A strange thing happens with the Mississippi River as it bubbles up out of Lake Itasca in Minnesota and fumbles its way over rocks and through reeds and willows into a stream that will eventually become the most powerful river on the North American continent.
The stupid thing flows north — for like 50 miles. Eventually, common sense and gravity take hold and the Mighty Mississippi begins its 2,300-mile journey south, creating Illinois’ baby-bump, then joining the Ohio River at Cairo before heading on down to the Gulf of Mexico.
For those of us who know the Mississippi and the power it holds over the lives of those who live and work in the river bottoms, seeing the minuscule, little stream flowing north in Minnesota is a uniquely personal moment.
At least it was for me. I learned to swim and water ski in that river and spent much of my childhood summers picnicking with family and friends on the sandbars not far from Grand Tower.
Within sight of my childhood bedroom window, just where the Big Muddy flows into the Mississippi, a massive levee did its best to hold both rivers off of our farm and out of the bottoms in the spring of 1973 and again in 1993, and too many times since. The innumerable heart-wrenching prayers and equally passionate words of frustration that have been uttered in my family alone because of that river could fill volumes.
It’s difficult to put into words the emotional connection a human spirit can have to a river when one as powerful as the Mississippi controls so many dreams, hopes and memories of the generations.
That’s why a road trip north to the headwaters of the Mississippi is a necessity for anyone whose life has been touched by this river. This year is especially timely because the Great River Road, America’s oldest and longest National Scenic Byway, is celebrating a birthday.
The headwaters of the Mississippi
Let’s start this party where the Great River itself starts – at Lake Itasca State Park in Minnesota. That’s where we learned that the Ojibwe call it “Gichizibi,” which means “the great river.”
The Ojibwe helped explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft find the source of the river, for a while thinking it was nearby Leech Lake or Cass Lake. The Ojibwe were confused by the white man’s search for the source. They believe the whole river is beautiful and powerful.
Itasca is Minnesota’s oldest park, dating to 1891. It’s one of those places that, in my mind, easily could be a national park. The trees alone are so tall and old and dense that in places they block out the sun.
While the lake that gives birth to the Mississippi gets all of the attention, the 32,000-acre park is home to nearly 100 little lakes that provide great fishing, wildlife viewing and an immersion into nature that you would expect from a place where the Father of All Waters comes to life.
The Douglas Lodge, built in 1905, has a public dining room and menu that will make the fried chicken at Giant City State Park’s dining room weep with envy. Instead, this lodge offers a yummy Minnesota Walleye and Red Lake Wild Rice Soup. Pies made from wild berries collected in the park are beyond delicious. If you can’t drag yourself indoors for the time it takes to eat, call ahead and order a picnic lunch to go from Douglas Lodge.
As it leaves Lake Itasca, the Mississippi meanders its way north to Bemidji, an adorable community most frequently identified by Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The mythical lumberjack is found in wooded communities from Maine to Oregon, but the folks of Minnesota fiercely claim that he is theirs and theirs alone. (Indeed scholarly research indicates the first written account of Paul Bunyan appeared a Duluth, Minnesota newspaper in 1904).
Either way, you gotta get your selfie with Paul and Babe and then, for a matching red plaid wool shirt, head over to the Bemidji Woolen Mills. Today, Bill Batchelder is the fourth generation of his family to manage the business, which his great-grandfather started in 1920. If he’s around when you visit, he’ll likely take you by the arm and give you a personal tour of the back room where some of the equipment is older than the business itself.
Their most popular product by far is the signature red-and-black Paul Bunyan Jac Shirt. When I asked him how many they’ve sold over the years, Bill answered “We’re kind of like McDonald’s. After a while, you stop counting and just say ‘billions.'”
Famous folks from the Great River Road
Leaving Bemidji, the little river finally begins to bend south near the community of Grand Rapids. A few activities here speak to your presence in the North Woods, including tours of a paper mill and a visit to the Forest History Center, which does a better job than Paul Bunyan telling the story of life in a Minnesota logging camp in the early 20th century.
Yet Grand Rapids is most famous for a young woman born here named Frances Ethel Gumm. Most of us know her as Judy Garland. The museum, that includes her childhood home, also has one of the original carriages from Emerald City — you know, the ones pulled by the horse of a different color. If possible, plan your travels around the Wizard of Oz Festival held on the weekend closest to June 10, which was Judy’s birthday.
A little farther south on the Great River Road is charming Little Falls, and it, too, was home to a famous American. Charles Lindbergh spent most of his summers here as a child. We were disappointed that the historic site and visitors center is closed Monday through Wednesday (we were there on Tuesday), so if this is of interest to you, schedule your travels accordingly.
We spent the night in lovely St. Cloud with a room overlooking the river in the Best Western Kelly Inn. After dinner downtown with our friends Bob and Lisa, we spent a few hours exploring the gorgeous Clemens and Munsinger Gardens.
From there, you’re just an hour from the Twin Cities where you can easily spend several days exploring Mary Tyler Moore’s hometown, Prince’s hometown, watch a baseball game, shop the Mall of America, and on and on.
We had the most fun spending the night on a tugboat/bed-and-breakfast out on the river between Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s now called the Covington Inn. In its 30-year life as a tugboat, the Covington pushed barges up and down the Mississippi and Ohio, running right past our favorite spots of Southern Illinois.
Red Wings and Eagles’ Wings
Moving on down the Great River Road, which is MN Highway 61 in these parts, you’ll come to the legendary town of Red Wing. If you are a fan of American-made products and require good shoes in your life, you already know the name, Red Wing.
Do you know it takes five square feet of leather to make one pair of boots? That’s one of the pieces of trivia from the fun little museum downtown that includes a 16-foot tall boot and details of how the boots are made.
Red Wing is also famous for pottery; it has a great downtown and the best donuts ever at a place called Hanisch Bakery, and of course, beautiful parks that provide access to the river.
As you continue south, following the green signs with the river pilot’s wheel, the symbol of the Great River Road, all of a sudden, the river widens to what look likes a lake, but is just a really wide spot in the river.
Indeed, it’s nearly 60 miles wide, the widest part of the Mississippi, and instead, it’s called Lake Pepin. This is where in 1922, Ralph Samuelson strapped a couple of boards to his feet, tied a clothesline to the back of a boat and invented water skiing. Water ski shows are a highlight all summer long.
We totally fell in love with our next stop — the little town of Wabasha. The town earns its name from Wapasha, a great hero of the Dakota people born here in 1718. In a paved courtyard overlooking the river, Wapasha’s story is told around a statue of the great Dakota leader.
It’s right next to the National Eagle Center, a spectacular facility that helps humans better understand our national symbol and the environmental issues in which they thrive. Plan on spending some time at the center, especially if you have children.
We were thrilled to get within a few feet of six magnificent eagles and a red-tailed hawk. These birds have been injured in some way and can’t care for themselves in the wild. I was captivated by Angel, who was hatched in 1999. She has a broken left wing, but ooh, an eagle-eyed scowl that is surely the envy of any parent with mischievous children.
Wabasha is perfect for eagles because the bluffs on either side of the river create an updraft that birds just love. In the winter, the river doesn’t freeze, so you can see hundreds of eagles all year long.
More Minnesota surprises
We ended the Minnesota portion of our Great River Road road trip in the surprising community of Winona. We were told “you have to go” to the Marine Art Museum, and we are so glad we did. In this otherwise inconspicuous town is a collection of world-renowned art united by the simple theme of water. Picasso, Monet, Gaugin, Cezanne, van Gogh, Wyeth and O’Keefe — that just touches the surface, so to speak.
You know that famous picture of George Washington crossing the ice-filled Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776? There are only two remaining versions of that painting by Emanuel Luetze. One of them is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but the other is in this remarkable little museum.
If you wonder why a town about the size of Carbondale can afford such a magnificent collection of art, your answer is the next time you purchase any tool or product from Fastenal. The company was founded here in 1967 and the owners believe in simply giving back to their community.
So that’s just the Minnesota portion of the Great River Road. The entire journey includes 10 states, so just imagine the wonderful discoveries, big and small, found in those that remain. It’s time to get on the road and find out for yourself.