Mississippi Headwaters holds many attractions

By: Cliff Terry; Special to the Tribune

The mighty Mississippi, dreaded downstream for raging floods, is a mere burble at its headwaters in northwest Minnesota's Itasca State Park.

Indeed, new visitors to the park seemingly follow a game plan: Drive to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, take off your shoes, wade in the little stream's shallow water, climb on its conveniently placed boulders, pose for a photograph and then head over to the nearby gift shop.

The headwaters are to Itasca State Park what the "Mona Lisa" is to the Louvre. Seek it out, and if you have time, catch a few of the other attractions. More than a half-million people a year -- so-called "seekers of the source" -- climb on those rocks. Then it's time to drive on. Which is a shame.

"Ninety-five percent of the visitors see only about 5 percent of the park," said Thomas Cooper, former manager of the charming and affordable Mississippi Headwaters Hostel. "Actually, the whole park is a real jewel, but because of its location, it's overlooked. There are no major north-south expressways leading to it."

Solitude seekers have most of the park to themselves. Biking on the lovely Wilderness Trail, my wife, Pat, and I saw about 10 cars in several hours. Those who do explore the park are in for a treat, from scenic marvels to an historic, century-old lodge to a colorfully narrated boat ride on Lake Itasca.

Itasca State Park, some 30 miles southwest of legendary Bemidji (known to winter weather-watchers as a major U.S. icebox), is the oldest park in Minnesota (1891) and the second largest. (St. Croix is first.) The Mississippi starts its journey in Lake Itasca, flowing 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Itasca also is the home of black bears, coyotes, otter, beavers, porcupines and countless birds.

The park contains more than 100 lakes, including the 1,000-acre Lake Itasca, and 24 marked hiking trails. Wild rice -- the official Minnesota state grain -- dots 80 percent of Lake Itasca's 17-mile shoreline. Bicycles, canoes, rowboats, kayaks, paddle boats, pontoon boats and motor boats are available for rental in the park from mid-May through mid-September. For fishing folks, rods, reels and other gear are also rented.

The tourist-enticing headwaters area was, according to a park superintendent in the early 1930s, "a swampy, muddy and dirty sight." The solution was to assign the Civilian Conservation Corps to an eight-year project that included digging a new river channel, eliminating swamp areas, planting 16 acres of trees and building a dam.

A 5.8-mile paved bike path now runs between Douglas Lodge and the headwaters. Ambitious bikers can connect to Wilderness Drive, an 11-mile paved road on the undeveloped west side of Lake Itasca, making a loop of almost 17 miles. We tackled the loop just once, and found it incredibly, ah, invigorating, thanks to the hills.

Amid the natural beauty, we stopped at marked highlights, including one of Minnesota's largest white pines -- 112 feet tall and 173 inches in circumference; a 120-foot-high red pine (Minnesota's state tree); the restored Alton Heights Fire Tower; and the Old Timer's Cabin, built by the Corps in 1934.

Highly recommended is a two-hour ride on the Chester Charles, a tour boat on Lake Itasca (late May through early October). It's a family-run business, and our tour was led by a delightful twosome: an older man, Thomas Coborn, and his young granddaughter, both part-Native Americans. It's a relaxing, enjoyable, even informative experience, with a bare minimum of corny jokes.

During the trip we saw a half-dozen great blue herons and 10 or 12 loons, including a mother sheltering her chick from a soaring bald eagle. Among the tidbits we learned about the lake and the park were:

--In an area called Preachers Grove, fire scars on the trees were called "cat faces" by the old-time lumberjacks.

--The male and female loons have identical plumage. ("Nobody can tell them apart -- except, of course, themselves," Coborn said.)

--Great blues feed on partially digested fish and regurgitate it into the mouths of the young herons, which grow very quickly because of the high-protein fish diet.

One caveat: There must be a minimum of 15 adult passengers, or the tour will be canceled. For information and reservations, call Lake Itasca Tours (218-266-3660) or Itasca State Park (218-266-2100).

Itasca State Park also provides all kinds of interpretive offerings -- from campfire programs and nature hikes to musical performances and children's activities -- every day during the summer and fall, and weekends during spring and winter.

As for that headwaters area, legends continue to grow. Looking at the popular gift shop one fine morning, a boy who was perhaps 8 or 9 was overheard providing a friend with some vital information he apparently had picked up during his trip. "If you want to go inside that shop," the lad said, with all earnestness, "you have to be 63 years old."



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