By Conor Mihell
Earlier this year, Minnesota-based outdoor guides and educators Dave and Amy Freeman were recognized as 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. The distinction came by dint of their nonprofit Wilderness Classroom, a program geared to getting kids passionate about outdoor adventure—most recently on their three year, 11,700-mile North American Odyssey, which included substantial legs in a canoe and sea kayak as the couple crisscrossed the continent and engaged more than 100,000 students with interactive online content and classroom visits.
But the Wilderness Classroom only works if there are pristine and wild places to get schoolchildren stoked to explore. With a pair of looming mines threatening water quality and wilderness values in northern Minnesota, the Freemans launched their latest project—Paddle to DC, an environmental advocacy expedition from their home in northern Minnesota to the White House to deliver a strong message opposing the proposed Polymet and Twin Metals mines to the president and congress. The Freemans' petition: A Wenonah canoe, signed by thousands of people concerned about the future of the Great Lakes watershed and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Go on the ground and watch a video of what's at stake:
CanoeKayak.com: When did you first hear about mining proposals so close to the BWCA?
Dave Freeman: We heard rumblings about three years ago, in October 2011 when we paddled into Ely [Minn.] at the end of the second season of the North American Odyssey. We got a few details and wanted to find out more.
So what did you learn?
We have a lot of mining here in the Iron Range. It's been going on forever. But the Polymet and Twin Metals mines are different. They would be dug into sulfur-bearing material, so any water that leaches out of the mine would be highly toxic. It's basically impossible to mine this way without causing perpetual environmental impacts. Comparing the existing iron mines with this sort of sulfide mining is like comparing apples to oranges.
Given the region's mining history, I bet there's a lot of local support for new developments.
History makes people think, 'Why not? We've been mining forever.' But when people dig deeper into the issue it raises more concerns. The comment period just ended for the Polymet mine's environmental impact statement. The EPA gave environmental impact statement a passing grade—but with a list of about 50 concerns to be addressed. That's a win for the mining lobby.
Public polls on the Polymet mine suggest that as they learn more about the mine, the majority will say it isn't a good idea. Our goal is to get the information about the long-term negative environmental impacts of sulfide mining out there. The facts are in the environmental assessment statements…we just need to get them out there.
What about Twin Metals? Is that the mine proposal you're targeting with the Paddle to DC campaign?
Twin Metals is test-drilling within a quarter-mile of the wilderness area. The mine site would be right next to the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi and north of the Everglades. It's a federal-designated wilderness and a place that people come from all over the country to visit. Twin Metals is still early in the process and we want to bring attention to this important issue. The Boundary Waters is a national treasure and we don't think that sulfide mining is an appropriate activity on the edge of the nation's most popular wilderness area.
So by sailing and paddling to Washington you're hoping to put this on the national stage.
This needs to be a national issue, just like the Pebble Mine in Alaska. The entire BWCA watershed should be protected from this type of development because of its federal designation. Contaminated runoff from the Twin Metals mine would flow into the Boundary Waters and Quetico [Provincial Park], Voyageurs National Park and eventually into Hudson Bay. This is a local, state, national and international issue.
Where did you get the signatures on the canoe you plan to deliver to the White House?
We are working with a bunch of organizations, including Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. The canoe has been at their action center in Ely for people to sign. We've also been bringing it around to different places for people to sign. We had it at Canoecopia and it will be at the Midwest Mountaineering show [April 25-27 in Minneapolis]. Right now the entire outside of the hull is covered in signatures and people are starting to sign the inside. As it stands right now we might need another canoe.
CanoeKayak.com: What's your trip plan?
We're leaving Ely in late August and canoeing the border route to Grand Portage. Then we'll sail to Duluth and along the south shore of Lake Superior. We'll cross into Canada at Sault Ste. Marie and sail the north shore of Lake Huron. Then we'll leave the sailboat and switch back to the canoe, paddling the French, Mattawa and Ottawa rivers to deliver our message to Canada's federal government in Ottawa, Ontario. We'll continue to Montreal then head south through Lake Champlain to the Hudson River to New York City, and through the canals to Chesapeake Bay and DC. We are scheduling presentations along our route and encouraging people to come paddle with us and sign the canoe.
Our hope is to deliver the canoe to the White House, but that requires a lot of advanced planning to figure out whether or not it's possible to deliver the canoe to the president. If not, we're looking at maybe Sally Jewell or someone high up in the Forest Service. The plan is to finish either right before Thanksgiving or before Congress breaks for the Holidays in December.