The mighty Mississippi River isn’t so impressive at its beginning. The little river is no more than a shallow, narrow babbling brook where it exits Lake Itasca. Yet, like any newborn, the infant river’s character and physical makeup is pure. Indeed, the birthplace of this significant flowage, its modest origin marked by a few well placed rocks in order for bemused visitors to cross its minimal expanse, surrounded by stately pine trees whispering in the wind as they have for thousands of years, ventures forth on its meandering course into the unknown, aging along the way.
To imagine the Mississippi River 500 years younger in its unaltered entirety from humble headwaters to distant deltas is a worthy and overwhelming exercise of the mind. The Mississippi River, which drains much of North America, at one time weaved its way through an absolute wilderness. No modern civilization, no iron bridges, no concrete dams, no locks — just a river and its ever-changing fish and wildlife, plants, biomes, and climate as it flowed across the continent from north to south.
Minnesota is known as the “Birthplace of the Mississippi River.” And though the Ojibwa people were very familiar with the location of the river’s beginning, it was only about 175 years ago that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, along with his guide Chief Ozawindib, became the first European to “discover” its source. Schoolcraft was also credited with naming the Mississippi’s source-lake, Lake Itasca, coined from letters within the Latin phrase “veritas caput”, which, when translated, means “true source.”
And so it was, and is, that the Mississippi River, spilling from lush wild rice beds out of Lake Itasca’s north arm, begins its scenic trip through Minnesota — flowing north first, followed by an easterly course from Lake Bemidji, until turning south toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet despite the reverence bestowed on the great river we call Mississippi, many of us choose to view it only from asphalt highways or manicured parks. I contend that in order to garner a sense of this river’s spirit as it winds through the quiet of conifers, one should walk its bottomlands or canoe its clean waters — away from towns and away from machines — to truly grasp the extraordinary magnitude of all its wild beauty.
If not for the foresight of Jacob V. Brower, an early champion of the region surrounding Lake Itasca and of the Mississippi River itself, the headwaters would be a very different place today. By the late 1800s the landscape, even then, was rapidly changing because of unregulated logging. Brower recognized the value of preserving the source of the Mississippi, in addition to the river’s adjacent lakes and forests. Through persistent effort by Brower and others, in 1891 the state legislature, by just a single vote, established Itasca State Park as Minnesota’s first state park.
A half-century later, in 1943, because of bountiful natural resources along the Mississippi River corridor, the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest was established. Thus, the first 40 miles of the river flows through, mostly, publicly owned forests. And like all Minnesota state forests, the Mississippi Headwaters was designated as such to produce timber, provide outdoor recreation, to protect watersheds, and to perpetuate forestland floral and faunal diversity.
Nevertheless, and in spite of increasing societal demands within the Mississippi’s watershed, embankments, and riverbed from development, timber production, and outdoor recreation, the river persists much like it always has. Even so, there are signs that not all is well with the river and parts of its adjacent uplands in northern Minnesota.
One of my favorite places on the river is within the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, about 15 miles north as the crow flies, from the river’s headwaters at Lake Itasca. The place is called Stumphges Rapids.
The first time I became acquainted with this peaceful area was in 1992. A high bank that overlooks the river near the quaint iron bridge had evidently always been a desirable locale for those people seeking tranquil and appealing surroundings along the flowing river. And it immediately became, for me, a destination where I could be assured of peace of mind.
Other places along the Headwaters of the Mississippi River have become equally as special to me, too. One such place is where La Salle Creek (a creek that also shares its humble beginnings in Itasca State Park) gently dumps its waters into the scarcely larger Mississippi.
A high ridge juts out at this confluence of clear waters, thus affording a visitor of what many local residents have come to affectionately call, “The Grand View”. Standing above the infant Mississippi River and La Salle Creek one can easily imagine aboriginal hunters and gatherers of the Woodland Period and, later, the Anishinaabe People, paddling birch bark canoes quietly up and down the same water courses in search of wild furs, meat, and rice.
Indeed, then and now, the Mississippi River and its northern Minnesota forests, harboring wild and native plants and animals throughout the seasons such as ruffed grouse, ram’s-head orchids, gray wolves, trumpeter swans, northern pike, wild rice, bald eagles, caddis flies, spring peepers, and more, is a treasured resource that we Minnesotans have been entrusted to preserve.
From Itasca State Park’s Lake Itasca, through the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest and the La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, through lakes Bemidji, Cass and Winnibigoshish, to Grand Rapids, and to Brainerd and beyond . . . the Mississippi River begins in our own backyard as a seemingly insignificant forest flowage that simultaneously challenges our appreciation and attention as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com.