Itasca State Park
36750 Main Park Drive
Park Rapids, MN 56470
Open Daily 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.
This review is written specifically for my niece, IG, and my nephew, W, as they will almost probably visit the Mississippi headwaters someday soon in their very new lives. If you are not IG or W, you are still welcome to eavesdrop.
To IG and W:
The headwaters of the Mississippi are found (is found?) within Itasca State Park in Northern Minnesota. Itasca itself is gorgeous, with beautiful lakes and forests, a long, sun-dappled bike path, and the occasional pioneer grave. To be in Itasca is to truly commune with nature. And to visit the headwaters is to . . . well, to pretty much just be able to say you were there.
It’s basically a wide creek. And not really even a good creek. It’s too deep and too slow to properly babble. It’s just kind of there. You wade into it, and then when you’re halfway out, you turn back to wave to whichever parent or grandparent stayed on shore to get a photo of you “crossing the Mississippi River.” You might scoot some rocks around to see if you can at least find a crawdad or something. Then probably your Texas Grandpa says something like, “Well . . .” or “Shall we?” to indicate that we’ve done all we can do here.
Nevertheless, there are two and a half rather significant reasons for you to experience the headwaters of the Mississippi.
Reason 1: It’s just something you do in this family. It’s history. It’s tradition. There are photographs of your dads there, and because of this, there must be photographs of you there, too. Our Minnesota trip is a decades-old ritual, and it speaks to who we are as a family . . . this choice to keep returning, the choice of your mothers to make this tradition a part of their lives, the fact that your very existence has made an already meaningful ritual mean so much more.
Reason 2: This is where the Mississippi starts. You don’t know this yet, but you will learn that the Mississippi is a massive river that starts in the Northern United States and cuts right down the center and into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi is wide and deep and too long to really fathom because you can’t see it all at once. You know, your dads and I grew up in St. Louis County, not far from the River. By the time the Mississippi gets to St. Louis, it is significantly more than a creek, and has been for some time. It’s a beast, so wide I could never hold my breath all the way over the bridge when we drove into Illinois.
The river was a mirror for our hometown, reflecting our glinting Gateway Arch and our evening lights as if to make sure we still noticed the beauty of an imperfect and over-familiar city. I was proud when the Mississippi came up in our grade school geography books, because even though my world felt so common to me, here was someone taking up textbook space to talk about it. When Texas Grandpa read to us about Huck Finn and Jim travelling down the Mississippi, the story felt like it was ours more than it was anyone else’s, because it was our river sweeping the narrative along.
So when I stand in the headwaters of the Mississippi River as an adult, I want it to feel powerful. I want to marvel that this formidable river—our river–could begin from something so small. But it’s hard to put those pieces together. I can only see one part of the river at a time. And always, the part I’m not looking at is just foggy memory. It feels connected to the thing in front of me only hypothetically.
Reason 2 1/2: You get to play in the headwaters. It won’t be as interesting as the beach at Big Elbow Lake or as lovely as about twelve hundred other places in Minnesota, but it’s another new place for you to pat the water and pick up rocks and broken pieces of shells and show your dad a stick you found and cry when a horsefly bites you because they bite like feral cats and I’d cry, too.
If I’m there while you’re there, I will probably feel nothing about the river. More likely, I’ll feel things about you, wondering–as I often do–about the wide and deep and unfathomably long life ahead of you. I’ll wonder who you’ll be in the St. Louis of your life, and I’ll wonder what it will be like to try to connect that person with the small child in my memory. I’ll watch you stare at other park visitors in that slack-jawed way toddlers do, taking it in, gradually understanding what it means to be a person in the world, what it means to be you, what it might mean to be someone else, what it means when you put it all together.
Then Texas Grandpa will say, “Well . . .” and someone will guide you back to shore, pointing out all the big rocks in the riverbed so you don’t stumble. Your dad will buckle you into the car seat, and everyone will ask you if you had fun, and you’ll ride away from Itasca with a tiny bit of the soon-to-be-mighty Mississippi still trickling between your toes.
Three months later, the water you stood in will reach the Gulf of Mexico. Many years later, we’ll show you the picture we took of you. You won’t remember that kid, and you won’t remember that day. But we’ll also show you the photo of your dad in that same drip of a river, and you’ll see that even the small beginnings you can’t recall are still a part of mighty person you become.
Anyway, Itasca is Minnesota’s oldest state park, established in the late 19th century after a determined effort to protect the area from logging. In addition to enjoying the park’s 100 lakes and beautiful hiking and bike paths, visitors are invited to tube or walk down the first half-mile of the Mississippi River. No need to do it all in a day; Itasca State Park offers 38 indoor lodging units and has a total of 237 campsites.