Each day in the summer thousands of people walk across the small man made rock dam where the Mississippi River begins at Lake Itasca State Park in Northern Minnesota.
Beginning the Journey from the Mississippi's Source
Nestled in northern Minnesota, Lake Itasca quietly claims the starting point of the chief river of the largest rain basin in the United States, the Mississippi.
Surrounded by large evergreen and deciduous trees with bald eagles perched on limbs, Lake Itasca offers birth to the Mississippi River. The source of the river evaded European explorers for many years. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first noted the lower river in 1541, but it would take another 291 years before the source would be discovered.
Why? Good question. I will get to that in a minute.
Lake Itasca is now a major destination for tourists from all over the world who wish to make a pilgrimage to the river's source.
"We had a group of Buddhist monks here once," explained Steve Smith, a farmer turned bait, boat and bike rental shop owner on the lake. He's now retired and his son, Sam, runs the business.
"They brought a big plaque with all kinds of writing on it to commemorate the location," Smith explained.
I asked where the plaque is now.
"You would have to go to the bottom of the lake to see it. They dropped it in," Smith said with a chuckle.
A small rock dam built by the Civil Conservation Corp marks the location where the Mississippi River leaves Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota.
Some people return to the lake year after year for a family vacation. A customer walked into the shop to get his son's bike repaired and asked, "How many kids do you have now, Sam?"
"Still at five," Sam replied, laughing.
Itasca State Park has a feeling of one big family reunion that continues throughout the summer.
"I came back to take over the family business. This is a great place to raise a family," Sam shared. "It's the type of quality of life I want my kids to have."
Sam continued: "Did you notice none of the rental bikes have locks on them? That's because it's not an issue here."
Long before people migrated to Lake Itasca for family vacations, American Indians harvested wild rive along its edges. And fur traders walked along its shores to trap beaver.
It took a gentleman by the name of Henry Schoolcraft to claim the lake as the source of the Mississippi River. Schoolcraft was clever in many ways, but more importantly he enlisted the help of Native Americans to guide him to the location. The Ojibwe Indians already knew Lake Itasca was the river's source.
Others were at the lake before Schoolcraft; they just didn't understand what they were looking at or failed to share it with anyone.
The reason why the source of the Mississippi River, which in Ojibwe means "the great river," evaded explorers was because it flows north from the lake. Everyone was looking for a stream that headed south. Often greatness has surprises woven into the journey.
One of the many Mississippi River surprises is the fact that it flows northeast for about 62 river miles. It comes within 100 miles of Canada before it begins to make a U-turn and head south.
Schoolcraft hiked to the lake and followed the stream out. Hidden behind a shoreline of tall wild rice, a tiny stream leaves the lake to begin the long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. If you didn't know the stream was there, it would be easily missed.
Schoolcraft named it Itasca, which is a word using parts of Latin words meaning "true head." It says something of Schoolcraft because most explorers at that time were busy naming locations after themselves.
Originally, I planned to canoe from Lake Itasca to Bemidji to follow in the footsteps of Schoolcraft.
In my research of the route, I looked at the river on the north side of Itasca State Park and watched it disappear into a tall solid field of wild rice. With no GPS device, I became concerned about getting lost.
I shared my concerns with Kathy Conger, one of the hostel managers where I stayed in the park.
"My husband has canoed down that section of the river. You should give him call," Conger said.
Before I could call, she handed me her phone with her husband, Chris, on the other end.
"It's a nice float but can be a lot of work. The water flow is low this time of year," Chris explained.
When I asked if he wanted to go with me, he then asked if I could wait until 4 p.m.
"Then, yes, I'll be happy to float with you down a section of the Mississippi River. I'll meet you at the bait shop," Chris concluded.
Suddenly, I went from concerned to excited. It was time to begin my journey down the Mississippi River.
Before the large crowds appear on Lake Itasca, a mallard family visits the dam site where thousands of people walk across the Mississippi River.