Edmonds’ paddle pilgrim

Dave Ellingson to kayak Erie Canal, Hudson River
By Brian Soergel | Sep 22, 2016
Photo by: Brian Soergel Dave Ellingson gets a workout in his kayak at Olympic Beach in Edmonds. He’ll soon be paddling the length of the Erie Canal in New York.

In 2012, inspired in part by the stories of Mark Twain, Edmonds resident Dave Ellingson paddled his red kayak 2,300 miles from Lake Itasca, Minnesota – the headwaters of the Mississippi River – to New Orleans.

Now, for his next journey, the retired Trinity Lutheran College professor is dipping his oars into a journey that’s much more personal.

Today, Sept. 22, Ellingson will fly to Buffalo and, on Sept. 23, place his 17-foot Tsunami 175 kayak into the Erie Canal in New York. For the next three weeks, he’ll journey down the canal to Albany, then head south on the Hudson River and end up at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

Ellingson, an outgoing, physically fit man of 68, a husband, father of five with a second grandchild due in December, spoke about his plans over coffee recently at Red Twig Bakery & Cafe on Fifth Avenue South.

“You can do a lot of planning,” he said, “but you can never account for all the surprises, the serendipities, the bad things that all become learning experiences.”

But Ellingson is confident that his trip will be a success – it’s one he’s planned for some time, as he grew up on the banks of the Hudson, in a historic and quaint village called Dobbs Ferry. He has a long history with the canal: He had an uncle who took him exploring, which included bucolic driving trips along the Erie Canal. And in elementary school, his class learned a song about “a gal named Sal.”

Ellingson sings the opening verse:

“I've got an old mule and her name is Sal,

Fifteen years on the Erie Canal,

She's a good old worker and a good old pal,

Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.”

He remembers a lot.

“It’s always interesting when you get older and discover what you think back on. The Erie Canal, the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty. Part of me just remembers all that.”

His memory is enhanced by family research. His is a typically American story. His ancestors arrived from Norway, and would have had to pass the Statue of Liberty before being processed at nearby Ellis Island. Some family members journeyed up the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and Chicago, while others traveled the canal and settled in Wisconsin.

“So in some ways I feel like I’m retracing my ancestral paths,” he said. “Instead, I’m going in a different direction, going down the canal instead of up it.”

A transportation hub

Work on the Erie Canal began in 1817 and was completed in 1825. Its purpose was to connect people and commerce from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.

Ellingson read numerous books to prepare for his trip. The best, he said, was Peter Bernstein’s “Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation,” which weaves history, culture, politics and engineering.

“It opened up the west,” Ellingson said. “There weren’t any railroads, and most transportation was done by boats.”

He said that George Washington had originally envisioned a canal from the Potomac River to cross the Allegheny Mountains. But it went bankrupt. It would take New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s efforts to see the Erie Canal to fruition (detractors called it “Clinton’s Ditch”). But the canal, which used only state funds, paid for itself after a few years due to fees collected.

“It’s still a very busy waterway, although not so much for commercial uses today,” Ellingson said. Indeed, it’s mostly pleasure craft – and the occasional kayak, like Ellingson’s – traveling up and down the canal. Bicyclists, too, pedal along the paths that wind along the canal.

“It’s quite beautiful along the waterway,” Ellingston said. “And there’s beautiful little towns around it.”

As he travels down the canal, Ellingson will spend nights at campgrounds and hotels he’s scouted out with the help of a touring company. He said some of those in charge of the locks let travelers sleep camp there. (When he arrives at a lock, he takes out his marine radio and asks for permission to go through.)

When speaking about his trip, Ellingson – a religious man who wrote a book called “Biblical Wisdom for a Digital Age” – frequently refers to it as a pilgrimage.

“There’s the religious and spiritual part of it for me,” he said. “You encounter God, the holy, when you’re alone on the water, on you’re on a trail, or in the mountains. These things happen that can’t be reduced to science.”

As Ellingson turns south on the Hudson River, he hopes friends he’s met online through a New York kayak club will join him for part of his journey.

Friends and anyone else who wants to can join Ellingson online as he writes entries and posts videos during his trip on www.paddlepilgrim.blogspot.com.

What’s next after he returns?

“I’d like to paddle the ancestral fjords in Norway. I’ve been to Norway a few times, but I’ve never kayaked there. But I think I have a water spirit. I come alive when I’m on the water. That’s kind of who I am. I’m a big kid who loves to play, and being on the water is a form of play for me.”


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