The Big Muddy, though rarely called that here in northern Minnesota, is the mighty Mississippi River -- albeit not all that mighty looking here either. The little river is no more than a shallow and narrow babbling brook where it exits Lake Itasca. Its modest origin marked by a few well-placed boulders for bemused visitors to cross its minimal expanse as the river ventures forth on its meandering and powerful 2,300-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
To imagine the Mississippi River five hundred 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 Ojibwe people were very familiar with the location of the river’s beginning, it was only about 180 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."
Yet despite the reverence bestowed on the 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 bottom lands 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 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, which is where your help is needed.
You can join people who care about clean water and the Mississippi River from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26, at the First Lutheran Church in Bemidji, for a community forum with lawmakers and other key stakeholders for a discussion on clean water in Minnesota.
The event organizers write:
“Water is a huge part of our state’s identity. One of the state’s most iconic bodies of water, the Mississippi River, faces real threats that affect all of us. The river supports a diverse array of wildlife and millions of people who rely on it as a source of drinking water and an economic engine.”
“We know we can address the challenges facing the river by investing in conservation. Now we need legislators to take action in the 2020 legislative session to fund on-the-ground projects that protect land, water, habitat and people . . . and we need you to join us on Jan. 26 because clean water depends on you. Come share your story, talk with our lawmakers and speak up for clean water in Minnesota.”
Indeed, from Lake Itasca and through Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, Lake Winnibigoshish, Grand Rapids, Brainerd and beyond, the Mississippi River begins in our own backyard as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
For more information about this community event, visit “Our Mississippi Our Future” community forum website: https://www.ourmississippiourfuture.org/events.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.