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Local guide leads National Geographic crew down Mississippi River

From left, Marcus Erickson, Terry Larson, Bill Bowles and Stephen Browning pause during a run down the Mississippi River. Larson, of rural Cass Lake, guided the team of producers from the National Geographic Channel during filming of the upper reaches of the river. Submitted Photos

Terry Larson of rural Cass Lake just had time to finish harvesting wild rice and summer berries when a call came in for guide service.

A crew filming a documentary about the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico for the National Geographic Channel needed his help navigating the upper reaches of the river.

Larson, who knows intimately the local stretches of the Mississippi downstream from the Headwaters, had 10 days' notice to prepare to lead producer Tim Schick and crew Bill Bowles, Stephen Browning and Marcus Erickson through the baby Mississippi beginning Sept. 19.

"I really had to rush my berry picking and my ricing," Larson said. "If I hadn't been able to get that done, I wouldn't have gone with them."

Schick's company is JM Associates Inc. Career Sports and Entertainment. He said the three one-hour documentary segments will air sometime next year.

Larson said he was impressed with how elaborate the production was, including underwater camera work and shots from a hired helicopter. Larson navigated and cooked for the crew so they could concentrate on their project.

But to start out, Larson introduced the crew to a ritual of thanksgiving he performs before major river operations. He offers tobacco, in this case from his late grandfather Carl Gulsvig's supply from 50 years ago, to show his reverence for the Mississippi. At the state Highway 200 bridge near Gulsvig's Landing, on land donated by Larson's family, Larson's great-nephews, ages 7 and 5, waved farewell to him and the film crew as they headed down river.

"This is the only canoeing they'll do on the river," Larson said of the Headwaters-Wolf Lake run.

On Thursday, Schick said they were working from a pontoon boat near Winona, Minn.

"Every morning I'd make coffee," Larson said. "I had Spam and eggs and French toast. They got tired of Spam."

He made sandwiches for lunches and wild rice-venison hot dishes, smoked trout, northern pike fish balls or fish fries for suppers. Also a treat for the visitors was chokecherry jelly and syrup from Larson's recent wild harvest.

"I tried to have everything natural," he said. "We drank the (filtered) Mississippi the whole way. In the evening it made me feel good to serve them because they had so many things to go over."

A side visit was a stop at Terry and Marion Smart's home on Lake Irving. Erickson had made friends with the Smarts about six years ago when he was rafting the Mississippi in a paddleboat buoyed by 2-liter pop bottles.

Larson said the trip was a success.

"We never tipped a canoe the whole way," he said. "None of us were injured. I never used a Band-aid. We never got lost, not even in the Becida swamp."

Larson said Schick and his crew were amazed at how tiny the Mississippi is at its beginning, and how pristine. Bowles also told Larson how much he admires someone who has traveled in many parts of the world but is still centered on the things he loves best.

"I think we were all impressed with the natural beauty and the infancy of the river," Schick said in a telephone interview from his pontoon on the Mississippi near Winona.

He said they are also saving a package of Larson's gift of wild rice to make a jambalaya when they get to New Orleans.

"That way, we think we're mixing the Headwaters with Mile Marker Zero, the two cultures," Schick said.

Schick said they also all thought about the image of a river so small but so significant in that it is a watershed for two-thirds of the country.

He added that meeting people like Larson, people who are good stewards of the river, is also a benefit of the project. And, he said, he hopes the documentary will portray the story appropriately, giving viewers an understanding of the ecology and hydrology of the Mississippi, as well as the people and cultures along side the river.