Sometime during the first week of May, Trinity Lutheran College professor and ELCA pastor Dave Ellingson will launch his one-man kayak at the Lake Itasca headwaters of the Mississippi River on a three-month paddle in search of adventure, community and a sacred journey.
The trip, which Ellingson is affectionately calling his “pilgrim paddle,” is one part of his six-month sabbatical, the theme of which is “Creation Care: Environmental Justice.”
For Ellingson, the Mississippi River holds a treasured place in his heart. As a child, he was enthralled by stories set along the Mississippi. Holling’s Minn of the Mississippi and Twain’s Huck Finn thrilled his imagination and cultivated a fascination with a sacred passage down a river like the Mississippi.
“My mom’s uncle had a cabin on Cass Lake in Northern Minnesota, adjacent to the Mississippi River. As a kid, I used to walk across the river on the rocks behind Uncle August’s cabin,” Ellingson said.
In many ways, this adventure is a bit like coming home for Ellingson, who grew up and attended college in the Midwest, but has lived on the west coast for many years, pursuing his professional life as a pastor and professor.
“I’ve been playing on or around this river my whole life,” he said. “Can you imagine a more wonderful adventure than floating down a river?”
Ellingson has prepared for his adventure by reading and talking with other paddlers, and by inviting friends and family to join him along the way. And he’s excited by the response from his community so far. He has several people who are already planning to join him.
Jim Lewis, author of “Ka-Ka Ska-Ska:” (Headwaters to the Gulf – in a kayak) will paddle the first 200 miles of the river with Ellingson.
Dr. Jeremy Meyers, a youth ministry colleague of Ellingson’s, is arranging a paddle with a club that provides water adventures for physically challenged kids in the Twins Cities area.
Trinity board member Barb Andrews, who lives with her husband Greg Schiefertein in Mississippi river town, Galena, Ill., have offered Ellingson dinner, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed.
Will Chiles, a former Holden Village musician and former chef at the Harbor View Café in Pepin, Wisc., together with Trinity graduate the Reverend Joshua Graber, hope to paddle with Ellingson on the Mississippi’s broad expanse known as Lake Pepin.
But Ellingson is quite certain his community on the river is likely to extend past the friends and family he knows already.
“I’ve heard stories about how friendly people are to paddlers on the Mississippi. Even the lock tenders along the river will often put up paddlers if they need a place to stay,” Ellingson said.
However Ellingson’s true vision for his paddle down the Mississippi is the idea of experiencing a pilgrimage, sometimes called a sacred 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. Just being vulnerable is what it’s about,” he said.
The Mississippi River is a wilderness adventure, but it’s also a highway right through the middle of the country. There are many things Ellingson expects to learn about the natural world as he navigates such a long body of water for so many weeks.
“The Mississippi River is an amazing body of water. And nature is our best teacher. 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. And so I wonder, what will I learn, what will God’s creation teach me, what will scare me? The questions and the things I learn are all part of the pilgrimage,” Ellingson said.
Of course there are technical aspects to the paddle that Ellingson is also preparing himself for. Ellingson’s boat is a folding kayak, called a Folbot, which collapses small enough to fit in a backpack. He’ll take it to the airport and check it with the rest of his baggage.
“I bought the Folbot because part my retirement dream is to paddle lots of interesting places: Glacier Bay, Baha, the fjords of Norway,” he said.
But with retirement still a few years off, Ellingson is focusing on a paddle that is a little closer to home. And this time, he’s also hoping to create awareness and raise some funds for an organization called the Cedar Tree Institute, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The Cedar Tree Institute works in partnership with churches and religious communities to promote healing and wholeness in the areas of religion, mental health and the environment. The money Ellingson raises during his pilgrimage will be used by a team of at-risk youth, church folks, and volunteers from the Native American community to help plant 10,000 white cedar trees.
Ellingson will be blogging at http://paddlepilgrim.blogspot.com during his adventure so friends and fans can follow his journey.
And quite a journey it will be, according to Ellingson.
“Venturing forth from the familiar into the unknown invites an openness to the deeper, spiritual levels of life. As a paddling “pilgrim” I look forward to how God will renew my spirit as each new day dawns and as I paddle around each bend in the river.”