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to the story's beginning            back to the Enchanted Highway


Last year, we spent a week on the banks of the Mississippi River, three weeks after a great flood. Now we're on our way to Minnesota, where the river begins. Navigating from Dickinson is about as easy as it gets: Follow I-94 to Jamestown, then turn left a bit.

On the way, we passed some crop circles. Sort of.

These windmills north of Valley City are much easier to spot than the ones we saw two days ago in Saskatchewan. They're prominently marked on the sectional chart, and they certainly make a good landmark.

After a couple of hours, we cross the Red River into Minnesota, near Halstad (center frame). The Red River is unusual in the United States because it flows north. A voyageur from Fargo could paddle his canoe through Grand Forks and Winnipeg into Lake Winnipeg, and then down the Nelson River to Hudson Bay.

To get where we were going, we landed at Bemidji, Minn., the first city encountered by the Mississippi River on its long journey from its source to the Gulf of Mexico. Bemidji is the birthplace of Jane Russell. If you believe the Chamber of Commerce, it's also the birthplace of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. Bemidjians built the world's largest image of Paul Bunyan in 1937 on the very spot where he was born. They also built a statue of his faithful companion, which settled here two years later. Babe was originally on wheels, to be trucked around to state fairs and other displays. Paul is 18 feet tall and weighs 2½ tons.

Local Ojibwe tell the story of Nanabojo, who became angry with Paul Bunyan for chopping down all those trees. After several weeks of fighting, Nanabojo beat Paul to death with a Red Lake walleye. His statue is across the street from Paul's, in front of Morell's Chippewa Trading Post.
Actually, Nanabojo is a standard Muffler Man.


Niimii
Wanda Reise Odegard (2000)
Dedicated to all pow-wow dancers in memory of Janet Esty, supporter of Indian arts. This statue is just a few steps from the three we just saw.


In 1832, Henry Schoolcraft came to find the source of the Mississippi River with his Ojibwe guide Ozawindib. The Indians called this lake Elk Lake; there is another lake that feeds it which is now called Elk Lake. But Schoolcraft, indulging in his penchant for making up names that sounded like Indian names but weren't, called the lake Itasca. He was looking for the "true head of the Mississippi," and cobbled the name from the Latin words for truth and head, veritas caput.

We got to the headwaters the same way Schoolcraft did, in a boat. Of course, the Chester Charles II is more comfortable than anything that was available here in 1832. Capt. Thomas Coborn bought this boat in 1999 to expand his business, but it took him a while to get it here. First he had to move the boat 1500 miles from Van Buren, Ark. Then he spent several years rebuilding her. Chester Charles II entered service on Lake Itasca in 2007. Here, three generations of Coborns chat while they wait for their passengers to board. Tom's son Chris (inside the booth) is the captain now. While Chris steers, Tom delivers a very thorough narration about the nature and history of this place.

Schoolcraft was an Indian Agent in Sault Ste. Marie. He was sent to the upper Mississippi to settle disputes between the Ojibwe and Sioux nations. He mediated among as many tribal leaders as he could, eventually achieving an intertribal peace treaty. He also vaccinated 2000 Ojibwe against smallpox, a disease that was introduced when some braves returned from the French and Indian War.

As we retraced Schoolcraft's route, we passed the remnants of a fire. Unlike the burn we saw by the Bow River Parkway, this one was started by lightning. Not far from here, we saw a bald eagle, but didn't get any pictures of it.

We were too far away to get a shot of the national bird, but we got closer to Minnesota's state bird.

The blue heron doesn't represent a state or nation, but it's still a noble bird. As in some of the other photos here, the grain is wild rice.

Jane Johnston's mother was the daughter of a prominent Ojibwe chief; her father was a fur trapper from Ireland. She married Henry Schoolcraft in 1823. She was very helpful on his expedition because of her knowledge of several important languages and cultures. Jane wrote poetry and transcribed traditional stories, both in Ojibwe and English. Some of these stories found their way into Schoolcraft's Algic Researches, published in 1839.

Schoolcraft sent a copy of Algic Researches to his cousin, who wrote an epic poem that relied heavily on this information. His cousin was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Of course, the poem is The Song of Hiawatha.

Here is just one comparison.

Algic Researches Hiawatha
The first sound he heard was that of the owl, at which he was greatly terrified, and, quickly descending the tree he had climbed, he ran with alarm to the lodge. "Noko! Noko!" he cried. "I have heard a monedo." She laughed at his fears, and asked him what kind of noise it made. He answered, "it makes a noise like this: Ko-ko-ko-ho." She told him that he was young and foolish; that what he had heard was only a bird, deriving its name from the noise it made. When he heard the owls at midnight
Hooting, laughing in the forest,
"What is that?" he cried in terror:
"What is that?" he said, "Nokomis?"
And the good Nokomis answered:
"That is but the owl and owlet,
Talking in their native language,
Talking, scolding at each other."

These guys aren't afraid of owls.

When Ozawindib and the Schoolcraft reached the end of Lake Itasca, they were in canoes, not on the upper deck of a cruise boat. And there weren't any tourists fording the Mississippi River at its source. So it must have been a bit harder to spot the little channel through the wild rice than this shot makes it seem.

To get to where those people are, you follow a path that's guarded by the woman who renews it all.

Heartwaters - Caretaker Woman
Jeff Savage, 2005
In Ojibwe belief, women are the Caretakers of the Water. Here, a woman leans over, releasing a clutch of small turtles from a basket, renewing the seasons and continuing the waters of life. Her flowing hair is like the flowing water. The turtles, strong water symbols, also symbolize the universal cycles of life in Ojibwe belief.
The turtle's round shell represents the earth, moon, sun, and seasons. His legs point in the four directions, his head points up to honor Grandfather Sun, and his tail points down towards Mother Earth. Turtles show us all directions of life - they live in water, walk on land, and breathe air. Turtles are a strong symbol of the importance of this site, located here at the beginning of the Mississippi headwaters.

The Caretaker Woman is a few hundred feet downstream from the headwaters. As we follow the path, we see people who just can't wait to cross the mighty river. There are several opportunities like this along the path to the headwaters.

I'm standing in the middle of Big Muddy, where it isn't muddy at all – 1475 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, and 2552 miles upstream. The river is about ten paces wide here. 20 steps forward, and I could join these folks at the very beginning of the river.

It wasn't always this easy. When the Schoolcraft expedition arrived here, they found a less-distinct channel in the middle of a swamp. The explorer reported that he was sorely tried by "voracious, long-billed, and dyspeptic musketoes" and portages knee-deep in mud. In the 1930s, The Civilian Conservation Corps drained the swamp, relocated the channel a bit, and built the rock dam that we enjoy today.

Because of that project, I can now stand on the same spot I had seen from the cruise boat, and these kids can walk across the start of one of North America's mightiest waterways. If I had been luckier in my timing, the Chester Charles II might be in the picture too.

If you'd like to see a larger (wide!) version of the first photo above, here it is.


Not long after this peaceful Itasca sunset, there was a short but ferocious thunderstorm. It was to be the beginning of a few days' bad weather in the northern Great Lakes region. Time for a change in our travel plans.


on to Amana

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