The Mississippi River is a superhighway of water that slices through the middle of America.
For three months, the Mississippi will be Dave Ellingson’s home, his classroom and his spiritual quest.
The Rev. Ellingson is a Lutheran pastor and as professor of children, youth and family studies at Trinity Lutheran College in downtown Everett.
Ellingson, of Edmonds, 64, will put his kayak in the headwaters of the Mississippi on Monday and begin his three-month paddle south, from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.
He is on a six-month sabbatical from the college to do what he is calling a pilgrimage. Ellingson also will be paddling for a cause.
The theme of his six-month sabbatical is “Creation Care: Environmental Justice.” As part of his paddle, Ellingson is raising awareness and money for Cedar Tree Institute. The money raised will be used by a team of at-risk youth, church members and volunteers from the American Indian community to plant 10,000 white cedar trees, according to press material.
Ellingson, besides being a kayaker, is an environmental theologian and master gardener and was instrumental in helping to create Trinity Lutheran College’s rooftop garden.
He believes his journey on the Mississippi River will be a hard-scrabble course on the natural world.
“If you wed this idea of nature with pilgrimage, nature is bound to teach you something. And for me, it’s not just nature, it’s God’s creation,” Ellingson said. “So I wonder, what will I learn, what will God’s creation teach me, what will scare me?”
During his three months on the river, Ellingson expects long periods of solitude.
“Solitude is part of the experience and when you are alone, you are not always lonely,” Ellingson said in a phone interview before he left. “There is a certain joy in being alone.”
He also expects some scary moments, as well, at places where reeds grow 6 feet high and it’s easy to get lost.
For Ellingson, being vulnerable is key to the journey.
“It’s something I’ve always longed to experience in this way: being open to God, to the people I meet, even to the weather I experience,” Ellingson said.
He can’t do much about the weather, but should he get into a dangerous situation at some point along the 2,530 miles of river, the professor said he paid for a service that activates an emergency signal and “somebody in a helicopter or a boat or something” will come to his rescue.
“I don’t really believe it, but it makes my family feel better,” said Ellingson, a husband and father of five.
Also, Ellingson will be keeping a blog so anyone clicking on to the site can read his stories and insights while seeing where he is — or isn’t — in real time.
“If you don’t see the boat moving on the river I will communicate that I’ve slept in or met somebody and I’m having breakfast,” Ellingson said. “And I’ve got a smartphone and can call. It’s not like I’m leaving civilization. It’s a superhighway in America.”
Ellingson also is prepared when it comes to equipment. He will be using a folding kayak, called a Folbot, that can be carried in a backpack.
He’s researched and talked to other kayakers about the Mississippi, so he’s aware there are stretches such as through Tennessee where there will be 150 miles of nothing.
Ellingson, who has been at Trinity Lutheran College since 2004, has done the Ironman Triathlon, the Boston Marathon and what he calls “lots of adventures.”
Though he jokes his legs are shot and his knees don’t work, Ellingson said this new adventure is perfect for him and his upper body, which is in good enough shape to carry him through this “natural mission of my mortality.”
“The river will start out as a tiny little stream and the river will grow, and I will learn and grow with the river,” Ellingson said. “The river will prepare me and equip me, and I will see the river as my teacher.”
Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424; firstname.lastname@example.org.
To keep up with the Rev. Dave Ellingson’s three-month journey down the Mississippi River or contribute to his cause, go to his blog Paddle Pilgrim at paddlepilgrim.blogspot.com.