Dave Ellingson, 71, nicknamed the Paddle Pilgrim, paddled through fjords in Norway and wrote a book on it. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Dave Ellingson, 71, nicknamed the Paddle Pilgrim, paddled through fjords in Norway and wrote a book on it. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

He recreated his ancestors’ journey through the fjords of Norway

Edmonds’ Dave Ellingson will speak on “Kayaking the Fjords of Norway” at the Marysville Opera House.

Update: Due to the weather, Marysville’s Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series event has been postponed to Feb. 19.

Dave Ellingson long felt a calling to the waters of Norway from his Scandinavian ancestors.

So the “Paddle Pilgrim” answered them.

Ellingson, of Edmonds, went on a month-long paddle adventure on the Sogne and Hardanger fjords in Norway this past summer to discover his family roots.

Thousands of years ago, his ancestors explored the two majestic-looking fjords — narrow inlets with steep sides carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age around 14,000 years ago — through which they immigrated to America by ship in the 1850s.

Kayaking with three other Norwegian descendants, Ellingson paddled through rapidly changing weather, turbulent water and a broken rudder on a journey leading to a farm with ties to his family.

Ellingson, 71, an expedition kayaker and author, will talk about navigating the ancient waterways by kayak for Marysville’s Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series on Tuesday at the Marysville Opera House. He’ll share photos and film from his journey.

Dave Ellingson kayaked two of Norway’s fjords in 2018 with three of his friends, who also are expedition kayakers. (Dave Ellingson)

Dave Ellingson kayaked two of Norway’s fjords in 2018 with three of his friends, who also are expedition kayakers. (Dave Ellingson)

“There’s a Scandinavian phrase — friluftsliv — that means ‘free air life,’” he said. “It really captures the spirit of Norway. People do absolutely their best to be outside, whether they’re hiking, camping, paddling or fishing. They’re outdoor people. That’s always been true for me.”

Ellingson grew up in Minnesota next to rivers and lakes, often canoeing on a nature preserve in a northeastern part of the state called The Boundary Waters. Ellingson, who is 93 percent Scandinavian and 7 percent Finnish, found a sense of purpose whenever he was on the water.

“I feel like I was born with a paddle in my hand,” he said. “Part of it’s the adventure, but being outdoors is where I feel the most alive.”

Expedition kayaking allows him to stay on the water for long periods of time. During a three-week trip down New York’s Erie Canal and the Hudson River in 2016, Ellingson had an epiphany: The route, in reverse, was the same his ancestors took to homestead in Iowa and Wisconsin when they emigrated from Norway.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to complete this journey by going to Norway to the fjords where they came from,’” he said.

Ellingson, who is retired, went on a trip to the Sogne and Hardanger fjords in June with three friends who like him are expedition kayakers and have Norwegian ancestry.

The fjords, which are narrow inlets that can stretch hundreds of miles, are known for their majestic beauty. (Dave Ellingson)

The fjords, which are narrow inlets that can stretch hundreds of miles, are known for their majestic beauty. (Dave Ellingson)

Norway has about 1,200 fjords in all, 10 of which are popular tourist destinations for cruises and kayakers because they offer spectacular views of snow-capped mountains, towering cliffs and countless waterfalls. They’re also geologic wonders — the fjords are often as deep as the mountains surrounding them.

But unlike those enjoying the luxuries of a cruise ship, kayakers must deal with the elements.

“They say in Norway you can experience four seasons in one day,” Ellingson said. “You might have perfect, calm, glass-like conditions, then in a matter of hours, you can have windswept fjords, driving rain and even snow. You have to be prepared for anything.”

He and his friends rented kayaks from an outfitter in the village of Gudvangen and set out on the 127-mile-long Sogne, the largest and deepest fjord in Norway.

The rudder on Ellingson’s kayak broke just a day into their trip. It lost a battle against waves pushed by winds, tides and wakes from tour boats, which then ricocheted off 2,000-foot cliffs. He went back to the outfitter for a replacement, then set out again.

“That was a little hair-raising,” he said.

Most of the first week was wet and cold (some nights the temperature fell below freezing), but the weather turned sunny the next — with highs in about the mid-70s. They set up camp on beaches, campgrounds or wherever they found beautiful scenery.

Dave Ellingson sports a patch on his jacket commemorating his month-long paddle trip in Norway. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Dave Ellingson sports a patch on his jacket commemorating his month-long paddle trip in Norway. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Because of their proximity to the Arctic Circle, 24-hour daylight was another issue. Ellingson wore a bandana over his face to simulate darkness to help him sleep.

But the views more than made up for the miserable weather.

“There was one area where we could see 13 waterfalls,” Ellingson said. “It’s spectacular scenery.”

They found beauty beneath the falls, too. One evening, on quiet waters during the third week on the Hardanger fjord, a small pod of dark-green porpoises broke the surface.

After three weeks, Ellingson and Co. made landfall near the farm his great-grandfather lived in the early 1850s. (Ellingson doesn’t speak Norwegian, but virtually everyone in Norway speaks English.) Locals pointed them farther inland, where he happened to meet some farmers who were related to his ancestors.

“They invited us in, and we sat on their deck looking at the family history book,” he said. “I found my great-grandfather’s name. That was my homecoming experience.”

Ellingson, the author of books on kayaking expeditions on the Mississippi River and Erie Canal, recently published another on this trip. It’s titled “Paddle Pilgrim: Kayaking the Fjords of Norway.” If you haven’t figured it out yet, Paddle Pilgrim is his nickname and explorer alter-ego.

“Whether you’re a senior citizen like me or a young person, you should dream big,” he said. “Set your bar high and realize there are amazing adventures you can experience and go for them.”

Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, ethompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.

If you go

Marysville’s Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series continues 6:30 p.m. Feb. 19 with Dave Ellingson’s presentation on “Kayaking the Fjords of Norway” at the Marysville Opera House, 1225 Third St., Marysville. Entry is $5 at the door. Call 360-363-8400.

The Marysville Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series is held the second Tuesday of the month, January through May and September through November. Presentations cover hiking, climbing, snowshoeing, biking, photography, boating, birding and more. More at www.marysvillewa.gov.

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