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The ‘Mighty’ Mississippi River’s humble beginnings

Itasca State Park in Minnesota draws hundreds of thousands of curious visitors
Published: Aug. 9, 2021 at 2:35 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 10, 2021 at 5:45 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A steady stream of cool, lake water pours over rocks at a state park in Northern Minnesota, the source of America’s greatest river.

Lake Itasca, at the headwaters of the Mississippi, draws more than half-a-million visitors a year, according to the Mississippi Department of Natural Resources.

John Untener of Michigan visited Itasca State Park about 220 miles northwest of Minneapolis as a child.

“I wanted my kids to do the exact same thing,” Untener said. “So, 40 years later, here I am with my kids a little bit older than I was.”

The Mississippi River, about a quarter-mile from its headwaters, appears more like a small creek.
The Mississippi River, about a quarter-mile from its headwaters, appears more like a small creek.(John Snell)

Here, people tiptoe over the rocks that separate Lake Itasca from the river, or take a stroll down the roughly eight-inch deep river as it begins its 2,318 mile winding trip to the Gulf of Mexico.

We call it, ‘the Mighty Mississippi’ even if it’s a baby,” joked Connie Cox, the park naturalist for the last 26 years.

“What defines a headwaters is a separation between the source of its water and where the river begins,” Cox said. “But the surface flow and volume needs to be continual year round.”

While an extreme drought currently grips this part of Minnesota, the lake fed partly by springs, pours water into the Mississippi every day of the year.

The Mississippi actually briefly runs north from Lake Itasca before eventually curving east, then south.

Through Minnesota, the river’s path confuses the newcomer as it snakes through grassy, marshy areas, sometimes disguising its channel.

“Where it looks almost like the curly Q on a cupcake, where it’s winding and meandering from bank to bank,” Cox said.

The Mississippi River, just downstream from its headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park in Minnesota
The Mississippi River, just downstream from its headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park in Minnesota(John Snell)

Part of the poetry of this place is knowing what the river becomes.

The river and its tributaries drain about 41% of the continental United States from parts or all of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

“Just a simple, little place and all of the sudden, it can become a major thoroughfare,” said visitor Mike Stenke.

In this natural spot, maintenance crews must daily fight nature.

“Beaver, every morning are trying to dam up the Mississippi River,” Cox said. “They’re trying to hold back Lake Itasca.”

Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota(John Snell)
Rocks separate Lake Itasca on the left from the Mississippi River on the right
Rocks separate Lake Itasca on the left from the Mississippi River on the right(John Snell)

Exactly where the Mississippi begins generated controversy in the early 19th century until a geologist named Henry Schoolcraft sought help from the area’s indigenous people.

“I always say why don’t you just ask directions of the locals?” Cox said.

“He did. He asked directions of the Ojibwe people that lived here and they were the ones who had identified the river’s course. They named the Mississippi.”

The park’s story is a source of pride for Minnesotans, Cox said, a fun for visitors.

“You can brag I walked across the Mississippi,” Untener said, “without a bridge.”

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