It's Wednesday afternoon and the traffic in New York City is horrendous. Lucky for me, I'm hurtling past the snarl in a three-person canoe named Sig. Amy Freeman is at the bow and her husband Dave is at the stern, while I hitch a ride—and sometimes paddle a few strokes—in the middle. These explorers and environmental activists from Ely, Minnesota, have paddled more than a thousand miles from the pristine waters of their home state to the murky current of the East River. We're talking on the water, rather than ashore, because these two are on a mission, which doesn't leave much time for sightseeing. They're racing to the nation's capital to urge politicians to protect Minnesota's Boundary Waters from sulfide mining.
The region is home to a pristine network of rivers, streams, and forests, and also hosts rich stores of copper, nickel, gold, and platinum locked up in glacial formations. Releasing the metals from their sulfuric confines produces acid, which environmental advocates fear could contaminate valuable waterways.
While no mines have been approved yet, Twin Metals Minnesota, a Chilean and Canadian syndicate, has been solidifying its plan to tap into the mineral deposits that lie on the southeastern edge of the Boundary Waters. Another project, Polymet's Northmet mine, threatens the nearby Superior National Forest, the headwaters for Lake Superior. It was submitted for approval earlier this year. The state's Department of Environmental Protection is now digging through an avalanche of public comments—more than 52,000 were submitted between February and March—as it decides whether to issue Polymet the necessary permits. The Freemans worry that if these projects get the go-ahead, more mining companies might move in and pollute the unspoiled ecosystem.
"The Boundary Waters serve as a valuable intersection between civilization and wilderness," Amy says. Like many northern Minnesotans, she and Dave built their livelihoods around the local nature. The couple met while leading excursions through the wilderness—a backwoods trifecta of canoeing, cross-country skiing, and dogsledding. Well aware of how important the environment is to the local economy and to the region's infrastructure, the couple joined a grassroots movement to urge the state's legislators to ban sulfide mining. But it was an election year, and many politicians remained mum on the controversial issue. Amy and Dave decided that they needed a different approach. They would go to D.C. and meet with elected officials face-to-face. And they would take water, not highways, to get there. Along the way they wanted their adventurous stunt to attract supporters, allowing them to spread the message about the dangers of sulfide mining.
Credit: Nate Ptacek
With "Save the Boundary Waters" as their battle cry, the Freemans began their self-powered cruise to D.C. First they paddled east through the Boundary Waters to reach Lake Superior. The water-bound route only took them part of the way; they had to travel the remaining 8.5 miles by foot. They slung their canoe—named Sig after the signatures they'd be collecting from their well-wishers—over their backs and made their way over land, which was actually just knee-deep mud. High spirits buoyed them all the way to the clear vastness of the Superior, where they strapped Sig onto a sailboat, and let the wind carry them to the great state of Michigan. From there, the Freemans sailed over the northern part of Lake Huron and launched into a French-Canadian passage, circumventing the rest of the Great Lakes and pressing on toward Ottawa and Montreal.
After voyaging through Canada, the couple orienteered south to Lake Champlain and eventually into New York. On a good day, the Freemans covered up to 40 miles. They weren't equipped with "bulging Popeye muscles," as Dave put it, but their arms got used to the distance. They'd rise before 4 am, pack up their camp—usually a little spot in the woods found on Google Earth—and paddle non-stop until late into the afternoon. They only used three pieces of technology: a navigation app that fed them wind and tide data, a solar-powered battery charger, and a geolocator that tracked their progress and served as a safety net. Otherwise, the Freemans largely fended for themselves.
Along the way, the couple encountered helpful strangers, some of whom offered a real bed for a night. "Their energy and passion is what fed us throughout the journey," says Amy. Old friends Nancy and Steve Piragis flew to New York City, rented a canoe, and joined the Freemans on the water. Being long-time Minnesotans and birdwatchers, the Piragis are just as wrapped up in the movement against sulfide mining. "There are plenty of examples of how this has gone wrong," says Nancy. "Why do they think it'll be different this time?"
For most of the Freeman's journey, it was the wildlife that kept them company: Common Loons on Lake Champlain, beavers in cramped canals, Great Blue Herons in the Harlem River. The diversity reminded them of the Boundary Waters, which hosts the largest population of timber wolves in the continental United States. Bald Eagles and woodpeckers also flourish there, on the perimeter of the wilderness, and loons are one of the area's biggest attractions.
Contrast that to the landscape that Amy and Dave had to paddle through when they reached the Hudson River Superfund site in upstate New York. To them, the barren reaches were a mark of what the Boundary Waters could become if sulfide mining is sanctioned. "The EPA says that hard-rock mining is the most prevalent cause of Superfund sites," Dave says. "We can't let that be the Boundary Waters someday."
After leaving behind the smoggy skyline of New York City, the Freemans slipped down the Delaware River, steered through the Chesapeake Bay, and finally rode the current into the Potomac. On December 2, they reached D.C., where a crowd of cheering Minnesotans celebrated their arrival. The Freemans then began the next stage of the mission: to convince legislators to intervene on behalf of the Boundary Waters.
It wasn't an easy task, but the Freemans are experts when it comes to paddling upstream. They took three days to rally their troops and meet with elected leaders and White House officials. Many responded positively to their concerns, Dave says, making the grueling journey well worth the effort.
The Freeman's trip home took only a few days, since they drove. And Sig? The three-person canoe, adorned with the autographs of 2,000 supporters, is now on permanent display on Independence Avenue.
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Didn't get to sign Amy and Dave's canoe? Be a part of their online petition! The goal is to collect 10,000 signatures to send to the White House and spur further environmental action.
Correction: The city of Ely was previously misspelled in this story.