogsled, at the same time making daily high-tech connections to the rest of the world by blogs, Podcasts and videos sent by laptop computers and satellite feeds to the Internet. Their goal: To use their own adventures to inspire elementary and middle school students to get outside.
While they're not quite ready to be portrayed in Saturday morning TV (not that they would want to be, anyway), their message is getting out: Upwards of 1,800 teachers and 70,000 third- to eighth-grade students follow The Wilderness Classroom adventures online (www.wildernessclasroom.com), assisting with route planning and decision-making along the way.
Last summer, the Freemans and thousands of schoolchildren followers from around the world continued an ambitious 11,700-mile journey across the North American continent that began in Seattle. In 2010, the pair sea kayaked the Inside Passage and canoed and trekked north of the Arctic Circle. After a break to visit classrooms across the United States, the Freemans began 2011 on dogsleds, traveling across the Northwest Territories to Great Slave Lake, where they launched their canoe in June and paddled 2,700 miles to Grand Portage, on the western shore of Lake Superior. In 2012 they'll pick up where they left off, completing the expedition with 3,600 miles of paddling from Lake Superior to the tip of Florida.
CanoeKayak.com caught up with the Freemans while they visited schools in Chicago.
We do it for two reasons. Because we love it, and because we want to tell kids about these wild places we get to see. The first reason is selfish and the second is about getting others excited.
I love looking at maps. Five years ago we decided to cross South America, so after that it made sense to cross North America. We pored over the maps and tried to find a way to connect waterways together and visit a lot of threatened ecosystems. We just tie all these wilderness chunks together. The route is still evolving. Next year we're paddling from the Great Lakes to the Florida Keys, and we're currently exploring the option of cutting across on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail rather than our original plan to follow the coast.
A lot of the kids we work with are in inner city schools. Nature is a contrived thing for a kid from inner city Chicago. Our idea is that you can't necessarily take a planeload of kids to the arctic or the Amazon, but you can do it in a virtual setting. They get to follow our trip and help us make decisions along the way. Then we go and meet them in school presentations to form a relationship so they get to know us and can ask us questions. We're hoping to spark their interest and that they'll take the next step and get outside.
Nature deficit disorder is a huge problem. Even the elders in the remote communities we visited were talking about how kids never go outside.
The students make decisions for us every week. One of the biggest choices they made for us was to bring our dog with us this summer. After the dogsled leg we asked the students what we should do about Fennel, our lead dog who was 13 years old and ready to retire. They said we should take him along. He'd been pulling us for all these years so we owed him a retirement vacation. That was sort of a big deal because Fennel is 100 pounds.
We don't go that fast. We stop for three to four days to catch up on "office work." This year when we were traveling we averaged 20- to 25 miles per day. We try to leave a pretty big buffer to make sure that we have time to produce content for the website. That's one of the priorities we keep in mind when planning.
On the first part of the trip we were following journal notes from 1914. Charles Camsell surveyed the route we followed from Great Slave Lake to Lake Athabasca and his journal was pretty much the only information we could find for that month-long section.