Dog-Paddling the Mississippi

Pi is my English Setter and canoe partner. She rides in the bow (bowdog?) and watches everything. I paddle in the stern. It’s a symbiotic relationship. In our pursuit of more scenic scenery and better adventures, I decided that we would find the headwaters of 50 rivers in 50 states. And what better place to start than the Mighty Mississippi? After some research, we headed to Northern Minnesota.

Lake Itasca State Park is a crown jewel of the Minnesota park system and for good reason. It’s big, beautiful, has 100+ years of history, good funding, all the nature freak stuff, and, most important, the Mississippi headwaters. Lots of people would like to travel the 2,340 miles to the Gulf of Mexico but only one or two groups really make it every year. We’re not up for that, we just need to find the start and spend one solid day on the river. Good maps are available but the accompanying narratives lack meaningful details. My only rule is to protect Pi. If I keep her out of danger, I’ll be OK.

The camping is better at Itasca than most places with all the normal amenities: store, trails, water access, maintained quiet, and Minnesota Nice neighbors. The marina rents canoes and kayaks if you decide to go. Most surprising is the showers that are at least as good as most health clubs. Clean and fully tiled dressing areas and stalls, plenty of hot water, and separate from the bathrooms make it pleasant instead of risky. Pi just had to wait outside an extra couple minutes while I enjoyed the shower.

After a nutritious breakfast, I talked a camping neighbor into following us downstream so I could drop my truck for our return. Then we portaged to Lake Itasca. A beautiful day with some rain a few days ago made for nice water.

The actual headwaters is well marked and a popular site for the families. I thought about shooting the rows of rocks that separate the lake from the river but I’m sure someone would have snitched on me. I dragged the canoe around it and headed downstream. The first 1/3 mile is still tourists with a couple scenic pedestrian bridges across the river. That mile mark has a giant culvert under the road and everything after that is wild. The narrow river is carved out of the rocks and winds along at a good drop so paddling is more directional control than need for speed. We had a good old L. L. Bean time until we reached “The Basin.”

The river ends here. Of course it can’t– but it looks like it ends. A solid tree line surrounds the flat calm area of more than 10 acres while the river seems to circle in the cattails. I looked around several times and couldn’t see an outlet. “But this is the Mississippi! It has to go somewhere.” I could go back upstream but that’s a wimpy last resort. The very slight current was detectable in the small weeds growing from the riverbed. After following their aim for 10 minutes, the outlet became visible behind a peninsula with the tree line merging into the trees behind it. The river was narrow and the flow was slowed by a beaver dam. This is the Mighty Mississippi.
From there, we entered “The Swamp” a seven mile long and half mile wide low area. The river offers a clear channel and decent flow as it meanders along with ample wildlife; nesting swans, eagles, some deer, a couple muskrats and enough red-wing blackbirds to irritate Pi. Near the end of The Swamp, the wind died. There were no cars or trucks or planes or tractors or birds or any other sound. Complete silence! I stopped paddling and listened to nothing. No sound! Beautiful silence! Pi looked at me like the world was about to end but I enjoyed it. Can’t remember if I ever heard nothing before. Those 6 or 8 minutes made the trip.
After The Swamp, we had about 5 miles of wild river to finish the day. The quick current and sharp turns sent us into the banks many times. This is the stuff canoeists live for; class I and II rapids, hidden obstacles, and mystery currents. Pi occasionally looked at me like a parent teaching a kid to drive. “Too bad, grab a paddle if you don’t like it!” The only scare of the trip came as we rounded a corner and hit a rock. Pi wasn’t ready and fell overboard. She swam to me, I grabbed the handles on her lifejacket and lifted her into the canoe. The current pushed us sideways and I couldn’t recover fast enough to prevent us from wedging between a rock near the shore and a downed tree laying across the river. The water pushed against the side and almost over the gunwale. My brain video played us swamping and all our stuff floating downstream. I quickly realized that our stuff would be caught on trees and rocks. All I had to do was rescue Pi and wade a short distance to collect it all. Everything floats and it would be more nuisance than danger. We never took water and I climbed out to regain our direction. The final miles have two marked and one surprise portage. This is the Mississippi so you need to be prepared.
Overall, we finished 15 miles in less than 5 hours, never swamped although Pi got wet, experienced some nature and listened to several minutes of nothing. This was a great start toward our goal.
One down, 49 to go.

By: Tom Koontz

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