A Path With Heart–The Mississippi River, Part 2

A Path With Heart–The Mississippi River, Part 2

By Tom Bauschke

By Tom Bauschke

Travel Writer

June 9, 2002 – 10:45 p.m. – 61°

Hello from the not-yet-so-mighty Mississippi River at Cohasset, Minn. The river may be small, but it’s full of surprises. I managed to sink the canoe in one of the many rapids and pinned it under a log. It took me half an hour and all of my might to pull it out of there… and then I realized: The camera was gone! That was the first day.

The headwaters have been lovely: Massive, pristine wetlands sprawling as far as the eye can see and ear can hear. Forty percent of North American ducks, geese, swans and wading birds use these waters to wean their young and begin their migrations. Late flocks of geese arrive even now.

Wetlands are a new experience for me. Everywhere I look and listen, there’s a multitude of life. The birds are incredibly social, calling and darting about, even to greet me. A canoe is so quiet on the water that I can sneak up on almost anything, except the watchful eye of the many bald eagles.

I’ve watched many beavers and otters at work and play. Many turtles dive ahead of me to hide, yet I can see them swim under my canoe. A porcupine visited me the other night. That was probably the loudest creature I’ve ever heard tromping through the woods.

Until the last few days, the river has been little more than a creek. At the Lake Itasca headwaters, I could touch the grasses on both banks at the same time. Two days later, I entered a wetland where chunks of the bog break free and float downstream and plug or hide the channel.

I spent hours following any sign of a current. Hint: Wild rice grass blades in the shallows always point downstream even if

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you can’t see a current. I paddled some very tense hours when I couldn’t regain a channel. There’s no going back, only digging into the mud with my paddle to power my canoe forward. I couldn’t get out to push because I’d sink up to my neck in a tangle of mud, reeds and roots. Then I’d REALLY be stuck… in the middle of nowhere… alone.

Crossing large lakes was my next challenge. Cass Lake is eight miles across. I looked around me, saw no looming weather, raised an eyebrow and paddled straight across. The warnings were all true: even slight breezes kicked up big waves on such a large lake. Next time—shoreline.

Lake Winnibigoshish (Ojibwe for “dirty water”) is 14 miles across. The wind picked up early, so I spent all morning paddling into a ferocious headwind. It took me five and a half hours to paddle one third of the way around the lake shore! Headwinds are so bad because they constantly battle to turn the canoe around.

I met two fishermen at the landing where I took lunch, and they offered to drive me around the rest of the lake. This spared me from an afternoon thunderstorm. I counted my blessings. Paddling on open, windy water brought me to near exhaustion. My arms are feeling so strong (but sore) that I might just look like Captain America by the time I paddle into New Orleans!

These first 157 miles of the Mississippi River have truly been wilderness. I’ve hardly seen a soul. This is one of the few places I’ve been where I haven’t seen planes flying overhead. Wonderful!

When I meet the Prairie River tomorrow, perhaps 100 feet wide, the Mississippi River will double in water flow. Perhaps I’ll see the beginnings of a current! Slowly now, the terrain leaves wetlands of the headwaters and begins a channel southward to the Gulf. From here on down, it’s all about river: fewer wetlands but plenty of mud. Today I already pulled a leech off me… can somebody please pass the salt?

Correction: In my first article on the river, I referred to an Ozawindib Indian who led Schoolcraft to the Mississippi River source. Ozawindib was actually an Ojibwe chief who once offered his own canoe to help. I meant no disrespect and have sent up a prayer.

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