Dave Ellingson ’69, aka the Paddle Pilgrim, spent the majority of his life serving as a Lutheran pastor and professor. Now, in what he describes as his “third act,” he’s kayaked through enough water to have circled the globe at least once. Through books, videos, and other media, he shares vivid reflections and stories about all his voyages. But his latest, along the Mekong River, was one of his most memorable pilgrimages because of the lives it touched.
Paddling is a lifelong theme for Ellingson. “I often have my kayak on top of my car, and it’s like a divining rod,” he says with a chuckle. “If there’s any water nearby, my car just automatically turns toward it. Water defines my spirit in many ways.”
Ellingson’s first pilgrimage, in 2012, comprised the full length of the Mississippi River (2,350 miles), which he paddled solo with a waterproof journal strapped to the bow, pausing to jot down notes and musings throughout the two-month journey. He also paddled the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty (500 miles) and the Sogne and Hardanger Fjords in Norway (400 miles).
In March 2023, he and three other paddlers took on the Mekong River (600 miles) in Southeast Asia. Philanthropy underpinned the journey, and it grew out of the swirls and eddies that have brought Ellingson into contact with people in his own life.
After knee surgery in 2013, Ellingson had to relearn to walk. He spent a lot of time with his physical therapist, Titonath (Tito) Dith, and the two became friends. Ellingson learned that Tito’s father, Dith Pran, was the Cambodian photojournalist who coined the name “the Killing Fields” after his family escaped Khmer Rouge rule and fled to the United States.
Feeling the stirrings of another pilgrimage, Ellingson pinpointed the Mekong River as his next destination and pledged to raise money for the Dith Pran Foundation to support the education of Cambodian youth.
From there, Ellingson extended a paddle invite to a former student turned dear friend who came to the US from Vietnam as a nine-year-old adoptee. This added the component of raising money to support the orphanage where his friend spent time as a child.
Finally, Ellingson raised money for his namesake scholarship started by former students to support the next generation of environmentalists. (Ellingson taught a course in environmental ethics for years.)
“I hope what people take away from my story is that every one of us is capable of amazing things,”
Ellingson says. “To your dying day, you’re going to be learning something new, growing, and being alive. That’s the adventure of life.”
So, he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “Paddle boldly.”