2017 Trip One; January 11-13: Mississippi River Headwaters

January 11-13, 2017

Mississippi River Headwaters marker as the river exits Lake Itasca

Mississippi River Headwaters marker as the river exits Lake Itasca

We live in Minnesota, right? And January is the month of Chris Klejbuk’s birthday, right? In Minnesota in January, you celebrate the experience of winter, right? Right.

So we are enjoying three days and two nights in northern Minnesota. We are staying at a winterized cabin at Itasca State Park, 20 miles north of Park Rapids Minnesota, and 250 miles north of the “Cities” (Minnesota speak for St. Paul, Minneapolis, and their suburbs.) Itasca was the first state park established in Minnesota, in 1891. It was the second state park to be created in the United States. It is large, at over 32,000 acres. And while it has over 100 lakes within its boundaries, one small stream is its main claim to fame.

The end of Lake Itasca and the start of the river

The end of Lake Itasca and the start of the river

Flowing out of Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River begins its 2500 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The terrain up here has been formed from the glacial ages. Without being scientific, there are depressions and hillocks caused by glacial action and/or glacial melting that form wetlands and forest regions. This area was under threat of having its timber, primarily red pine, harvested in the late 1800s. By a narrow vote in the state legislature, the area was saved from timber harvesting and some of the areas here still have virgin red pine forest.

Four Season Suites at Itasca

Four Season Suites at Itasca

It has been several decades since Chris and I have been here. For her birthday, she likes to do something different. Her choice this year was to spend two nights in a cabin here at Itasca State Park. Luckily the cabin is insulated, winterized, and heated. The temperature for these three days will range from about five above to about 20 below. That is Fahrenheit, and not wind chill. The cabin is built on a concrete slab and while the temperature at head level is nice and warm, the floor is still a bit chilly. Shoes or two pairs of socks are required.

We left the Cities at the tail end of a minor snowstorm. The total was only about 4 inches but a fair amount of blowing accompanied the storm. The road surface was usually compacted snow into icy patches. For those of you not living in northern climes, road salt does not have much effect on clearing road surfaces at temperatures around 0° as we were experiencing.

We had lunch in Wadena Minnesota, a town of about 4000 people, at The BBQ Smokehouse. This is primarily a meat market with a side business of lunch and early dinner. We had the daily special, turkey sandwich with cowboy beans and potato salad for $6.50. The sandwich was huge and very tasty. The sides were great also.

Sunset walk at Itasca State Park

Sunset walk at Itasca State Park

We checked in around 4 PM. After unpacking, we had time for a sunset walk before settling in for the night. Wednesday, we slept in and then headed out for our first walk, to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It took the European explorers several decades to agree on the source of the Mississippi River. One simple reason for the delay was that the first explorers never asked the Native Americans to help them. Once Henry Schoolcraft decided to ask for assistance from Ozawindib, a Ojibwe chief, the headwaters were “found” quickly. After all the Native Americans lived here for centuries and knew all about “Great River”.

The Mississippi River had great political significance to the United States. Primarily, it marked the early western boundary when the American people revolted against the British and won their independence. Yet the river had never been fully surveyed. The Mississippi was also one of the great trade routes for the new country. Rivers provided clearly marked and easily navigable transportation sources.

The Mississippi River starts flowing north as it leaves Lake Itasca.

The Mississippi River starts flowing north as it leaves Lake Itasca.

As we know now, the Mississippi River runs for 2500 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It provides the boundary between numerous states along that route. While it runs primarily in a southern direction, from here it actually runs for 80 miles to the north, due to elevations created by the glacial age, before it starts its southerly course.

The headwaters are officially marked as the location where Lake Itasca drains into the creek beginning the Mississippi. There are scientific requirements to meet to designate the beginning of a river. While the lake and creeks draining into Lake Itasca stretch farther back from the official beginning, there has to be a sufficient flow to be considered as a river. This is what occurs at the northern channel of Lake Itasca where the Mississippi River begins.

Walking in the woods

Walking in the woods

Lake Itasca with winds

Lake Itasca with winds

Today, the air temperature was about -5 F with a 15 mph wind. Wind makes the cold air worse. Standing by open spaces, like lakes, allows the wind to have full effect. Walking in woods, however, tends to minimize the wind. So we experienced both the full wind effect at the shore of Lake Itasca and its muted form in walking through woods to reach the headwaters. But the sun was usually out and we enjoyed the varied views provided by the park.

Itasca State Park includes both pine trees and mixed deciduous hardwood trees. The pine trees were here first but, like numerous other locations around the U.S., the loggers in the late 1800s cut the pine trees indiscriminately. The park was formed partially to save some of those virgin pine forests. Interestingly, the daughter (Mary Gibbs) of the first Itasca Park superintendent was named the interim superintendent when her father died. During her short term, she stood up to logging companies who while logging legally on private land, were illegally damming up the Mississippi River to aid in floating the cut logs downstream. They were not pleased by her courageous stand, and the new permanent superintendent that was appointed was more favorable to the logging interests.

Chris walking over the headwaters of the Mississippi River

Chris walking over the headwaters of the Mississippi River

After the headwaters, we made a brief stop at the visitor center to warm up (they have two fireplaces and heated restrooms that are open 24 hours a day) and to explore the interesting museum there. Then it was back to our cabin for lunch. The smell of apple cider with cinnamon sticks and brown sugar greeted us as we entered the cabin. Our afternoon walks were through the woods where the wind was quiet and the sun peered pleasantly through the tree trunks. A quick warm-up in the cabin was followed by another walk at sunset.

Tonight the full moon is out so we waited a sufficient period to make sure it was above the trees. We drove to the lake and watched the moon shining on the ice covered lake and the shadows cast by the trees. However, since it was now 13 below and heading down further, we did not take a long walk but headed back to the cabin.

Friday, January 13th.
Our final goal of this trip was to visit La Salle Lake State Recreation Area. It would be our 59th state park visited since we began that program in 2015. I took a wrong turn and added 20 miles on to what should have been a quick jaunt from Itasca State Park. But that time was justifiable to obtain the park stamp since this recreation area is basically closed during the winter. The web site does not state that DNR does not plow the access roads in the winter. Since we do not have a snowmobile, we just drove by and turned around to head home.

One last view of the headwaters.
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Trip One for 2017 completed. Just a teaser really before the first big one begins on March 1 and under current planning, will go for 63 days.

Ed and Chris.

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