Minnesota Trails, spring 2011
The following article was originally published in the May issue of Minnesota Trails magazine.
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 uses a shelter constructed of a lightweight tarp, a screen, and his paddles.
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.
Nedderman on the water in his Klepper folding kayak.
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.
Trusted companion ... Nedderman's backpack.
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.
Nedderman's homemade, ultralight alcohol-burning stove.
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.”
A view of the cockpit of Nedderman's Klepper folding kayak.
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.