The source of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca, is a spring-fed bowl-shaped basin of lakes and bogs deep in the pine forests of northern Minnesota. The Headwaters of the Mississippi River can be a crowded place, especially in summer, but the surrounding area can be surprisingly tranquil. Bear still roam wild; gray wolves bay at the moon; loons sing a haunting melody.
As the Mississippi River leaves Lake Itasca—exiting to the north— it fishhooks through northern Minnesota, passing through large and moody lakes, gradually widening into a respectable stream. Lakes Bemidji, Cass, and Winnibigoshish (“miserable dirty water lake” in the Ojibwe Indian language) are but three of the thousands of lakes created by when the glaciers retreated, which gave us all those places to build summer homes.
This land is the ancestral home of Dakota and Ojibwe Indians. The Dakota moved further south and west beginning in the 17th century. The Ojibwe—migrating west after conflict with Europeans and other Native Americans—moved into the area around the time the Dakota were moving south. In the marshes, wild rice (not actually rice but the seed of an aquatic grass plant) is abundant; it has been a dietary staple for centuries and still is today.
Most of the early European settlers were Scandinavians, folks who knew how to survive and thrive in the harsh northern climate. They came for jobs in logging and mining and built towns like Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Little Falls, Brainerd, and St. Cloud. For people who choose to live in the Headwaters region, winter isn’t just a season—it’s a lifestyle. Folks get outside regularly during the long and often brutal winter for cross-country skiing, broomball, and ice fishing; snowmobiles aren’t just recreational vehicles but another way to get to the local pub.
As the river reaches the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, it descends a quick 65 feet through St. Anthony Falls, then flows through a narrow gorge. The Twin Cites developed at the northernmost navigable stretch of the river. Three million people come together to create one of the most vibrant metropolitan areas in the US with a diverse art scene, high tech businesses, progressive politics, and a lively food scene.
South of the Twin Cities, the Mississippi settles into a scenic valley some five miles wide flanked by the yellow facades of limestone bluffs that rise 500 feet above the river. Early explorers, unaware of the prairies that extended out from the blufftops, mistook them for mountains. Through the blufflands, small and medium-sized towns like La Crosse and Dubuque hug the river, sometimes terracing up into the coulees (valleys).
The river, barricaded (but not tamed) by a series of dams built to raise water levels for big commercial boats, lulls its way through the valley except when the annual rise brought by melting snow and spring rains renders the dams irrelevant, if only for a few weeks. Canoes and fishing boats navigate the same channel as 15-barge tows that stretch four football fields long.
At the Quad Cities, the river takes a sharp turn to the east, a course it will follow for the next 40 miles, confusing anyone who uses the river as a reference point for driving around. (To get to Iowa from Illinois I have to go north?) The Rock Island Rapids spurred settlement of Davenport, Rock Island, and Moline, as boats passing through had to take on special pilots to navigate the tricky waters. Today, those rapids are buried under deep water created by dams. The Quad Cities region is a pleasant and friendly place to pass the time—big enough to have a lot going on but small enough to be free of some of the less desirable aspects of city life, like two-hour commutes.