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Vickroy: Modern-day explorers to kids: Get out in wilderness

Antonio Harper first grade strains pull sled as he finds out whit is like be lone sled dog during demonstratiby

Antonio Harper, first grade, strains to pull a sled as he finds out what it is like to be the lone sled dog during a demonstration by Dave Freeman from Wilderness Classroom at Wagoner School in Sauk Village, Illinois, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. Freeman and his wife Amy have spent the past three years kayaking and canoeing from Washington State through Canada all the way to Key West. They are on a mission to get kids interested in the wilderness and adventure. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 15, 2013 6:06AM



Khareah Horton stepped into the giant oversized parka and all but disappeared.

The first-grader took one for the team when she volunteered to lead the “sled dogs” across the gymnasium at Wagoner School in Sauk Village.

Not only was she barely visible beneath her fur-lined hood, she couldn’t stop laughing as her fellow classmates grabbed the leashes and lugged the bamboo transport carrier a good 20 feet.

“Teamwork,” Dave Freeman said. “That’s what gets the job done.”

Freeman and his wife, Amy, visited the school recently to tell pre-K through second-graders about their latest adventure — a three-year kayak/canoe/sled dog journey across North America.

“We’re trying to get kids interested in wilderness activities,” Dave said. “We want to get them exploring, welcome them back to nature.”

The program was packed with visuals, including a vinyl replica of a whale’s tail that took 12 sets of first-grader hands to hold up. The point was made: Whales are big.

“But they’re not scary,” Dave said, explaining how one came within 15 feet of him and Amy as they paddled along the Pacific Coast. He also talked about what whales eat and how baleen acts as a filter in their mouths.

Fear is one reason kids don’t commune with nature much anymore, he said. But a more disturbing one is apathy. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2012 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, the biggest reason that children ages 6 to 17 don’t participate in outdoor activities is simply a lack of interest in the outdoors.

Yet when given the chance to meet real-life explorers and ask them questions, the kids at Wagoner quickly ate up the allotment of time.

They wanted to know what the Freemans ate out there so far from any McDonald’s or Jimmy John’s restaurants. They wanted to know how they went to the bathroom and what kinds of animals they saw along the way.

“What happened to the dogs when you were done sledding — did you have to put them in the kayak?”

No, the dogs were transported back to their home in Minnesota by truck.

“How did you know which way to go?”

They used a compass.

“Where did you sleep?”

In a tent.

Andres Gonzalez never has been to the wilderness, he said, but he has been to Florida, where he went swimming. The 7-year-old was most interested in the whale portion of the demonstration.

His friend, David Bradley, thought the giant kayak was the coolest among all the props.

“I’d like to try that,” he said.

Amy said the school program is a way for her and Dave to do something they love to do — spend time outdoors — while being role models for kids and encouraging them to be outdoors as well. Wilderness Classroom is funded through grants and donations.

During their most recent three-year adventure, the couple took several breaks to return back to the United States and speak at various schools. They’ve been to Wagoner several times, thanks to the efforts of teacher Tammy Haggerty Jones, who is an outdoor lover and a member of the teacher advisory council at the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.

She met Dave and Amy through a workshop at the Shedd. That was nearly a decade ago. She’s been bringing the modern day Lewis and Clark team into her classroom ever since. On this day, the entire school got to spend time with the Freemans.

Prior to their latest adventure, the Freemans kayaked down the Amazon. Thousands of local school kids followed along virtually on that journey as well.

“They’re contemporary explorers,” Haggerty Jones said. “The kids love them. They take the fear out of going outdoors.”

And, Haggerty Jones said, there is a lot of fear, especially on the part of parents who worry that harm will come to their children if they go outside. But, Haggerty Jones emphasizes, there are plenty of nature-related activities that parents can participate in alongside their children.

“My son grew up at Thorn Creek (Nature Center in Park Forest),” she said.

The Freemans began their 11,700-mile expedition across North America at Bellingham, Wash., on Earth Day, 2010.

Along the way, they encountered humpback whales, grizzlies, caribou, crocodiles and sharks, and survived temperatures of minus-50 degrees, as well as Superstorm Sandy on the New Jersey Coast.

Finally, on April 4, they pulled their kayaks up to their final destination, Key West, Fla.

More than 80,000 elementary and middle school students from around the world have participated in the expedition virtually, following the Freemans on their website, submitting questions and, at Wagoner, welcoming the couple to their school.

The mission of Wilderness Classroom, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to increase students’ appreciation for the environment while improving core academic skills. Students can travel along virtually through live, web-based expeditions and school assemblies.

For more information on the Freemans and their Wilderness Classroom, visit www.WildernessClassroom.com.



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