The Freemans at journey's end at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West, Fla. / Photo: Bryan Hansel

By Conor Mihell

There was little fanfare when Dave and Amy Freeman landed their sea kayaks in Key West, Florida on April 4 and finished an 11,700-mile journey they'd been on for nearly three years. But the lack of reception didn't bother the Chicago-based founders of the Wilderness Classroom, a nonprofit that shares outdoor adventure with students through blogs, podcasts, online photos and videos, and in-person presentations to school groups. A diverse array of wildlife all along the Gulf Coast issued the couple a hearty greeting from the Sunshine State—encounters that no doubt inspired the more than 100,000 students that follow the Freemans' North American Odyssey from across the United States and around the world.

Dave says they purposely cut down their average paddling distance to 10 miles per day better experience Florida's unique biological diversity. "We found the entire Gulf Coast very interesting," he says. "We knew this would be the only place we'd find coral reefs and didn't want to blow right through. We saw tons of sea turtles, sharks and eagle rays. It's really something to have a shark cruise under your kayak in four feet of crystal-clear water."

The Freemans paddled and swam with manatees on the Suwannee River at Fanning Springs State Park, Florida.

Their North American Odyssey began in 2010 with a sea kayak trip north on the Inside Passage and hike over the Chikoot Trail. In 2011, the Freemans dogsledded across the Canadian subarctic before swapping sled dogs for a canoe and paddling partway across the continent to the eastern edge of the Boundary Waters. The 12-month-long leg to Key West involved sea kayaking the Great Lakes and Atlantic seaboard.

The Freemans crossed north Florida from the Intra-Coastal Waterway, paddling up the St. Mary's River. They had anticipated exploring the Okefenokee Swamp before descending the Suwannee River, but drought in the wetland forced an unplanned two-day portage. "We had to bypass the park, so we changed the route and walked along this road for 40 miles," says Dave. "It was so flat, straight and desolate. We could literally see a curve five miles in the distance."

Dave Freeman on the Suwannee River in Florida.

Reaching the journey's end in Key West was bittersweet, says Dave, who will be guiding canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and sea kayak trips on Lake Superior this summer, while he and Amy plan their next Wilderness Classroom adventure. "In some ways we're happy in that it feels really good to have accomplished something," he says. "But in other ways it's sad not to be hopping back in our kayaks, seeing places and meeting new people."

Read earlier updates from the Wilderness Classroom:

A close encounter with Hurricane Sandy
Hitting the East Coast
An update from Lake Superior

Dave Freeman paddling into New York on the East River via Hell's Gate. "We timed it with the tide because the current gets pretty strong through there," says Amy. "We were on the water at 5 am and paddling past Manhattan during rush hour. We quickly learned the ferry routes because they were zipping around so fast."