Much of Itasca State Park, 125 miles northwest of Minneapolis, feels secluded on a 90-degree Saturday afternoon.
Only a dozen boats bob on the park’s 1,000-acre lake.
A lone osprey swoops to scour for lunch under water.
Two loons dip, dunk and disappear, teasing their two-legged admirers.
Where Itasca Lake meets its northernmost outlet, the mood changes.
Dozens gingerly wade into chilly, 2-foot-deep water: couples hand-in-hand, mosquito-bitten campers, parents holding babies, fearless kids with splashing dogs.
Everybody seems to linger, and for me, this humbling moment belongs on a bucket list.
Getting to the park means going way out of your way, just to meet an otherwise-ordinary, 25-foot-wide passageway.
The Mississippi River begins here.
A bark-stripped, sawed-smooth tree makes that point with carved letters painted yellow, 1,475 feet above sea level and 2,552 miles from river’s end, at the Gulf of Mexico.
We take off our shoes and simply stand in the stony muck of these headwaters.
We walk on a flattened log that bridges the stream.
We teeter across a row of slippery rocks, positioned to show canoeists where their portage between lake and river begins.
The park rents canoes and kayaks but prohibits headwaters paddling.
Some folks bring their own vessel, just to say they met the Mississippi at its origin.
Other goals are loftier.
Keanu and Sarah Krech of Minneapolis arrived with a plan to canoe the river’s entire length this summer (see “canoeing for a cause” on Facebook).
Despite storm delays, they reached Hannibal, Mo., on their first wedding anniversary, the Fourth of July, as planned.
They also aim to raise $10,000 to fight sex trafficking, in partnership with Women at Risk (warinternational.org), before their journey ends.
Sandra Lichter, Itasca park naturalist, said the zeal for full-river escapades is not unusual, especially before spring turns to summer, but most efforts end by the time paddlers reach the Twin Cities.
The world record for a full-river paddle is 18 days, four hours and 51 minutes.
Two people swam the entire distance, and another used a stand-up paddleboard all the way.
“River challenges will differ,” Lichter said. “You want to start early in the year, while the water levels are high enough and the wild rice paddies aren’t too thick.”
Snags, sandbars and switchbacks are plentiful near the headwaters. Wind and waves are harrowing as the river widens downstream.
Boardwalks follow the beginning of marshy headwaters at Itasca, the nation’s second-oldest state park (after Niagara Falls in New York), established in 1891.
Elsewhere, a cool cluster of old-growth red pines are known as Preacher’s Grove.
Centuries-old white pines loom near the lakeshore.
Miles of hiking paths weave through bogs, climb ridges and traverse a 1,600-acre wilderness sanctuary.
One trail leads to Aiton Heights, a 100-foot-tall, steel fire tower that feels a little flimsy in wind; maximum capacity is six.
Inside the sturdy Douglas Lodge of logs, open since 1905, is a handsome fieldstone fireplace, five rooms of upstairs lodging and a restaurant whose menu favors indigenous ingredients.
That means wild rice (in pancakes, French toast, a creamy soup, fruity-nutty salad, hamburger casserole) and walleye (as a ceviche appetizer, smoked for a salad, battered and fried in tacos).
To have it all, order the fish filleted and stuffed with a combo of wild rice, apples and cranberries.
The state park, among the most visited in Minnesota, could have just as easily been obliterated by loggers.
A 24-year-old park commissioner, Mary Gibbs, successfully intervened and then faded into obscurity – until an interpretive center at the headwaters was named in her honor in 2005.
For more information, visit dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/Itasca
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Interpretive centers are plentiful along the Mississippi River, and some have widespread significance.
Here are three examples:
• Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Ill., is 10 miles east of St. Louis and the only UNESCO World Heritage Center in the Midwest U.S.
Had this agricultural community used building materials that would withstand prolonged exposure — like the limestone of Mexico’s Chichen Itza or the granite of Peru’s Machu Picchu — Cahokia Mounds would arguably be just as well known.
On 2,200 acres are 80 protected mounds, including 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, the largest such earthwork in the Americas.
Much about why and how the community vanished remains a mystery.
For more information, visit cahokiamounds.org.
• Vicksburg National Military Park preserves a major Civil War battle site in Mississippi.
Monuments, memorials, markers, a national cemetery, reconstructed forts and miles of trenches tell the story of the 47-day fight that ended with the city’s surrender.
USS Cairo, the first U.S. battleship sunk by a mine, is here too.
Walk or drive narrated trails inside these 1,800 acres.
For more information, visit nps.gov/vick.
• Natchez National Historic Park, also in Mississippi, explains the cotton culture of the South, from the Greek Revival mansion of a plantation owner to the Forks of the Road slave-buying site.
A townhouse tells the story of a freed slave.
A marker commemorates Fort Rosalie, built by the French in 1716 to protect trading.
For more information, visit nps.gov/natc.
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The Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway, follows the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles and through 10 states.
Work to identify, promote and preserve the Mississippi River’s natural and cultural assets began 80 years ago.
Download an app to help pinpoint the route and its highlights at experiencemississippiriver.com.
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