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Where Old Man River Is a Toddler : The Mighty Mississippi Starts Small in Minnesota Park

Charles Hillinger's America

August 09, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

ITASCA STATE PARK, Minn. — All summer long, several hundred people have been coming here every day to take off their shoes and socks and wade across the Mississippi River.

The mighty Mississippi is but a mere trickle--18 inches deep, 15 feet wide--in this state park 240 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Many who come have lived all or part of their lives close to this, the longest river in North America.

Others come from across the United States, from throughout the world, to make pilgrimages to the headwaters of one of the world's widest, longest, busiest commercial waterways.

Tom Erwin, 62, and wife, Nancy, 55, drove from their New Orleans home all along the river. Now, they were walking across the Mississippi barefooted.

"We love the river. At home we watch the big ships sail up and down the Mississippi. This is something we always wanted to do," Erwin said.

Glenda Campbell, 33, was born and reared in Rock Island, Ill. "I have lived most of my life beside the Mississippi. I can really relate to this river," she said as she removed her shoes and socks.

Clark Riley, 28, a civil engineer from San Bernardino, Calif., was wading through the shallow water with 32 relatives. They had come to Itasca State Park for a Clark family reunion. Several members of the family live in Minnesota and North Dakota.

John Drdla, 38, wife, Zdenka, 37, and their children, Margaret, 13, and Dominic, 14, were here from Lincoln, Neb. Drdla is a truck driver and has driven hundreds of times across the Mississippi. He and his family emigrated from Hradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia, five years ago. He was postmaster there.

"We knew about the Mississippi River in Czechoslovakia," Drdla said.

"We came here to see where the Mississippi River begins," said his daughter, Margaret. "I never thought the Mississippi would ever be this small, or come out of a lake as it does."

The little stream that is the Mississippi at its source emanates from Y-shaped, four-mile-long, half-mile-wide Lake Itasca. It flows 40 miles north to, and through, Lake Bemidji, then east 50 miles through Cass Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish before continuing its long journey south to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

On a tree stump a few feet from a path of rocks that separates Lake Itasca from the river is a sign that reads:

"Here 1,475 feet above the ocean the mighty Mississippi begins to flow on its winding way 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico."

"We are always asked how long it takes for water to get from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico," said John Herhusky, 60, longtime superintendent of Itasca State Park. "We don't know the answer."

The Mississippi is America's most storied river. Around it, Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn adventures. Abraham Lincoln was a Mississippi flatboat man. Oscar Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River" is one of the nation's most popular songs.

In 1541, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto was the first non-Indian to see the river. Louis Jolliet, Jacques Marquette and Robert de la Salle were famous Mississippi River explorers.

But it wasn't until July 13, 1832 that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and Oza Windib, an Ojibway Indian guide, found the source of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca.

When he made his discovery, Schoolcraft, son of a Revolutionary War hero and an Indian agent for the tribes of the Lake Superior region, wrote in his diary: "I quaff the limpid cup at Mississippi's spring."

The headwaters of the Mississippi are in a vast pine forest and wilderness sanctuary set aside in 1891 as Minnesota's first state park. The 32,000-acre park is the most popular of the state's 64 parks.

A wooded area called Preacher's Grove has been a favorite place for weddings since the park opened 96 years ago. And Douglas Lodge, a rustic log cabin inn, has been a cherished honeymoon spot for Minnesotans since 1905.

The park contains 157 lakes, miles of hiking and cycling trails and groomed cross-country paths for winter skiing. Some of the oldest and largest stands of giant red Norway pine trees are here. The heavily wooded forest is home to black bear, deer, moose, blue heron and bald eagles, and the many lakes are populated by Minnesota's state bird, the loon.

Visitors come to Itasca State Park for many reasons: to camp beside a lake, to fish, to swim, to hike, to bicycle, to ski or just to stay put at the quaint rustic lodge in the woods, but mostly to dip their feet in shallow water and step across the mighty Mississippi.

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