Dave Ellingson, 75, paddles around Lake Ballinger for practice on Saturday, Feb. 18, in Mountlake Terrace. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Dave Ellingson, 75, paddles around Lake Ballinger for practice on Saturday, Feb. 18, in Mountlake Terrace. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

From Edmonds to the Mekong: ‘Paddle Pilgrim’ chases trip of a lifetime

Former pastor Dave Ellingson sets off for Southeast Asia by plane this month. A 600-mile kayak journey benefits local charities.

EDMONDS — Prepping for an extended vacation is one of humanity’s universal struggles. Your carry-on is always just slightly too wide, or your bottle of shampoo just half an ounce too full.

Most people have a hard enough time deciding which swimsuit to pack. If you’re Dave Ellingson, you have to figure out how you’re going to fit your kayak and a month’s worth of rations on the plane.

Ellingson isn’t too stressed, though. He’s done this plenty of times before. Known as the “Paddle Pilgrim,” he’ll soon depart his Edmonds home for a month in favor of the wide, muddy Mekong River in Southeast Asia.

The 600-mile journey will take Ellingson, 75, and his companions through jungles, villages and cities, and it’s bound to be a test of mental and physical fortitude. But he says it’s all worth it, both for himself and for the local charities the trip will support.

Ellingson, a former Lutheran pastor and professor, feels he was born to be on the water. Growing up in Minnesota, famously loaded with lakes, he was “seduced” by the quiet, secluded spots where no motorized boats could tread. He’s always been up for a challenge, so he built himself a wooden kayak and explored every corner of the water he could reach. As Ellingson moved around the country, he made it a priority to find a go-to lake or stream where he could spend his weekends paddling.

“I like to say I’m a water spirit,” Ellingson said. “I’m happiest when I’m on the water, traveling down a river or paddling up a fjord.”

Water sprays off of Ellingson’s paddle as he makes a lap around Lake Ballinger on Saturday, Feb. 18, in Mountlake Terrace. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Water sprays off of Ellingson’s paddle as he makes a lap around Lake Ballinger on Saturday, Feb. 18, in Mountlake Terrace. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

About a decade ago, as he began to step back from his academic career, Ellingson decided to fulfill a lifelong dream: kayaking the whole length of the Mississippi River. It took two months and 2,300 miles, rafting him from the headwaters of northern Minnesota to the delta of New Orleans, and he chronicled his adventures as he went.

The writings became his first book as the Paddle Pilgrim. He’s documented his other adventures in three subsequent books, from taking the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty to a month-long journey through the fjords of his ancestral homelands in Norway.

Now, he’s gearing up for his second international kayak journey. At the end of February, Ellingson and his three companions will fly from Seattle to South Korea, then on to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, then finally land in the city of Pakse, Laos, where the kayaks will shove off.

Ellingson has carefully planned a daily itinerary for the month-long trip, documenting villages where the kayakers will stay with local families and spots along the Mekong where they’ll camp under the stars. The group intends to paddle an average of 20 miles and seven or eight hours per day, making their way to the South China Sea by way of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Of course, the well-laid plans are subject to continual change, he said, because you never know when the oppressive humidity and 90-degree weather might call for a rest. To keep up in real time, folks back at home can sign up for Ellingson’s email list to get regular dispatches and photos from the front lines.

As far as packing goes, Ellingson has it down to a science by now. Each paddler will have their own inflatable kayak, which makes things significantly easier than trying to get four boats into the plane’s cargo hold, he said. Most meals will be eaten at villagers’ homes and at the plethora of inexpensive restaurants they’ll encounter, but Ellingson, a vegetarian, will bring along plenty of quick meals and snacks as a fallback for the fish-sauce-heavy local cuisine.

Deby Cassill, a middle school classmate of Ellingson’s and one of his teammates for the trip, said she has been preparing for the physical exertion of the expedition by wearing weighted wristbands during her workday. Cassill is a professor of biology at the University of South Florida, and when she heard about Ellingson’s upcoming trip she knew she had to join.

Ellingson sits in his Advanced Elements kayak, one of the kayaks he will be bringing with him on his trip along the Mekong on Saturday, Feb. 18, in Mountlake Terrace. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Ellingson sits in his Advanced Elements kayak, one of the kayaks he will be bringing with him on his trip along the Mekong on Saturday, Feb. 18, in Mountlake Terrace. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“I’ve been studying ants and spiders and crabs and sharks and whales for 20 years, animal behavior is my thing,” Cassill said. “And so for me, to have an opportunity to kayak down a river and look at the wildlife in an entirely different habitat from what I was raised in, it’s just a bucket list, lifetime opportunity.”

She’s most looking forward to encounters with Irrawaddy dolphins, a critically endangered species native to rivers in Southeast Asia. It’s not guaranteed, though, that they’ll meet any — there are fewer than 100 dolphins left.

As the only woman joining the expedition, Cassill said she anticipates her greatest challenge will be dealing with the finer points of using the bathroom along the way. But she feels confident the rest of the trip will be immensely rewarding, and knows she’s in good hands with Ellingson heading the pack.

“Dave told me once that the river will get us in shape quicker than we think, the river will teach us,” Cassill said. “The river will challenge us in countless unexpected ways, but I’m undeterred.”

Ellingson said the trip was inspired in part by his friend and fellow pastor, Tom Glasoe, who will be paddling the Mekong by his side. Glasoe was born in Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War, Ellingson said, and raised in an orphanage there until he was adopted by an American family at age 9. The paddlers will visit the orphanage at the end of their trip to present them with donations raised by Paddle Pilgrim supporters.

Donations will also go to the Dith Pran Foundation, which supports education for Cambodian children, and a scholarship fund in Ellingson’s name for students of environmental studies.

“I see (the charities) as being the bigger ‘why,’ really,” Ellingson said. “We’re going because we’re going to benefit physically, spiritually, culturally, but we’re also getting to help people along the way and I’m delighted that can be part of our trip.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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