Why Towing a Canoe Across Half the Country is Good for Paddling


A parade of mud-covered, beleaguered cyclists pedaled toward us near Mile 100 on the shaded Great Allegheny Passage trail. They stopped long enough to tell their war story of slogging through thigh-deep mud where a landslide had obliterated about 100 feet of trail. “Turn back,” they said. “Any distance on roads around [the landslide] has to be better than trying to go through! And you’ll never make it with that,” the muddiest of them all said as he pointed to our red, 14.5-foot Wenonah canoe strapped to a trailer behind Dave’s bike.

Despite the warning, Dave and I pressed on anyway. Eight more cyclists came from the direction we were heading: all had decided to turn around before even seeing the mudslide. They tried to convince us to join the line and head to the road. We looked up at the steep, forested terrain and wondered what the hills would be like and how many miles it would take to detour around.

We kept pedaling until we encountered the mound of soggy, shoe-sucking mud held in place by a tangle of trees. The roiling Youghiogheny River, which had risen eight feet overnight flowed 50 feet straight down the bank below us. It would take us three trips to get our strange assortment of biking and paddling gear across the morass. I removed the panniers from my bike and carried them across first, while Dave dragged his bike through. Then I brought my bike across while Dave portaged the canoe. Dave made one last trip with the empty trailer and we were rolling down the trail again, just a covered in mud up to our knees. In the end it wasn’t as bad as the worst portage either of us has ever done.

At this point, you are probably wondering the same thing that we were: Why exactly, are we doing this? This particular trip is not about a water trail, and it is not even about paddling. It is about a 2,000-mile bicycle journey that my husband, Dave Freeman, and I are now mere hours away from completing — along with that little red Wenonah canoe. To put it in paddling perspective, you could consider it to be a 640,000-rod portage.

We began pedaling from Ely, Minnesota on April 20, just a few days after one last snowstorm covered the Boundary Waters. The branches were still barren and the ice on most of the lakes was still several feet thick. An entourage of a dozen people pedaled the first 12 miles with us to the South Kawishiwi River bridge. I crawled out on the slushy shelf ice and gathered a little vile of water from the river and we continued on our way south and east.

The South Kawishiwi River is basically ground zero for the proposed Twin Metals copper mine. The water that flowed under the bridge makes its way through several lakes and then into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Is this starting to sound familiar now?) Save the Boundary Waters is the campaign that Dave and I have been involved with since 2014 — and we keep doing these adventure advocacy projects to raise awareness about this threat to our nation’s most popular wilderness area. In 2014, we paddled to Washington, D.C. in a Wenonah MN III that people signed as a petition to stop the proposed mining. In the fall of 2015 we paddled into the Boundary Waters and remained there for 366 days for this same cause.

Spending that year in the Wilderness, bearing witness to this 1.1 million acres of lake-studded Laurentian mixed forest, inspired us to write a book. That became a reality one year after we exited the Boundary Waters: A Year in the Wilderness, published by Milkweed Editions. When the book came out we went on a book tour, driving and flying around, living in hotel rooms, living in hotel rooms, eating junk food and getting zero exercise. We thought that there had to better way for us to do this, so we proposed a book tour by bicycle. Dave suggested that if we’re traveling around the country by bicycle, we might as well tow a canoe and gather signatures on it. Then, we thought, if we’re towing a petition canoe, we might as well go to Washington, D.C. Plus, this year is the 40th anniversary of the passing of the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act.

Although back in 2016 we made progress toward protecting the Boundary Waters watershed from proposed copper mining (denial of renewal of expired mineral leases, a two-year halt to any mining related activity and the start of a two year environmental impact statement), the current administration has been rolling back what the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters had worked so hard to achieve. The environmental impact statement was downgraded to an environmental assessment and in early May, the federal government has reinstated the mineral lease for Twin Metals.

Now, more than ever, it is critical that we let our elected officials know how important our public lands and waters are to us. We hope that our pedaling to D.C. helps to raise some attention for this issue and for the Boundary Waters. Please sign the petition at savetheboundarywaters.org. You can find posts from the Freemans’ Pedal to DC on Facebook and Instagram @FreemanExplore. If you happen to be in Washington, D.C. or know someone in the area, check out these three events:

JUNE 18: D.C. Arrival
What: Celebration and press conference for Dave and Amy Freeman’s Pedal to DC arrival and the formation of Kids for the Boundary Waters
Who: Dave and Amy Freeman, Joseph Goldstein and six other youth members of Kids for the Boundary Waters
Where: Just east of the Washington Monument
When: Monday, June 18. Gathering at 1:30, Dave and Amy Arrival at 2 pm and press conference shortly thereafter
MORE INFO on Save the BWCA’s event site and Facebook page — 
Bring your bike (or rent a Capital Rideshare bike) and helmet! After the event we’ll bike alongside Dave and Amy with their canoe around the Mall.

JUNE 19: Speaking and book signing at Politics and Prose
MORE INFO on Save the BWCA’s event site and Facebook page, plus MORE INFO on the book.

JUNE 20: Patagonia Georgetown Store
MORE INFO on Save the BWCA’s event site and Facebook page

Read more on Pedal to D.C., as well as all of the Freeman’s dispatches from their Wilderness Year.

RELATED: Why the Boundary Waters Matter // A Photo Journey into the BWCAW // Mike Ranta’s signatured canoe journey across Canada

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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