Saturday, July 27, 2013


Crossing the Mississippi
This is me, crossing the Mighty Mississippi River. The reason I can do this just standing on a split log is that we are at what is billed as the very beginning of the Mississippi River. The river starts at the outlet of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. A number of streams and creeks flow into the lake but none of them are large enough to be classified as rivers. Only one stream leaves the lake and this is the northernmost extent of the river of Mark Twain and the giant paddle wheelers.  The river that once separated the civilized East from the wild wild West. From this point, you can put a canoe in the water and, except for a few portages made necessary by various dam and flood control projects, paddle all the way to New Orleans. A drop of water from this point reaches the Gulf of Mexico in about 90 days. Serious canoers have done it in as little as 19.

Tourists crossing the outlet of Lake Itasca
The locals in these parts are kind of obsessed with living at "the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi River". They have been for over 100 years. Back in the 19th century, several expeditions were mounted to locate the origin of the Mississippi and they came up with several different answers, however Lake Itasca is at this point generally accepted as the correct answer. The town we're staying in, Bemidji, bills itself as "the first city on the Mississippi River", lying about 23 miles from the lake. But there are a few problems with this whole subject. In general, if you're trying to find the origin of a river, you start at the ocean and head upstream. Wherever your river joins with another, you take the path of the larger fork to find the origin. But as you head up the Mississippi, when you come to the Ohio River, it is actually larger than the Mississippi at that point, so the "headwaters of the Mississippi" could be considered to be at the origin of the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. Similarly, heading further up the Mississippi you reach the Missouri River which is also the larger of the two. So the real headwaters of the Mississippi might be somewhere along the great divide in Montana. None of this seems to faze the residents of Minnesota who are convinced that
Squirrel at the headwaters
their particular patch of ground (at least for tourism purposes) is the true start of the Mississippi River. In fact, the name "Itasca" was derived from the last four letters of veritas, the Latin word for true, and the first two letters of caput, the Latin word for head.

In addition to preserving the origin of the Mississippi, Itasca State Park also protects some of the last unlogged forest land in the state. Apparently some surveyor made a mistake and placed a few square miles of perfectly good trees in the middle of the lake. The logging companies believed the map and just never sent anybody out there to chop the trees down. They didn't figure out their error until too late. By that time, there were conservationists do-gooders running around that managed to get the state government to set the area aside for the edification of future generations. I couldn't really tell the difference between the old growth forest and the replanted, newer areas but I never really got a close up look. Every time we got out of the car, mosquitoes zeroed in on us within a couple of minutes, so we did most of our sightseeing from behind glass.

The Bemidji Paul Bunyan.  Looks like an 8th grade class project.
Speaking of things that Minnesotans are obsessed with, another is Paul Bunyan. Bemidji claims to be the home of Paul Bunyan, but then again so do Brainerd, Shelton, Westwood, Bay City, Wahoo, Eau Claire, and even Bangor, Maine. Bemidji has Paul Bunyan Avenue, the Paul Bunyan expressway, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, the Paul Bunyan Animal Park and statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox which are allegedly the most photographed landmark in the state. (This is all the more remarkable because, as statues go, they really suck.)  But this is fairly mild compared to Kelliher, Minnesota which has a Paul Bunyan Memorial Park that is the supposed site of Paul's grave. All of this for a character who not only never lived but doesn't really even qualify as a myth, legend or tall tale. The first mention of Paul Bunyan on record is a short, light hearted story in a newspaper in 1910. In that story he was just a normal lumberjack. Paul Bunyan as we know him, the giant with the blue ox companion, was created out of whole cloth for a lumber company advertising campaign in 1916. He is not the product of folklore, he's the product of fakelore. Nonetheless, folks here love him as if he were some long-lost cousin. Then again, the folks here loved the Prairie Home Companion. There's probably a connection there somewhere.

Another giant Bunyan.  You're supposed to sit on his hand.  No thanks.

No comments:

Post a Comment