Friday, May 11, 2012

Chasing the wild things

(And bringing them to a classroom near you, live via satellite)

Express Staff Writer

Dave and Amy Freeman paddle sea kayaks during their North American Odyssey. Courtesy photo

Adventurers Amy Freeman and her husband, Dave, know where the wild things are. The couple, head teachers for The Wilderness Classroom Organization, put on the water this week at Grand Portage, the easternmost point of Minnesota. They are on the final leg of a three-year, nearly 12,000-mile journey that began in Bellingham, Wash. and will end in Key West, Fla.

The trip is being in part by the Wood River Valley-based Wild Gift organization.

Tens of thousands of students around the world are going with them on a virtual field trip as they make their way through the Great Lakes region and down Canadian rivers on their way to Maine this summer.

Wednesday, the Freemans were sent off by Grand Portage Ojibwe students to kayak along the north shore of Lake Superior. They regularly stop to meet with classes that are following them on line, and students helped choose the route and modes of conveyance.

Once the Freemans reach the Atlantic they will travel the Eastern seaboard, hoping to reach Key West on Earth Day, April 22, 2013.

The adventure began on Earth Day 2010 when as newlyweds the Freemans paddled up the Inside Passage to Alaska. The journey brought the wilderness educators eye-to-eye with humpback whales near Juneau, Alaska and pushed them over hundreds of grueling miles of frozen Canadian tundra via dogsled.

Amy Freeman, who came to Idaho to trek with the 2010 Wild Gift class as an educator and kayaking guide from Minnesota, garnered some seed money for the project from the Ketchum-based nonprofit for "environmental entrepreneurs" started a decade ago by backcountry explorer, Bob Jonas.

Amy Freeman said her Idaho experience helped hone important backcountry skills.

"Being out on the trek, out in the wild, was a good time to really think about the project," Freeman said.

When the Freemans woke up yesterday (Thursday) at a place called Pigeon Point after their first night of camping, it was expected to be mostly sunny with a high of 57 degrees. Tomorrow they will paddle across the border into Canada where they will broadcast almost daily from two laptops via satellite or iPhone.

Not only do the Freemans upload photos, videos and blog entries to two websites—, geared toward students and educators, and, designed more for adults— but they also hold classes in the field.

"It's quite an innovative way of teaching science and the kids really connect with their personalities," said Deborah Knapp, executive director of Wild Gift. She added that Sun Valley's Community School will mix the North American Odyssey into its teaching too.

"Talking about the wild and the need to protect its beauty and fragility, they're kind of like movie stars in a way. Being out there makes it more enticing. They are teaching kids environmental awareness and about our stewardship responsibility. It's very impressive."

Students of Kirstin Corbett, a third grade teacher at Chicago's Edison Regional Gifted Center, have a Wilderness Classroom lesson each week. "We read through the 'Notes from the Trail.' The kids complete the worksheet that follows the entry and then we discuss the latest 'Dave's Dilemma.'"

The first Dave's Dilemma Corbett's class tackled was helping to decide what type of ice auger the Freemans needed.

"My students' hands flew into the air with questions and I didn't know the first thing about ice augers—other than seeing them used occasionally by people out ice fishing," Corbett said. "Right there in class, I Googled 'ice augers.' The kids and I researched them on the spot: weight, size, customer reviews, etc. The process of discovery and forming opinions was much more important than the subject matter, but the concept of ice augers put both the kids and me on an even playing field. It was a great lesson for all of us on how to tackle unfamiliar material."

Corbett said Wilderness Classroom lets her share her passion for wild places with her students.

"The kids have grown up in the city and to many of them a forest is a tree-lined street," she said. "This program gives them the opportunity to explore the outside world in a very engaging way. The use of technology keeps my kids glued to the lesson.

"The best is the way it forces my students to think outside the box—not always an easy task when working with gifted kids. Many of these kids have never seen or thought about the issues, places and people presented by Dave and Amy. They have to stretch their minds and work outside their comfort zones to develop solutions and answer questions."

When the Freemans get to Montreal later this summer they will do a video with Chris Howell, another 2010 Wild Gift recipient, who owns Vermont Farm Tours.

"He will help us with our resupply," Amy Freeman said. "We plan to eat locally grown food as much as we can along our way. Being in northern Canada over the course of two summers, we had our share of blueberries."

Eating off the land is only one of the ways the Wild Gift adventurers fund their trip.

"Some schools pay for us to do presentations, but a lot of stuff is donated," Amy Freeman said.

The company derives about 25 percent of its revenue from teaching engagements. The balance comes from donations and grants from organizations such as Wild Gift. Wilderness Classroom has been steadily growing since its founding more than 10 years ago. In 2011 the Freemans served more than 70,000 students in hundreds of classes around the world.

Dave Freeman said all the online educational components presented by Wilderness Classroom are free.

"Most of our schools are in the U.S., but we have a video conference scheduled with a school in Australia Monday evenings," Dave Freeman said. "It's challenging scheduling things for schools on the other side of the international dateline."

Nevertheless, the Freemans have taught students as far a field as Fiji and Tajikistan.

More information about the North American Odyssey and Wild Gift is available through their respective websites, and

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