Last 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.
Instead he dipped 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 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 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.
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 which is the circumference of the earth.
Nedderman has a small cabin in Iowa without running water or electricity. He spends just a few months during the winter at the cabin and fills his summers with adventures around North America adventures.
He 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 40 years ago. The canvas cover was stitched by his long-time girlfriend and traveling partner Ursula, who decided after 12 years of adventure she was ready for a more stable lifestyle. Nedderman kept paddling.
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 leaves 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. It 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 St. Croix river and said, “If you charged money to paddle the St. Croix, more people would do it.”