Every mighty river has a humble beginning. The Mississippi runs wide, deep and muddy for most of its 2,300 miles, draining 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Yet it begins as a babbling pour-off suitable for wading at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca. Who knew?
MontaraManDan’s visit to the clear-running source of the Big Muddy was conceived as a side trip on the road to North Dakota with his Big Brother.
Why North Dakota? Because it’s there. And we both wanted to knock it off of our respective bucket lists. (Big Brother has now visited all 50 states! MontaraManDan’s tally stands at 49.) Unfortunately, we neither hunt nor fly fish. We’re not even barflies. So, the headwaters evolved into the destination and North Dakota into an afterthought as we finalized our trip.
After meeting up in Minneapolis, we began our trip across the the land of giant Adirondack chairs with a daylong drive out of Duluth along the northern shore of Lake Superior. We enjoyed easy hikes along cascades at Gooseberry Falls and Temperance River state parks, as well as a stop at Split Rock Lighthouse. MontaraManDan neglected to bring his passport so we didn’t bother driving as far as Canada.
Water from the ruddy cascades draining into Lake Superior at Gooseberry Falls and Temperance River overlay a beautiful cobblestone bed of rounded red, blue, orange and gray stone as the streams slip into the calm clarity of the lake’s shallows.
With 37,200 square miles of surface area, Superior ranks as the No. 2 freshwater lake in the world by that measure. And it isn’t always calm. Split Rock is one of more than two dozen lighthouses that dot the tricky shorelines of Lake Superior. The lake’s shipwrecks are legendary, inspiring at least one song.
Though retired from active duty decades ago, the historic lighthouse, light-keeper quarters and grounds are immaculately kept and open for tours, featuring docents dressed in period costumes. The costuming is so effective MontaraManDan initially thought two of the docents were mannequins as he walked the grounds.
The route to the headwaters of the Mississippi from Duluth took us along a series of state highways through the North Woods of Minnesota. We chuckled as we crossed the Mississippi at least once on our route. Arriving at Itasca State Park at lunchtime, we were pleased to stumble across Douglas Lodge. The lodge restaurant featured a menu packed with local delicacies. MontaraManDan sampled the tater tot hot dish and Big Brother, who tries hard to stick to a plant-based diet, resorted to walleye. It’s tough to avoid meat when dining in the North Woods.
The stop at the headwaters was Big Brother’s idea. Mom had fondly recalled her visit as a child in the 1930s, so if it was good enough for Mom it was good enough for us. A short walk from a visitor center placed us at a 40-foot-wide pour-off lined with boulders and navigated with varying degrees of dexterity by children wading in the cold water. Neither Big Brother nor I are known for our dexterity, so we used a nearby bridge for our crossing.
If the headwaters look a bit engineered, blame the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which dredged the channel, drained a nearby swamp and installed the boulders — all for the sake of tourism — shortly before Mom’s long-ago visit. Some argue whether Lake Itasca actually qualifies as the headwaters. Nicollet Creek begins as a spring and feeds into the south end of the lake, and a second stream flows into Itasca from Elk Lake, which is fed by two other streams. But no matter. If the CCC and Mom say Lake Itasca is the primary source, of the Mississippi, who are we to argue.
Mission accomplished, we headed for Fargo. Upon arrival, we asked the hotel desk attendants to recommend “things to do” while we were in town. After spouting off a short list of bars and roadhouses, they were stumped. So, we headed downtown to sample some local tavern cuisine. We stopped at a number of hostess stands along Broadway, looking for plant-based options without success. We finally settled on dinner at the Toasted Frog, where MontaraManDan enjoyed bison pot pie and Big Brother selected a vegetarian pizza.
After a long, rainy drive back to Minneapolis the next day, we paid a visit to Mall of America, the iconic 4.2 million square-foot attraction that features more than 520 shops, an aquarium and Nickelodeon Universe, a family friendly indoor amusement park with three roller coasters. We’re just about as interested in shopping as drinking, so we visited the mall as gawkers rather than participants. Mom would have thrilled at our restraint.
We particularly enjoyed perusing the signature Crayola and Lego stores. Minneapolis has a large population of Somali-Americans and immigrants dating to the 1980s, and we also enjoyed seeing that community out in force at the amusement park, many of the women and girls in colorful head scarves and gowns, celebrating the end of Ramadan with a day at the amusement park.
This trip was never really about North Dakota or the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The driving idea was for two brothers separated by seven years, disposition and a continent to get to know each other a bit better as we settle into our respective retirements.
And bond we did, gabbing nonstop for three days about our childhoods, families, faith and careers, and sharing our once and future hopes, dreams and fears. Big Brother noted we’d probably spent more one-on-one time together in just three days than we had across the many decades that have passed since he graduated from high school in 1969. Maybe ever.
It was time well spent. After all, every mighty relationship has a humble beginning.
Note: Thanks to Big Brother for snapping our lead photo for this post.