The Inside Line: Bill Nedderman
A deeper look at one of the 'Covert Operators' profiled in our May issue
The thing about a loop is that, theoretically, it doesn’t end. You begin where you are. But where do you stop?
That’s what Bill Nedderman was contemplating last August near Chicago, 5,500 miles into his 6,000 Great Loop of the eastern United States in a 70-pound homemade canoe. He’d spent the last 10 months paddling down the Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast, Florida and Atlantic seaboard, up the St. Lawrence Seaway and along four of the Great Lakes.
Soon he’d be back where he started, his hometown of Lovilia, Iowa, population 583. The thought of closing the loop seemed to make Nedderman a bit uneasy. “Maybe I’ll be like Bernard Moitessier,” he said with a little laugh, referring to the Frenchman who held an insurmountable lead in a solo round-the-world sailing race. Instead of collecting his prize, Moitessier sailed another 15,000 miles to Tahiti.
Nedderman travels just like he lives: off the grid. You have to send him an email and wait for him to land somewhere with a public library to check his inbox. He doesn’t use capital letters or punctuation in his replies, which resemble free verse poetry. Calling him doesn’t work.
“I can’t figure out how to get messages. It’s a little embarrassing,” he says, given that he installs business phone systems whenever he needs money. That’s not often. Last year he spent $2,500.
Nedderman is the definition of stealth. He never pays for a campsite. His tent is an 8-by-8-foot tarp. “It’s black, so that kind of helps,” he says. He has not always traveled alone: “I had a German girlfriend who came with me for 12 years. Then she wanted a more traditional life and went back to Germany.”
That was in 2004.
For most of us, canoeing the Great Loop would be the trip of a lifetime. For Nedderman, such adventures are his life. He’s canoed 32,000 miles, biked 63,000 miles, hiked 34,200 miles and camped out 5,800 nights. He’s paddled Lewis and Clark’s route from west to east and to the Arctic Ocean from Minnesota. He’s biked coast-to-coast and border-to-border. He’s hiked the Appalachian Trial, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail—three times each. He’s always planning three, four trips ahead, fearing the fog of “what now?” that comes with the end of the road.
“I’m not trying to be the first or the fastest or the farthest or the oldest or anything like that. I do it for the fun of it,” Nedderman said in August, before paddling away.
Around New Years I sent him an email, and a few weeks after that I got his reply. A dozen lines of free verse, no caps. He’d finished the Great Loop on Sept 28, and then pulled a Moitessier of sorts—turning around and paddling 235 miles up the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers to Ottumwa, Iowa. He cooled his heels for all of three weeks before cycling to Tennessee for Thanksgiving, and on to Texas for Christmas. He’d emailed me from Florida, where he was “doing six weeks of hiking” and planning a summer paddling trip in Canada. — Jim Bloch