‘The river was my teacher’

EVERETT — The Rev. David Ellingson was nearly run over by a barge while paddling his kayak on the Mississippi River.

Earlier, he had to negotiate swells up to 8 feet high on an icy Minnesota lake. Another time his tent was blown so hard during a storm it lay nearly flat to the ground, with him in it.

It wasn’t the easiest spiritual experience, but Ellingson said his 2,200-mile kayak trip down the Mississippi River last year was plenty profound.

“The river was my teacher,” he said. “The biggest lesson I learned is I’m not in control.”

Ellingson is a professor at Trinity Lutheran College in downtown Everett and lives in Edmonds. He’s written a book about his experiences titled “Paddle Pilgrim.” It’s available on Amazon.

Ellingson, 66, did the trip while on a sabbatical in the spring and summer of 2012. The reason for the hiatus from teaching was to study environmental issues, he said.

“I was reading and studying and doing a variety of things during the winter months here. But I think you want to learn by doing,” Ellingson said.

Having grown up in different parts of the Midwest and eastern U.S., he was familiar with the Mississippi.

“And of course when you’re a boy you read ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ and I think there’s a Huck Finn element to this,” he said.

After extensive preparations, Ellingson put his kayak into Lake Itasca, Minn. — the headwaters of the Mississippi River — on May 6.

“It was really cold, the water was really cold. It was extreme weather, you’d have rain, you’d have sleet, you’d have snow.”

Along the northern part of the river Ellingson stayed in campgrounds or occasionally with friends or family members. Once, in Iowa, he was invited to stay in a fishing shack. Farther south, he often camped on sand bars.

As it turned out, Ellingson made his trip during a drought year. He made slower progress than he would have if the river was higher and moving faster, but he was also safer and had a greater choice of campsites. The river level was low, so many of the sand bars were exposed.

South of St. Louis, the weather got hot, up to 110 degrees. Often, Ellingson would get up at 3 a.m., paddle until 11 a.m., get off the water for awhile and get back on the river in the late afternoon. He’d get back into his tent by sundown before the mosquitoes came out.

In the southern stretch of the river, he lived on energy bars, energy drinks, nuts and fruit. For the length of the trip he averaged 40 miles a day in 12 hours of paddling.

“I lost 30 pounds,” Ellingson said.

One day in Mississippi he paddled for 18 hours, getting 75 miles downstream.

On the lower river, floating casinos came to the rescue of his appetite.

“I would eat for two or three hours. I’d eat anything they had,” he said.

The lower river was highly industrialized, Ellingson said. Kayakers have to stay to the side, out of the way of barges.

Once, later in the trip, it was starting to get dark and Ellingson needed to get off the river. He was paddling down the correct side but he could see no campsites. He decided to cut across the river to reach a sandbar.

“Halfway through channel there’s this loud honk. So I know I’m in the crosshairs of a barge. And every hair on my body stood on end.”

Ellingson paddled like he’d never paddled before.

“I knew if I looked back I’d have been run over. It was upstream from me, I couldn’t see it, the wind was in my face, my glasses were wet. And I made it across and as I got to the other side of the channel and saw a marker, I looked back. It missed me by maybe 30, 40 yards.”

Another time, he got his tent set up just before a summer storm hit.

“I lay prone in my tent for an hour and a half as the wind almost flattened the tent. And I prayed.”

Ellingson took water samples and recorded his observations of the river’s environment.

“The good news is the river’s cleaner than it was 20 years ago. There’s a lot of groups working on this. But it’s still very polluted,” especially from St. Louis south, he said.

One evening he washed himself off in the Mississippi. The next day his skin itched all over. After that, he washed himself off in the casino bathrooms.

“I learned that was the way to eat and bathe on the lower Mississippi,” he said.

Ellingson was scheduled to speak at a Lutheran youth convention in New Orleans in July. He paddled his last stretch on the trip on July 12, he said.

Ellingson plans to return to paddle the remaining 90 miles through the bayou to the river’s mouth.

In the second half of the trip, Ellingson said he had a strong sense of being cheered on while paddling by family members and friends who have passed away.

“I think we’re surrounded by a whole ‘cloud of witnesses,’” he said, citing a Biblical phrase.

“For me on the river that was really helpful to realize. Even though I was alone, I was not truly alone. I was carried along by their support and encouragement.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; bsheets@heraldnet.com.

More on the trip

For more information about Dave Ellingson’s kayak trip down the Mississippi River, go to http://paddlepilgrim.blogspot.com/.

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