Mississippi River Headwater Bliss

Mississippi River Headwater Bliss

Just a few weeks or so ago, lying in my cozy “gifted” hotel room overlooking a most spectacular bay, I realized I didn’t have a next destination. 

(In case you’ve missed the details of this project, I never choose where to go. I always have others choose based on the people and places they believe I need to meet.)

I sent out a Facebook request.

“Where should I go next?” I asked. “I’m in Maine headed to Portland, Oregon.”

People started sending in suggestions. One person recommended Alaska. I laughed. I wasn’t the only one geographically challenged. I must admit, though, Alaska was my favorite. If it weren’t for the time crunch of a hard due date to be back in Portland, I would have gone. Alas, no Alaska.

Once the votes were tallied, it was decided: I would go to Iowa.

And I must make a confession: I didn’t want to go.


1- It’s said that the Midwest, particularly Iowa, is the heartland of America. But is it, really? It doesn’t seem very heart full. In fact, there are so many things that just feel so incredibly hurtful in this part of the world.

2- I’d heard that stranger-danger of every sort runs deep there.

3- It was a vague directive with no specific person to see or town to visit.

But rules are rules. I was to go to Iowa.

I logged onto Google Maps and traced the route chosen from Maine to Oregon via Iowa. There were two “easy” options.

The first option took me straight across Iowa, then Wyoming and finally Utah. Meh. Nothing excited me about this option. With the distance ahead of me, I needed to take a route that would be engaging.

I looked at the second, slightly longer route. This route would take an additional day. With this route, I’d turn north at Davenport, then crisscross small roads along the Mississippi River through teeny tiny towns all the way to the headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minnesota.

I almost squealed with glee! 

This was the PERFECT way to go to Iowa and also include where I’d long wanted to go! I’d seen so much of the southern part of the Mississippi River. Now I could see where the river began. 

Taking a journey to the source of the Mississippi had actually been on my mind since arriving in Natchez, Mississippi, oh so many months ago. Way back then, on my first night in Natchez, snuggled in my van, I slept overlooking this mighty river. When I posted a picture of my view, a friend from Davenport commented that the Mississippi River is the second most polluted waterway in the US.

I’d wondered, “How far from the source is it still clean enough to play in, eat from, breathe deep and luxuriate?”

This trip gave me the chance to find out.

Here’s what I learned:

The headwaters of the Mississippi start as a tiny stream flowing from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. In a sanctuary-like setting, the headwaters are preceded by a visitors center honoring the river and a gently winding, Zen-like trail ending at a shallow, 18-foot-wide rivulet. The stepping stones across the mouth of the river serve as a rite of passage for many visitors, creating an homage to the emerging power of the river’s humble beginnings.

Someone recently asked me to describe the headwaters using words other than “serene.” I thought a couple minutes and chose these: “quiet,” “still,” “calm,” “intimate,” “tranquil,” “unperturbed.” Who would have thought a river known for its pollution, turbulence and massive force would evoke this experience? At its inception, it does.   

The river doesn’t stay clean for long. As I stood in the tiny river, I thought about my journey getting to this point. I’d spent much of the last five days, 564 miles, driving on riverside roads and stopping in over a dozen small towns along the way. In each town, I’d go to riverfront parks to count the number of people fishing and swimming. In the heat of August, with oppressive humidity, I was surprised how few swimmers I saw. After talking with a few men fishing about an hour south of the headwaters, I learned that just because people are fishing doesn’t mean they are eating the fish. Most people who fished threw back the fish or gave it to someone of far more meager means at the docks.

At one park on a sunny August morning just north of St. Paul, I watched a young man cast his line for over an hour. About thirty minutes in, I asked if he ever caught anything. “Rarely,” he said. Then he pointed to the river bottom. “See, there’s no life in this part of the river, no grasses, nothing. I do it for relaxation and to keep my form. I’d never eat it if I did.” For those interested, here’s a link to more information: http://stateoftheriver.com/

People are waking up, slowly, to the importance of keeping our water safe. In Minnesota, there is increasing investment in cleaning up the river. As with all revitalization, it will take years and widespread coordination to develop and implement effective pollution-reduction plans, and then many more years until they are successful.

On my last morning there, I sat on one of the stepping stones in the middle of the river watching a duck groom itself. The fog rolled across the lake that fed the river. The only sounds I heard were the paddles of kayaks carving through the still water. I had to force myself to remember—less than an hour away, the river is already under siege. 

My question continues to be, how do we protect the earth and create livelihoods in our communities?


Comments are closed.