Lake Itasca:  The Headwaters of the Mississippi River

I’ve wanted to visit Lake Itasca ever since I was a little kid, when I first learned that it was the headwaters of the Mississippi River.  But alas, I lived on the West Coast, so I figured it would be a while before I got there.  Lake Itasca was one of the first dots I put on my map of America several months earlier when I started planning this crazy trip and was still living in Qatar.  Though I’ve driven through southern Minnesota numerous times over the years, this was the first time I’d been up here to the “Northland.” 

 
 
Above:  After visiting the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, I drove south across Minnesota.  A few hours later, I reached the Twin Cities, where I spent the next several days visiting my friends Mark and Jayne.

 

After a quick breakfast at my campsite at Itasca State Park, I stopped at the campground entrance station to pay my fee, since I hadn't paid the night before given that the station was closed.  It was a Saturday morning and the large campground was pretty packed, so I waited in line a while, then after paying I got back in the truck and drove over to the headwaters site.  Itasca State Park is quite large, so it took me a while to get there.  I reached the Headwaters Visitor Center around 9 a.m. and there were already a few dozen cars in the parking lot, even though the Visitor Center hadn’t opened yet.  Although the Visitor Center was closed, there are several informative signs outside in the courtyard, which I spent 20 minutes perusing to better understand this area called the headwaters.

So here’s the story:  Back in 1832, when Minnesota was still mostly a wilderness, a fellow named Henry Schoolcraft traveled up the Mississippi River to determine the river’s source, and he concluded that this lake was it.  He called it “Itasca” because he combined the Latin words for “truth” and “head” (verITAS CAput, get it?).  But even after his expedition, there was still some debate about the actual headwaters until 1882, when the Minnesota Historical Society sent Jacob Brower to determine the official headwaters of the Mississippi River.  Brower explored this area and agreed with Schoolcraft that Lake Itasca was the winner.

Something I’d always wondered about Lake Itasca, though, looking at it on a map when I was a kid:  It’s a big lake and surely there are smaller lakes or ponds that feed into Lake Itasca, so why wouldn’t one of those be considered the headwaters of the Mississippi River instead?  I found the answer by reading the signs at the Visitor Center.  It’s because during low water flow in the summer months, none of those water bodies that feed into Lake Itasca flowed consistently enough.  During some summers, for instance, some of those flows into Itasca dried up and thus the only source that constantly fed the nascent Mississippi River was the flow directly from Lake Itasca.  “Now I understand,” I said as I read the sign (I really did say that – and people nearby looked at me funny).

After reading the signs outside for a while, the Visitor Center still hadn’t opened so I walked a few hundred yards down a trail to the headwaters.  There were a few folks here walking across a line of stepping stone rocks that formed a porous bridge and the border between Lake Itasca and the Mississippi River, so I joined them.  I’ve now straddled the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in the Colorado Rockies, the headwaters of the Missouri River in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, and have walked across the Mississippi River here in northern Minnesota. 

Later in my trip I was hoping to become the first person to visit all 16 extreme geographic compass points in the contiguous United States, having visited eight so far.  I was also hoping to perhaps become the first person to visit the highest point in the lowest state (in Delaware) as well as the lowest point in the highest state (in Colorado).  And now this “three-river feat.”  Not as impressive as my winning second place in a pie-eating contest in Lake City, Colorado in 1988, perhaps, but it was still something.

I spent about 30 minutes here at the Mississippi headwaters as the crowd gradually grew in size, with more arrivers than leavers.  I imagined that on a hot weekend summer afternoon, there might be well over a hundred folks here, all waiting in line to cross the stepping-stone bridge.  It was time to leave, I decided, so I walked back to the truck and said goodbye to this interesting place called Lake Itasca.  After getting back on U.S. 71, I headed south until I hit Interstate 94 near St. Cloud, then drove east until I reached the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  My good friends Mark and Jayne live here in the suburb of Eagan, and I arrived at their townhouse around 3 p.m. and rang their doorbell. 

Lake Itasca

Hunting for Treasure in the Twin Cities

It was great to see Mark and Jayne again and I stayed with them for the next four days.  Mark and I had met in seventh grade in California while discussing/debating politics and we still talk a lot about politics.  He’s one of my oldest and best friends.  They had put their house in nearby Apple Valley up for sale a while earlier and, wouldn’t you know it, while I was in town they sold it and were closing on the sale.

Mark and I spent an afternoon at his house in Apple Valley, mowing the lawn and getting it ready for the new owners, then Mark said a teary (well, not really) goodbye to his house of the past 20 years – though more joy than tears, to be honest.  The sale closed the next day, so afterwards they treated me to dinner at a nice restaurant using some of the proceeds.  Gee, I wish my friends would sell their houses more often!

The highlight of my four-day visit with Mark and Jayne, however, was driving around Minneapolis one afternoon in search of geographic treasures.  I had told Mark about the “Geographic Extreme” theme of my current road trip and the next day he’d read that Minneapolis is the largest city in the U.S. located on the latitude of 45 degrees, halfway between the equator and the North Pole.  I’d visited several locations around the country that were marked with signs indicating the forty-fifth parallel, including Lincoln City on the Oregon coast and the Clark Reservoir, near Lemhi Pass in Montana, but I hadn’t thought about that same line of latitude passing right through the Twin Cities.

Mark showed me a website that described two places in the Twin Cities that were marked with signs indicating the 45th parallel – one site was west of downtown Minneapolis and the other was a few miles to the east near Roseville – so off we went on a little geocaching adventure to see if we could find the signs.  Sure enough, using the website’s directions and my GPS we found both, so Mark was pretty happy.  Hey, this Extreme Geographer thing was starting to catch on, I figured.

We drove through St. Paul on the way back to the townhouse and Mark pointed out where cartoonist Charles Schulz of “Peanuts” fame had lived early in his career.  Schultz was born in Minneapolis in 1922 but grew up next door in St. Paul.  Mark also pointed out the very first Target store, which opened in Roseville in 1962.  And all this time I thought the Twin Cities were known only for cold winters.

I had a nice time catching up with my old friends and driving all around the Twin Cities in search of geographic bounty, but after four days it was time to hit the road again to continue my extreme adventure.  So long, Mark and Jayne, and thanks for the lavish dinner.  I’ll be sure to visit again the next time you sell your house!

Visiting Mark and Jayne