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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 1: Morning — Jumping off from the Headwaters

Story Highlights
  • Since the river channel is constantly changing, the length of the Mississippi River is difficult to nail down. Estimates from state and federal agencies vary from 2,300 to 2,552 miles.
  • A drop of water at the headwaters takes about 80 days to reach the Gulf.
  • The Mississippi River is 20 feet wide at the headwaters. It reaches its widest point of more than 11 miles as it flows through Lake Winibigoshish near Bena, Minnesota.
  • The flow of the Mississippi River is 6 cubic feet per second at the headwaters; it builds to 600,000 cubic feet per second by the time it reaches New Orleans.

By Tom Eisenhart

Standing at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northwestern Minnesota, it's hard to imagine how this shallow stream you can wade across in 30 seconds or less ultimately becomes known by such superlatives as the Mighty Mississippi and Old Man River.

We encounter few visitors on this damp, overcast Monday morning in late September. Unlike summer weekends, when hordes of families gather to splash and toss stones, the handful of people we meet are river aficionados. It's as if they are on a pilgrimage of sorts to see for themselves the Mississippi's humble beginnings as it pours gently over the lip of picturesque Lake Itasca.

One older couple hold hands as they tread cautiously across slippery boulders connecting the shores of the headwater's 20-foot expanse. Afterwards, they remove their shoes and socks and wade into the pool near the rocky bridge, laughing and splashing as they take pictures of each other. Having traveled here from Ohio, they plan to visit the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and then continue on to the confluence of the Ohio and Wabash before heading home.

A Peaceful Respite

For Sharon Swiggum, a recently retired special education teacher from southwestern Wisconsin, the river provided a much needed respite from stressful days spent working with students. This is her first trip to the headwaters, though she has frequently visited the river for the past 12 years. Over the weekend, she camped at Itasca State Park, the 3,200 acres of pine forest, wetlands and small lakes that surround the headwaters.

Sharon is unabashed when she says she "can't even begin to express how much I love the Mississippi River." She's camped along its shores and ridden her bike along the river's banks. She even keeps a log of barges that churn by during her frequent visits to the river.

It's at the mention of her bird-watching experiences, however, when her eyes really light up. Bald eagles are Sharon's favorites, and she smiles when she describes how encouraging it has been to see the rebound of eagles along the Mississippi. She's counted more than 100 nests in her river travels and has had the pleasure of seeing eaglets take wing from their nests.

About mid-morning, our crew leaves Itasca State Park and heads southeast toward McGregor, Minnesota, a town with a population of just over 400. As we drive, I notice that we pass over the Mississippi at least twice, a reminder of its twisting and turning course as it flows through the Minnesota north woods.

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