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My Mekong River paddle adventure


Last updated 4/13/2023 at 9:59am

Dave Ellingson

From left: Dr. Deby Cassill, Dave Ellingson, and the Rev. Tom Glasoe by the Mekong River.

As an expedition paddler who has kayaked the Mississippi River, Erie Canal, and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty and the fjords of Norway, detailed planning is essential.

Poring over maps, checking weather patterns, securing excellent gear, and mental preparation are required.

Paddling the Mekong River in Southeast Asia through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam presented a whole new set of challenges, including foreign languages, currencies, cultures, and, above all, a huge and mysterious river.

Our team included Dr. Deby Cassill, a world-renowned field biologist filling the role of team scientist. David Gehrke, a retired criminal defense attorney, was our legal beagle, and Tom Glasoe, a Lutheran pastor, was a Vietnamese American and a product of the war.

What we all had in common was a love of adventure, and this turned out to be an adventure of a lifetime.

Adventures are filled with surprises. One evening soon after launching in Champassak, Laos, we were ready to camp for the night. We found a sandy beach and pulled our boats ashore and set up our tents.

Hoping to resupply our water, we hiked inland toward some buildings only to find we were on an island. Time to ration our water. The next morning, I went exploring and saw two figures in the distance.

As I approached, I saw it was a woman and her young son gathering watermelons, which the residents had planted all over the island during the dry season.

Later in our journey, the massive Mekong Delta welcomed us to Vietnam. The river divides into multiple channels and choices. In my planning, I had read about the Mekong Environmental Forum, an NGO that works with local farmers and fishermen to develop sustainable practices and ecotourism.

For a week, Dr. Quang from Can Tho University and his citizen-scientist students took us around this maze of waterways to various creative ventures which elevate the status of women, address rural poverty, and care for creation.

Along the way, we encountered remarkable people I call "river angels," who went out of their way to welcome us and share their culture and history. Pan hosted us at his beautiful hotel in Laos and was our guide to the Khone Falls, a magnificent series of cataracts stretching miles across the river.

He also explained the enormous economic influence of China in Laos, which he feels is a mixed blessing. Dr. Quang described it as "neo-colonialism."

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our angel was Dr.Phil, who works with the Lutheran Church's Dignity Project, which helps rural communities with health issues. Thu became our interpreter when we visited the orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City that Tom lived in as a boy before being adopted by an American family. She is now working with Tom to help him find his biological mother.

Thu is also an editor for the Hanoi Times, and has asked me to write an article for the largest newspaper in Vietnam.

A final and delightful surprise: the food was even better than we expected. Bon appetit, and bon voyage!

Dave Ellingson, a retired professor and pastor, is known as the Paddle Pilgrim and lives in Edmonds. For information on his books, films, podcast, and potential speaking engagements: http://www.paddle-pilgrim.com.


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