The Source of it all

One of the hundreds of lakes in the Itasca watershed that contribute to the source of the Mississippi River

Having grown up in West Tennessee and crossed the Mississippi River at Memphis a million times going back and forth to my family’s home place, or the duck lease; and then having watched the musicals, read the novels and studied the history of the river, it was impossible for my mind to get around the burbling brook at my feet.  But there it was, the Mississippi River, narrow enough to jump across, slipping over the bank of Lake Itasca and heading east and south to start catching water and dreams and dollars and lives.  I started the morning in Red Wing and followed the river until it crossed under me around Hastings where it turned west after catching the water from the St. Croix. Now on the northern(eastern) bank of the river, I skirted north of the twin cities, caught up with it on the northwest side, and followed it straight up the middle of Minnesota past St. Cloud, Little Falls and Brainerd. At around Grand Rapids, the river starts jumping from lake to lake (one reason its source was so long a subject of debate) around and through the Chippewa National Forest before finally coming to the source at the northern end of Lake Itasca, south of Bemidji, MN.

The Mighty Mississippi as it tumbles out of Lake Itasca

Seeing the little brook at my feet brought home the point Paul Schneider makes in his excellent book “Old Man River”, the Mississippi is not one river, it is many rivers.  There’s just enough water in the Lake Itasca watershed to get the Mississippi to Hastings where it gets its first real push from the St Croix.  And from there it is off to the races — the Chippewa, the Des Moines, the Wisconsin, the Illinois, the Ohio, the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Red — I’m just cherry picking here, but you get the picture.  Basically, the little brook called the Mississippi just happened to be the northernmost brook to slip into the ditch left when the ice sheet receded and the melting ice and lakes of the north blew down the depression between the Appalachians and the Rockies.  I feel like it should be one of those “boost your confidence” tours to have people start at the little brook by Lake Itasca, then blindfold them and fly them to the tug docks at Memphis or New Orleans, turn them loose and say don’t let anyone tell you what you’re capable of — these are the same bodies of water.”  Of course, it’s really just gravity and geology, but, hey, never let facts spoil a good sermon.

Choosing to follow the river to get to the spot I last left the edge was a good choice for me.  It took longer, and was harder to plan for — I was wrong about most of the layover spots — but I saw genuinely new country (central Minnesota), and I fell under the spell of the river. It actually got physically harder to keep pushing upstream as the roads were less convenient and I had to go east to get west, or south to get north, because of all the lakes and bogs; but I will never forget kneeling by that little brook and thinking about that big river washing under the bridge at Memphis.

There are many lakes in the Itasca watershed that makes up the source of the Mississippi, and while the river actually flows from Itasca, the other lakes in the watershed are beautiful. This is Elk Lake, catching a particularly bright ray of sun

Oddly, once you get west of Itasca, the state is very different.  While the trip up the middle was a glorious montage of rolling hills, rocks, bogs, birch forests and purple-blue lakes, the western state turns quickly to stony prairie with little to no interest at all.  My guess is the ice sheet, and the way it receded has something to do with it.  Itasca basically ended up on the northwest corner of the ditch.  Once past it, you’re on the flat ground.

I made it to Grand Forks, ND, which is where I last left the edge.  Tomorrow I will head north to the border where I will turn east along the top of Minnesota, through International Falls and out to Voyageurs National Park.  What happens after that is unknown. The vast area of the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest offer very little in the way of east-west routes unless you are in a boat you can portage on your shoulders.  But I’ve found a couple of tracks that will allow me to stay pretty close to the edge as I work my way over to Ely and further east to Grand Portage.  From there, it’s a matter of following the shores of the Great Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie.  One thing I’ve learned venturing around the edge is that certainty is a rare commodity, so I only plan for tomorrow.  And tomorrow, we get to the edge and follow it to Voyageurs.

3 thoughts on “The Source of it all

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