Dave and Amy Freeman helped start The Wilderness Classroom ten years ago with the simple idea to improve students' core academic skills and appreciation for the environment by introducing elementary and middle school students to the wonders of exploration and wilderness travel.
Since then they have been traveling around the world bringing the wilderness into the classroom setting. Back in 2010 they embarked on their largest expedition yet, a three-year journey, 11,700 mile journey acrossNorth Americaby kayak, canoe and dogsled. This May, they will start the last segment of their adventure where they will sea kayak from Grand Portage, Minnesota and arrive in Key West, Florida at the end of March next year.
Before they loaded up their boats and pushed off from the shore, I met up with Dave and Amy to find out how they got into the outdoor industry and what keeps them going, and going, and going...
1) How long have you been in business and what got you started?
The Wilderness Classroom actually just celebrated its 10th birthday. Although the organization got its official nonprofit status 10 years ago, Dave has been in the outdoor business much longer. His very first trip of this nature (traveling under his own power and updating a website for students out in the field) was 12 years ago. He skied theBorder Route with a sled dog named Tundra. Next came paddling theMississippi and then founding the Wilderness Classroom with good friend and educator, Eric Frost.
What got Dave started? Well, he fell in love with wild places early in life. His first canoe trip to the BWCAW inspired him to return to northernMinnesotafrequently. As a high-schooler, he was employed by Sawbill Canoe outfitters. It wasn't long until Dave began guiding canoe trips. After college, he was looking for a way to share his experiences with students. In order to reach as many kids as possible, he chose to share the adventures online, allowing students all over the world to share the experience as virtual explorers.
I came on board in 2006. My first Wilderness Classroom project was circumnavigatingLake Superiorby sea kayak in the fall. This circumnavigation was something I had wanted to do ever since I first dipped my paddle blade in the big lake. When I met Dave in 2005, I immediately began picking his brain about extended wilderness travel. This conversation evolved into the two of us planning the trip. After this experience, I was hooked. Next came the Trans-Amazon Expedition and then the North American Odyssey.
My early exposure to the outdoors was similar to Dave. I made countless trips to the northshoreofLake Superiorand the BWCAW with my parents. During college, I sought out a summer job in Grand Marais – guiding kayak trips onLake Superior. As an aspiring artist, I would draw inspiration from this Boreal landscape. During college and then grad school, this attraction to the northern wilds increased. After paddling aroundLake Superiorwith Dave, I knew that I had found my calling.
2) What’s the best part of your job?
There are actually two best parts of this job for me. The first is when we find out that we are actually having an impact on students. This may be apparent at a school presentation – seeing their enthusiasm about a particular animal or wild place – or it may come in the form of a letter (usually illustrated with crayon or marker) or an email sent by a student who has been inspired by what we are doing.
The second best part of the job is all the time we get to spend doing what we love outside. Where else can you find a job that involves being physically active, in nature? While there are some trade-offs, I'd much rather have a job like this than be stuck behind a desk, saving vacation time and money to do a scaled back version of what we are doing now.
3) What’s the most difficult aspect of the job?
The office work is the most difficult/painstaking aspect of our job. Dave spends hours in front of a computer screen fine-tuning the website and planning our routes. His biggest challenge has to do with developing the educational content for the website. He constantly strives to make the website as user friendly for students and teachers, developing new curriculum and lesson plans.
I spend an equally tedious amount of time writing grant proposals and working to cultivate new sponsors. We would both rather spend all our time out on the water if we could, but this stuff pays the bills. I always breathe a sigh of relief once we shove off from shore at the start of a project, because it marks the transition from all that painstaking preparation time to actually doing what we love.
4) What are two tips you can give to somebody looking to start their own outdoor business?
Know that even if you pursue your passion, you will find yourself working – hard. While some days may involve paddling on glassy calm water in theNorthwest Territorieswith a moose wading in the shallows near by, we did a heck of a lot of prep work to get there.
The second tip is actually one that we share with students. If you have a big goal, the way to achieve it is to break it down into smaller goals. We would get overwhelmed if we spent every day of the North American Odyssey thinking about how we have 11,700 miles to go. Instead, we focus on the task at hand. . . “our goal for the day is to paddle 20 miles”, “this rapid is half a mile long”, “I will work on two grant applications during our down time”. . . Achieving these small goals adds up and soon you'll see yourself progressing towards your loftier goal.
5) What about your job do you think would most surprise people?
Most people don't have a sense of how much time and effort we spend planning and preparing for our educational expeditions. Whenever we are not on trail, we are at our computers answering emails, scheduling school presentations, writing grant proposals, looking for new sponsors, developing curriculum. . . you get the idea.
6) If you could tell something to your 18 year-old self, what would it be?
I would say, don't feel obligated to fulfill another person's concept of success. When I was 18, I never would have guessed that this is what I would be doing. I was following a much more traditional path... college... with plans for grad school... then launch a career. Dave and I may have deviated from the norm, but we're doing well and are darn happy to be where we are today.
More info: The Wilderness Classroom
Top Photo Credit: Bryan Hansel