Stories from the Mississippi

  • view of wild rice fields from bow
    The waters of the Mississippi River meander through wild rice fields north of Lake Itasca.

    Young Mississippi Gives You a Chance to Appreciate Nature

    "This doesn't look like a very good idea."

    That thought crossed my mind as I stared into the endless wild rice field as the Mississippi River disappeared. I was standing on a bridge over the tiny river as it left Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota.

    The water level on the river drops in August. I had already heard stories from the locals about people who were lost in the tall rice for days.

    Determined to explore the river, I tossed and turned all night trying to figure out a new plan.

    It was at this point that a new plan to canoe a section was created with Chris Conger, a local pastor.

    Conger had an adventurous spirit and welcomed the opportunity to float down the river.

    He also had a love for nature.

    "One time I was out for my morning run and I came across a pack of wolves. I just thought how amazing it was to see them in the wild and offered a prayer of gratitude," Conger said.

    That's the kind of guy I wanted to float with on the Mississippi River - someone who's not afraid of nature.

    As Conger pulled his kayak and I pulled my canoe into the clear Mississippi River, I knew we wouldn't be seeing wolves, but just being there was exciting.

    wild rice fields
    North of Lake Itasca, the young Mississippi River disappears into wild rice.

    We entered the river at a place named Wangan Landing at 4 p.m. This was four miles from where the Mississippi leaves Lake Itasca and two miles past the endless field of rice I stared at the day before. The long days of summer would allow us to float until 9 p.m.

    Above our heads, blue sky and white puffy clouds filled the horizon. Tall stems of green wild rice lined each side of the tiny channel. Occasionally, the open channel would disappear completely into a solid patch of rice.

    "Look at the grass in the river. It will tell you which way to go," Conger said. "The current is still there. You just have to look for signs."

    Conger had canoed the river, putting my concerns at ease. The possibility of tipping my canoe with all my expensive camera gear kept me vigilant. I decided some time ago that all the effort I had put forth for this adventure, it was a risk worth taking to share the journey.

    Occasionally as our boats meandered down the river, we would turn a corner and see a deer taking a drink of water or a heron fishing in the shallows. Here the river flows straight north, allowing me to become one of a small group who can claim floating down the Mississippi River heading north.

    The weather was perfect.

    At times, we encountered a tree blown across the river. If the tree were high enough above the water we would pull our boats underneath it; otherwise, we had to pull them over the top.

    It could have been worse.

    Chris Conger
    Chris Conger of northern Minnesota navigates a downed tree across the Mississippi River.

    Earlier in the day I found out a group went down the river this spring with chainsaws and opened the river so people could float instead of hike it. They cleared nine trees in the small section of river I floated. In Bemidji, someone else said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had cleared more than 100 fallen trees across the river.

    Long before chainsaws cleared the way, I wondered what the river was like to follow as Henry Schoolcraft traced its route from Lake Itasca to Lake Bemidji. Schoolcraft declared this to be the source of the Mississippi River.

    One other thing had been a gift; the cold spell dropped the mosquito population. "Two weeks before, people could hardly even go outside," Conger said.

    Before the Corps of Engineers started building dams on the river, Mother Nature already had dam builders busy at work. Twice we had to glide over the top of small beaver dams.

    There was one remnant of a dam from the days when loggers broke the dams in the spring and floated the logs down river. A 40-yard portage around this dam had us back in the water.

    As we carried my canoe, Conger said, "The old timers talk about fishing this deep hole below the dam. As the logs went over the top of the dam, they dug this hole behind it."

    I tried to imagine the force and power it would take to create such a place.

    At the end of the day, I watched a couple of red foxes approach the river for a drink. It was getting dark, so photos weren't possible. They weren't wolves, but I smiled broadly at the chance to be so close and intimate to nature.

    So ended my day with a new appreciation of the young Mississippi River.

    Dean paddling under fallen tree
    Canoeing the upper stretches of the Mississippi River can be challenging. Often tress have to be navigated underneath or over the top.

    Fremont Tribune

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