By Jim Umhoefer
At its birth in Itasca State Park, the Father of Waters is a humble brook that bubbles over rocks and flows quietly between narrow, wooded banks. But as it winds through Minnesota for almost 700 miles in great serpentine curves, the growing river lives up to its name. From its wilderness origins, the Mississippi River is transformed into a broad, commercially busy river at the Twin Cities and below. Families and beginning canoeists can enjoy canoeing on the river, now substantially subdued by dams.
The first white man to see the river was Hermando De Soto, in 1541. Though many tried to find its source, it was not until 1832 that Henry Schoolcraft and his Ojibway guide, Ozawindib, discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca. Most of the wildlife and scenery that Schoolcraft saw on his quest are still part of a canoeist's experience on the 60-mile stretch between Lake Itasca and Lake Bemidji. In this portion, marshes alternate with 60-foot banks cloaked with jack, red and white pines.
The first 15 miles are impassable at times because of shallow water and beaver dams. The intermittent rapids upstream from Lake Bemidji are not difficult to canoe, but windfalls, brushy areas, and sand bars make for rough passage in spots. You might see beavers, otters and a variety of waterfowl along the way. Black bear, deer and even timber wolves inhabit the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, which lines the channel.
In the conifer bogs below Stumphges Rapids, look for wild orchids in the shade of tamarack and black-spruce tree. Insect-eating sundew and pitcher plants live in these bogs, too.
The stretch from Pine Point to Iron Bridge is characterized by swampy lowlands and rice beds where Ojibway Indians still harvest wild rice. Canoeing here is an exercise in patience, as the river meanders in a series of large oxbows, often doubling back to within yards of a bend you just paddled around.
As you near lakes Irving and Bemidji, the landscape changes from wilderness to agricultural to residential. Lake Bemidji State Park, at the northeast corner of the lake, has a semi-modern campground and naturalist programs. Accesses and campsites space along this 60-mile headwaters section mean that you can plan three- to five-day trips. Outfitters are located near Itasca State Park and Bemidji.
Below the hydroelectric dam several miles downriver from Lake Bemidji, the Mississippi enters a region of lakes. The marshes between the lakes provide breeding areas for mallards, blue-winged teal and other waterfowl. Fishing is good at times for walleyes, largemouth bass, muskies and northern.
The river flows through the Buena Vista and Bowstring state forests and the Chippewa National Forest on its way from Cass Lake to Lake Winnibigoshish. Dams require portages at the outlets of these lakes. Lake Winnibigoshish is too large to cross safely by canoe-sudden winds and waves can catch canoeists far from land-but you can follow its south shore, where a couple of primitive campsites offer shelter.
The Mississippi River again coils back and forth on itself in a convoluted maze from Ball Club Lake almost to Schoolcraft State Park. About 14 miles below the park is the first of two dams in the Grand Rapids area requiring portages.
Between Deer River and Libby, the upper Mississippi changes to banks of pine and hardwoods. Waterfowl are not as plentiful, but deer herds are large around the Golden Anniversary and Hill River state forests.
In Aitkin County, the Mississippi River flows through forested flatlands. Numerous oxbows that once were part of the main channel now form secluded backwaters. The largest of the steamboats that used to travel between Aitkin and Grand Rapids sometimes clipped the riverbanks while rounding the sharp bends in this area.
You'll pass by the Savanna State Forest and Big Sandy Lake before the river turns southwest toward Aitkin. The lake was the site of another Indian battle during the Ojibway campaign to force the Dakota out of the forests. Below Aitkin, the river becomes straighter and broader. White pines tower above the hardwoods in the Crow Wing State Forest as the river flows beneath low-lying hills. You'll have to portage around the Potlatch Dam in Brainerd, which is a major visitor center for the surrounding lake country. South of Brainerd, the river flows through a deciduous forest typical of central Minnesota. This stretch of river is popular with anglers for walleye and smallmouth bass.
Crow Wing State Park, at the confluence of the Crow Wing and Mississippi rivers, is the site of yet another Ojibway-Dakota battle. The park is also the site of Crow Wing, one of the state's oldest ghost towns. Several miles south is the Mississippi River Slough, a 2-mile stretch dotted with more than 45 islands.
By the time you reach Little Falls, the Mississippi River has lost its wilderness character. Four dams require portages from here to below St. Cloud. The riverscape consists of hardwood groves interspersed with houses, farms and cities. Below Little Falls, you'll pass Charles A. Lindbergh State Park. The summer home of the famous flier is preserved on the banks of the river he loved. (The home and interpretive center are administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.)
Just above St. Cloud, where the Sauk River joins the Mississippi, is a stretch of boulder-bed rapids that inexperienced canoeists should avoid, especially in high cold water.
Numerous accesses and rest stops make the St. Cloud to Anoka stretch ideal for day trips. You'll find outfitters in St. Cloud and Elk River. Just below the St. Cloud dam are 30-odd Beaver Islands, which choke the river for 2 miles, forming a network of channels. Three power plants and increasing numbers of riverbank homes signal the approach to the Twin Cities.
Before reaching Minneapolis, you'll have to portage around the Coon Rapids dam. Fishing is good below the dam and old powerhouse. Though the river flows through downtown Minneapolis, many buildings are atop bluffs, and a strip of natural land survives along the stream, so wildlife can be observed even in this urban setting.
The growth of the Twin Cities has not helped river quality. The water is silty and, in places, contaminated with sewage and industrial chemicals. The Minnesota Department of Health has placed restrictions on consumption of fish caught in the river from here to below Wabasha.
Downstream from the Twin Cities, the river is interrupted by locks and dams. Canoeists can safely navigate the locks by following the attendant's instructions and steering clear of commercial barges. Motorboats and a deceptively swift current in the wide river require caution from canoeists.
Despite heavy industrial development below Fort Snelling, the Mississippi remains a ribbon of nature flanked by cottonwoods, willows and flowering shrubs. Bald eagles, ospreys, red-tailed hawks and falcons patrol the channel. Pig's Eye Lake supports populations of egrets and great blue herons amid the bustle of commerce.
The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) has been created by the National Park Service. This is a 72-mile stretch of the river as it flows through the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region. A master plan for MNRRA will be available in 1994, reflecting an effort to coordinate the complex uses of the Mississippi River as it flows through the metro area.
The fascinating river regains its natural character south of the Twin Cities. Below the confluence with the St. Croix River, the Mississippi forms the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and "runs between two chains of mountains," as Father Louis Hennepin wrote in 1683. The majestic wooded bluffs and sheer cliffs are the setting for Frontenac and O.L. Kipp state parks and the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest. Most of the bottomlands are part of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge.