Population (2010)



Lake Itasca may be the source of the Mississippi, but the true Headwaters of the Mississippi River is the dense web of lakes and streams in northern Minnesota: Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Swan River, Big Sandy Lake, Crow Wing River, plus hundreds of other bodies of water. All eventually join with the Mississippi River, feeding it as it grows. For the first three hundred miles of its existence, the Mississippi River is a small stream, sometimes swampy, whose flow passes directly through several lakes:

  • Lake Irving
  • Lake Bemidj
  • Stump Lake
  • Big Wolf Lake
  • Lake Andrusia
  • Cass Lake
  • Lake Winnibigoshish
  • Little Winnibigoshish Lake
  • Blackwater Lake
  • Jay Gould Lake
  • Rice Lake (at Brainerd)

Some, like Stump Lake, exist because of human engineering, but the rest were around before we built dams, even if many have water levels that are artificially high because of the Mississippi Headwaters Dam Project.

From 1884 to 1912, the US Army Corps of Engineers built dams at six northern Minnesota lakes (Winnibigoshish, Leech, Pokegama, Big Sandy, Gull, and Cross Lake/Pine River), hoping the resulting reservoirs would stabilize water levels on the Mississippi River below St. Paul. The dams did give a bit of a boost to the Mississippi through the Twin Cities but not further south, a point that became irrelevant after the lock and dam system was built in the 1930s. Even though the dams failed to achieve their original purpose, they are maintained today, primarily because they improve recreational use of these lakes.

The higher water levels, however, had some serious, negative consequences. Not only did the higher water submerge thousands of acres of reservation lands, it also damaged fish populations and the wild rice fields that grew around the edges of the lakes. A century of negotiations and lawsuits were finally resolved (mostly) at the end of the 20th century, the end result of which is that the Corps now manages water levels in a way that is more favorable for wild rice and for fish.

Visitors who follow the Mississippi River through the lakes region will find plenty to do and see. There’s no reason to stay in your car or room when you visit this part of the state. In summer, there are many opportunities for fishing, hiking, boating, biking, and mosquito-swatting. In winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and complaining about people who complain about the cold are popular activities. There are many places to camp and a few remaining resorts, but mostly you’ll find an area of wide open spaces and big lakes with few permanent residents that can nonetheless get surprisingly busy with visitors during July and August. It’s a great place to get in some nature time without having to go totally rustic.

Lake Irving to Stump Lake

Visitor Info