Since I was fairly young, I had always wanted to go down the Mississippi River in a canoe. Naturally, this was partially because my first novel was “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which was followed at a later date, by “Huck Finn”, but also in part just for the idea that going down a river led to something. I suppose I grew up in a river town, growing up in Fargo, although one tends to think of the Red River as sort of a very long, winding lake to which one end is about an inch higher than the other, so that the river more of by obligation than actual desire to match, say, the grandeur of the Mississippi or the Nile, is forced to run in a direction rather than sit still, where I always suspected it would rather be. However, a river is a river, and between that and the creeks and lakes of Minnesota, as well as the Atlantic Ocean in Massachusetts, I had more than my share of boyhood adventures on some body of water, and for living in a landlocked state at least appreciated it.
I think, though, the aspect about a river that most appeals to someone like me is that it’s always going somewhere, and that makes it easy to follow. Lakes are ambiguous, oceans are intimidating, but rivers always promise that you’re at least moving, for good or ill. In particular, the Mississippi strikes a chord for Americans in a way most others don’t. Much of that is due to Mr. Twain, but it’s also akin to it being the US’ geologic and cultural backbone. Most rainwater in the United States will eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico, and with it and its sister, the Missouri, more or less form the much argued boundary from what is the “East,” and what makes the “West.” There are plenty of advocates who give the Missouri prominence in this regard, but those arguments have been hashed out for about two hundred years now, and I don’t pretend that they’ve gotten any clearer in that time, just less spoken of. I also don’t need to go over the background of each, as Twain, once again, has already done that in his “Life on the Mississippi.” Arguments aside, I wanted to go down the Mississippi.
Of course, besides Twain and the American mythos that comes out in any discussion of the river, was simply that I went to visit its headwaters from a young boy in what is known as Itasca State Park in Minnesota. There the river begins its journey from some well-placed stones marking its exit from the lake of the same name. Surrounded by pine trees and a sandy shore, in summer it’s usually well-packed by tourists taking pictures, especially next to the post which lays out what exactly it is we’re looking at.
A friend of mine (an attorney, as well) swears that this is false. He adamantly believes that the Mississippi begins at another source, Elk Lake, flows into Lake Itasca, and that Itasca gets all the undeserved credit for such a distinction. I adamantly argue back, but to no consequence. The matter between my friend and I remains unresolved.
Either way, visiting the headwaters, with its sandy bottom and clear water, one can wade across the Mississippi (and many times more, as the case may be), hop across the rocks, or walk across on a little bridge some ways down. I seem to remember being young and watching someone take a canoe down that direction, but I cannot remember entirely now. I do, however, once distinctly remember a family putting some small yellow ducks, with messages directed to New Orleans, and watching them go down the stream.
When I was old enough, I began to look at canoeing down it myself. There was indeed a water trail, and maps, published by the state of Minnesota. There were even some campsites. Having lake canoed, but not often river canoed at the time, I convinced my father, a veteran of Missouri creeks and a St. Louis native himself, to go down with me. And so we went.
Sometime in 2015, after getting the appropriate gear, my mother were dropped my father and I off at a fishing access in Lake Itasca. It was a cloudy day, and there was a small threat of rain. We went across the lake and toward the headwaters and the tourists, making the first portage over the rocks themselves. Kids were pretty curious, and one red-headed boy asked where we were going. I told him, and we set off. Mom had come around, and the dog tried to follow us along the boardwalk, wondering where we were going without him.
It was a good thing we were in a canoe: it was shallow at the time. Once or twice it scraped the gravel, but the water moved pretty fast. Going back a second bridge, we said goodbye to mom, and threw a few more things in the canoe. Following that, we moved on out of the park.
The first thing I learned about the Mississippi, at least at the beginning, is that it’s a lot like the Red- it’s more of an “unwilling mobile lake.” Dark dirt made up the banks where fens and grasses towered above us. An eagle flew around, but overall it was pretty quiet, although the rain held out.
The river, however, didn’t have much care for either straight lines or consistency. It constantly moved, backtracked, moved again, doubled over, and just for practice, did a few flips and elaborate flourishes you don’t usually see except in an eighteenth century signature. In short, it didn’t go forward a great deal. Constantly we would look ahead, see some trees off in the distance where we assumed we had to go, then spent the next several hours taking the most inconvenient and inhospitable way to get there. The weather held, luckily, as there wouldn’t have been much of a place to pull over anyway had we wanted to.
We didn’t get too far down the river, and that night we spent at a campground the state of Minnesota had provided, called “Wanagan.” It was fairly luxurious, for a campground- it even had a shelter. It rained that night, and I explored some of the access trails leading back into the woods. Cell phone service was out. It was definitely located in the back-country.
The next day we pulled our gear from where we had placed it under the canoe. It was still cloudy, but was clearing up a bit. We went down the river, which finally went in some stony hills instead of a marsh. Here there was a dam, and we portaged our gear around it. It was followed by some light rapids, which weren’t too bad. They were under the shade of trees and some rocky hillsides, and were shallow enough that I think we only got stuck a bit once or twice. Generally, we aimed toward the “V” in the river, as one is supposed to anyway. The sun came out, and we passed a meadow on one side as we transitioned back into the traditional unending fens and grasses.
We went on through these again, in their usual tedious glory, before coming up on some powerlines and a water gauge, which regarded the river as low. This was different than the DNR estimates, but there was nothing to be done about it anyway. We passed under some county road, and reached the second campground, called “Coffee Pot.” We stayed there for a bit (and never could find the water they had there) before moving on. Although early, we stopped at a campground called “LaSalle,” which stood on top of a bluff overlooking the river. It was a pretty site, but also a tick-infested nightmare. As usual I explored the woods a bit, but only found poison ivy. We spent the night there and the sky was clear. The next morning we headed out again.
The next day, to make up for lost time, we set out again early. Mostly it was, as always, winding fens and muddy banks, if they could be called that. The grass was so high that we couldn’t see much anyway, except pine trees in the distance. There were one or two more portages, before we started getting around the high sandy banks of near what they called Pine Point Landing on the map, but I’m not sure we ever found it. Here the river was deep, but truly confusing. I leaned over the side sometimes and looked at the waving underwater grasses just to see which direction the current was running. The water was muddy, but finally well over our heads, should we fall into it. The most confusing moment was at one point where the river met with a body of nefarious water called Rice Lake. Water ran into both, but as it was north and the river ran east, we took the correct route.
Wildlife was generally surprised at us, but not too common. Some beavers left in the approach of our canoe, making underwater paths with bubbles. Some grebes, the shy and somewhat rare waterbird here that I used to see in the lakes, back when they were quieter, flew off quickly. A mother mallard tried to ferry away her ducklings, and occasionally some deer would appear. After that, not many other animals were seen.
We had left in June, when the water was highest, and now entered a part of the river that was cautioned as being too full of “excessive vegetation” later in the year. Before travelling I had read a blog about some “free spirits” who had attempted the trek in August. They were constantly stuck, wading in muck, and getting lost, but I was inspired. Not because of what they did- I figured they were straight-up morons- but if they could manage I probably could as well.
We passed through the grassy vegetation, but had found cell phone reception and checked with the ranger to see how high the water was, it was still good. We passed the “Fox Trap” campground and decided to push on to Iron Bridge, where we stayed the night.
Here the river started changing. A house stood in the distance across the river, and we could hear traffic in the distance. I think there was a dog barking as well. Storms passed by the south of us, and we watched them go by: big rainy clouds on the horizon that made our own bright sun look watery and clear. That evening, I watched the river do something I had noticed back at LaSalle, which was as it cooled off it formed an almost perfect outline of itself as it reflected in mist above the water. Somewhere the grebes made their odd throaty sound that sounds like they were choking.
For the last stretch of the trip, the river had changed. Iron Bridge was on the edge of the last fen, and from here on out the river looked like a small river, not a muddy creek just pretending. It went through woods, and houses and docks stood along the sides as we went. Sometimes the trees were cut down, but once or twice we had to get out and carry the canoe across by land. There was another campsite, Silver Maple, but we were happy we hadn’t pushed on to that, as the mosquitoes- who thus far had remained somewhat morose- were terrible. Not long after we saw our first motorboat, and soon a few more. The river widened, and, well, finally looked like a river. Soon we were in Lake Iving, just south of Bemidji.
It was good that we were ending. The sky clouded, and storms were coming. In the lake, we saw people having the sort of parties you see in Minnesota, where they all stand in bathing suits about knee deep in water and drink beer, but those started packing up and driving away in their pontoons as the waves got worse. Going west to reach the mouth of Lake Bemidji, the winds rose, although we got some respite in the more protected larger lake.
Finding a fishing access, we pulled off. Mom and the dog came by and we put the canoe away. Ironically, Bemidji would have been one of the worse places to get stuck- we couldn’t have camped, or even got a hotel, as they’re always booked. Tornadoes and winds were sweeping around the area, but besides one stop to fix and tighten the ropes on the canoe, we were fine.
And thus, armed with a copy of Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” was my first experience on that river.