Three deer watch my canoe approach on the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
A Day of Nature on the Mississippi
"You don't want to miss this stretch of the river," John Sullivan had told me over the phone.
Sullivan, who works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, had paddled the river a year earlier from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to his home in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The section of the Mississippi River he was referring to is a 30-mile journey in Minnesota from Brainerd to Little Falls.
Along a large portion of this stretch is the active Camp Ripley military training center.
"There is no development on the river. It's a beautiful section of the river to float," Sullivan said.
Early in the morning, I tore down my camp at Crow Wing State Park and prepared for a long day of paddling. The night at the camp was a small adventure in itself.
A raccoon and a family of mice had a party on the picnic table next to my tent as I tried to sleep. At one point, I pointed my light in their direction, and they seemed to respond with what looked to be a smile of gratitude. Shining the light on the area they were exploring made it easier to see. They continued their party.
A raccoon spies my canoe as it goes down the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
The last couple of days, John Parsons from Lakeland Public Television had followed me. He produces the Common Ground program and came to the park to film me paddling away.
"Here's the coffee I promised," Parsons said with a smile when he pulled into my campsite and handed me the warm cup.
It was a welcome sight after my restless night.
My truck was already waiting for me in Little Falls. A kind couple from the area, Dion and Julie Plante, had driven my truck down river and left it at a friend's house.
I packed up my canoe along the river's edge.
"Time to get moving down the river," I said to Parsons.
At this point, the Mississippi River was starting to grow into a real river. It reminded me in size to the Elkhorn River, but with a swifter current.
Waving goodbye to Parsons, I headed south down the river. A week earlier I had canoed past the most northern part of the Mississippi, just east of Bemidji. For a short distance, it travels east before finally settling into the southern direction we generally associate with the Mississippi River.
Trees lined both sides of the river. The water was clear and different from what we imagine a muddy Mississippi River to be.
A flock of Canada geese flew by in a V-formation and they honked overhead.
Greater yellowlegs (a common shore bird) darted back and forth on the river's edge as kingfishers from high branches dove into the water chasing fish.
I paddled close to the river's edge. Often this allowed me to quietly get close to animals. I scanned the river as my canoe floated with the current.
Sticking its head out from a hollow of an old tree, a raccoon curiously watched my canoe float by. Occasionally, deer would be grazing along the river's edge. They would watch me approach until I got too close, and then the deer would scamper into the woods.
Perched on top of dead trees, large majestic bald eagles watched the river like sentinels patrolling their kingdom.
A Bald Eagle flies over the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
The heads of muskrats and beavers would sometimes slice the still waters and disappear, only to reappear a few yards away.
The sounds of rat-a-tat, tat-tat-tat sometimes filled the air. The military training center was active, but the wildlife seemed to take little notice of it.
Even though at this point there are already a series of small dams on the river, the Mississippi still felt wild and untamed.
My paddling was slow. Frequently, I would set the paddle down to take photos.
At the end of the first day, I was halfway to Little Falls. I found a patch of grass along the river's edge and set up camp. That night I fell asleep to the sounds of deer snorting outside my tent and the beautiful call of a loon singing to its mate. This was the river I had imagined, and it felt good to be a guest of the Mississippi River.
A common loon swims past my canoe on the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.