In mid-May, I joined 75 other folks on a 92-mile trip down almost the entire Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin. It was a beautiful six days of paddling, with high water adding to the excitement, many new friends, and a lot of stuff worth writing about.
In addition to filing several blog posts from campsites along the river, I wrote a couple articles when I got back, including one which was published in the Osceola Sun, Country Messenger and Burnett County-Sentinel. Enjoy!
The smell of green washed over me not long after starting a six-day kayak trip down the Namekagon River in the middle of May. I was overcome with the aromas of life, growth, and health. It did not feel like the beginning of a new season, but the spring of earth and time itself.
I set my paddle down and breathed deeply and listened to the constant chorus of bird song. I had 92-miles to breathe this in. The months of anticipation, the weeks of preparation, the days of packing, the hours of driving – all behind me now, only the river ahead.
It was on the third day of a recent 92-mile paddle down the Namekagon River that some magic happened. Nightly rains had brought the river up to flood stage, and the powerful current was pushing many of our party into rocks and trees, causing unplanned swims in the 55-degree water.
But the swamped canoes and kayaks were not the important part. Strangers coming to each other’s aid were the extraordinary sight. Four of us banded together for the final few miles of that day. I knew I could depend on these new friends if I ran into any trouble.
The story is based on an interview I did last summer with a man named Bill Nedderman on the banks of the St. Croix River. I received e-mail updates on Bill’s adventures both last fall and this spring, with many more miles by foot and kayak to report.
The footnote to the article includes details about his through-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail, paddle trip down the Mississippi, and European adventures.
Kayaking across Minnesota
This summer, Bill Nedderman made a detour. As he planned the route for a solo kayak trip from Rocky Mountain House in Alberta to Montreal, Quebec, retracing an old voyageur trail, he didn’t want to repeat a path he had already traveled along the U.S.-Canada border in the Boundary Waters.
So he decided to dip south through Minnesota. Tacking on an extra thousand miles or so of paddling was just a way to see some new rivers.
I met up with Nedderman at a park along the St. Croix River. We walked a quarter-mile down the trail to where he was camped for a few days, resting up from a mysterious illness that had slowed his travel since the Minnesota River.
Nedderman’s trip through Minnesota took him from Canada up the Red River of the North to the Minnesota, then to the Mississippi to its confluence at Point Douglas with the St. Croix, which he was going to take up to its headwaters, portage over to the Brule, and descend to Lake Superior.
The summer’s high water, illness and other factors had put him behind schedule. He thought it wasn’t going to be possible to make Montreal this year, and instead was trying for Thunder Bay. Once he was done paddling for the year, he planned to do a thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail.
“Long-distance” seems inadequate to describe Nedderman’s pursuits. “Long distance” is a romance between lovers attending colleges in different states. It’s an antiquated idea in a world where we can video chat with friends on different continents and fly over remote wildernesses in Google Earth.
But this simple idea best defines Nedderman. This summer’s trip was not the dream of a lifetime, but the way he has spent most of the warm months for the past 20 years. While he paddled through Minnesota, he reached an important milestone. In Breckenridge, on the Minnesota River, he paddled his 24,901st mile. That number happens to be the circumference of the earth.
A native of Iowa, Nedderman still has a small cabin without running water or electricity there. He spends just a few months during the winter at the cabin and fills his summers with adventures around North America and beyond.
The man who had paddled more than 25,000 miles by the time he left our state has also hiked the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails, the “Triple Crown” of long-distance hiking trails in the United States … Three times each. The tattered homemade ultralight backpack he showed me at his campsite on the St. Croix had been on his back for at least 25,000 miles of hiking.
Nedderman paddles a collapsible Klepper kayak, the wooden frame of which was made in Germany some 40 years ago. The canvas cover was stitched by his long-time girlfriend and traveling partner Ursula, who decided after 12 years of adventure that she was ready for a more stable lifestyle. Nedderman kept paddling.
I wanted some photos of the traveler doing what he does, so he obliged with a bit of paddling in the river. Nedderman uses a single-blade paddle, not the double-ended types most kayakers use. The reason is simple: being able to switch paddling sides lets him rest different muscles during the course of a day. The foot-pedal controlled rudder allows him to steer without using a j-stroke, and he can cover dozens of river miles a day.
Today, most long-distance adventurers seek the support of sponsors, which is often the only thing that makes such expeditions possible. But, as Nedderman told me, the sponsors of course want their “pound of flesh.” They expect their sponsored athletes to blog and Tweet and post to Facebook their every move, and include lots of photos of the gear performing under such adverse conditions.
That’s not for Nedderman. He keeps traveling only because “once I leave home, I don’t want to go back.” It’s all about what is around the next bend in the river for him. Rather than seek money and gear from sponsors, he has made frugality a fundamental of his style. His gear is largely homemade. He slips through most towns along his travels without announcing his presence and his remarkable accomplishments.
The high water that characterized most of Minnesota’s rivers in the summer of 2010 often presented a challenge in his upstream travels. But it also had an unexpected benefit. He sent me an email in September describing the rest of his trip up the St. Croix. He had been able to paddle the whole way to the headwaters, without having to worry about the rock-and-gravel riffles in the upper river that could have impeded him. He pulled his boat up some of the fast parts, but without scraping it on the river bottom.
The day we met was gray and quiet. The river, backed up here from the dam at St. Croix Falls, was flat and silver. No other person passed for the entire time we talked. Nedderman talked about how his interest in frugality complemented his long-distance travels. He packs extremely light. “The more stuff you bring, the more you have to keep dry,” he said.
Despite challenging mud on the Red River, extreme heat and humidity on the Minnesota River, possible West Nile Virus and high water going up the St. Croix, he had enjoyed his trip through the state. He looked out at the river and said, “If you charged money to paddle the St. Croix, more people would do it.”
I interviewed Nedderman in mid-August last year. At that point, he had about 100 miles left to go up the St. Croix. He completed that and then descended the Brule River, portaging around class 2 and higher rapids. From there, he paddled up the North Shore of Lake Superior to Grand Portage, arriving there on September 13.
But his wandering for the year was not over. Nedderman then hiked the 277-mile Superior Hiking Trail from Duluth to Canada. On October 7, he took a bus from Duluth to Minneapolis. His e-mail reads lyrically enough that it’s worth quoting:
got on a bus from duluth to downtown minneapolis 7 oct.
walked 5 blocks to the mississippi
put the kayak together
and paddled 1808 ml. down to mile zero
got there on 13 dec.
After spending the winter at his cabin, Nedderman said he got “spring fever.” When I got in touch with him this week, he had been in England for four weeks, hiking the 184-mile Thames Path and the 99-mile South Downs Way. After those treks, he is planning to do the 538-mile GR 10, a hiking path along the French side of the Pyrenee Mountains, near the border with Spain, and then do some additional hiking in the Alps.
Nedderman’s paddling ambitions for the year is a trip from his home base near Cedar Rapids, IA down the Cedar River, to the Iowa to the Mississippi and to the Ohio. Then, up the Ohio to the Tennessee River, and then to Mobile, Alabama via the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mile man-made river, primarily intended for commercial shipping.
About the same time Gabe arrived at the house to go fishing on Monday, the rain came back in a big way. A strong storm had come through earlier in the afternoon, but was followed by sun breaking through clouds. Now, though, it was falling again, seemingly harder than gravity could be responsible for, perhaps somehow projected down from the heavens.
Gabe dashed in the front door from his car and we stared out at where the canoe was sitting on the grass of the front lawn, just needing 10 minutes of work to get it on top of my car. We finally went to look at the weather radar on the computer–which told us it was raining and would be for a while–and when we returned to the front door, it had subsided.
We donned rain jackets and went out to strap the Wenonah on the car. The theory was that the showers would be sporadic and, on a warm day like this, not worth discouraging a fishing trip.
Driving east on Highway 36 the skies really let loose and we laughed a little bit about the fact that we were driving through such weather with a canoe on the car and fish swimming in our minds. But, we figured we’d get near the river and wait for it to let up. If it didn’t? Well… it had to.
The skies weren’t giving up any helpful information as we approached the landing and when we pulled up to the river it was still coming down good, but by that time we’d driven all the way out there so what the heck, let’s go. We paddled away from shore with our hoods up and our hats pulled down and some rocky shoreline on the opposite bank in our sights.
I should say that perhaps only I had the rocky shoreline in my sights. Rocks generally mean smallmouth bass, which I was itching to target with a new Sage 8-weight fly rod. My paddling and fishing partner, on the other hand, has recently been smitten with fly fishing for carp (of all things!) and wanted to return to a mud flat upriver where a big one had snapped him off the day before. But first we casted at the rocky shoreline.
It was good we didn’t venture far from the landing, because almost imperceptibly, the rain stopped, the skies brightened, and I realized I had forgotten my sunglasses in the car. The oversight was understandable, considering the weather we had launched in.
After stopping to pick up the sunglasses, we struck off upstream. The water was high from a wet series of weeks, but the current was manageable. We dug in a bit and made it up to the first bend, where on the outside a bunch of snags against the bank usually hold some fish.
We took turns casting toward shore and the fish were willing if not enthusiastic. I was in the stern and, as much as I love the pull of a smallmouth on the line, I was enjoying just as much maneuvering the canoe while Gabe casted. I’ve been sitting in the stern of that boat for about five years now and I really love it. At seventeen feet, with 1 1/2″ of rocker and a nice wide beam, it’s proven itself as a great St. Croix craft. It turns sharply but it tracks well enough, and it’s stable enough for steady Gabe to stand in the bow and cast, or for our oblivious dog to shift her weight suddenly without putting all of us in the water.
The river was absolutely calm. The water was like glass, and white mist was rising, seeming to get held up on the white pines which towered over the other trees on the bluffs. It was evening now after a long and busy holiday weekend. Occasional canoes, kayaks, and pontoon boats passed by quietly, the stragglers of what had surely been a steady stream of people enjoying this gorgeous river all weekend long.
I continued seeing what I could do with my paddle. A draw there, a stroke here, and a canoe can move and turn all at once, in any possible direction. When you start to know how the paddle and the boat interact, it seems like you can move across the water on the power of thought. If you’re targeting spooky fish, or slipping through a narrow, twisting channel, a cooperative canoe becomes your dear friend and ally.
Carp were still on Gabe’s mind, so we headed up a back channel that entered the river here. Ahead were broad, shallow silt flats ringed by grasses and other water plants.
As we eased the canoe up the channel, big swirls started to appear at the edges of the open areas. Reeds and grasses were sent swinging back and forth as unseen creatures below the surface rooted around at their bases.
I gently pushed the canoe along while Gabe stood in the bow and looked for fish. If not the nudging of weeds, they would be revealed by a steady line of little bubbles on the surface that were sent up by feeding fish. When he spotted a target, he would send long, precise casts across the water to a spot just a few feet away from the target. Slowly he would twitch it a few times. Nothing happened.
We continued on exploring the backwater. Red-winged blackbirds perched swaying on tall grasses; a mature and immature bald eagle screeched back and forth at each other as we approached, stopped crying when we stopped approaching, and then flew off in separate directions. A tiny bird dive-bombed the immature bird its whole way across to the next stand of trees.
My carp-targeting friend continued to stalk the fish; he even got two brief takes. But the fish seemed to sense our very presence as we approached. I was taken again with how quiet a canoe can move through calm water. There seemed to be no resistance to our passage.
The day began to dwindle and in the morning it would be time to return to work after four days away. We set off up the channel, seeking its upstream connection to the main river. We found it but of course the entrance was blocked by a big snag. We precariously pulled the canoe over the big trees and then paddled out into the main channel, where we headed back down toward the landing.