When you watch a mighty river churning along, at some point you wonder where all of that water comes from, and where it is headed. Once in a while, it makes for good adventure to find out.
The Mississippi is America's greatest river, pushing some 2,500 miles from near the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Its basin drains all or part of 31 states and a small section of Canada. The Mississippi River system essentially captures everything between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, and it ranks as the fourth longest river in the world.
While researching a fishing/camping trip to northern Minnesota, it was clear from the start that there would have to be time to explore the source of the Mississippi.
More than 150 years ago, a majority of surveyors and historians in that area agreed that the Mississippi gets its start at Lake Itasca, a small body of water formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. Lake Itasca is located in northwestern Minnesota in one of the more remote sections of the lower 48 states, and closer to Canada than to Minneapolis.
It is a quiet, clean and peaceful place, named by the Ojibwe people who once lived here. At the lower end of Lake Itasca the water drains across some rock rapids and forms a small stream, the first step in its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Under normal conditions, it takes 90 days for the water draining from Lake Itasca to reach the Gulf.
It is not often you get the chance to wade across the mighty Mississippi, but at Lake Itasca you can, and never get your knees wet. The water runs clear and cold, fed by springs and snow melt.
What happens with the Mississippi after it leaves Lake Itasca is an interesting and sometimes troubling tale.
The river winds its way through communities such as Coon Rapids, Minn., Maiden Rock, Wisc., Oquawka, Ill., Fort Madison, Iowa, Wickliffe, Ky., Cape Girardeau, Mo., Tiptonville, Tenn., Osceola, Ark., Vicksburg, Miss., and St. Francisville, La.
Between Lake Itasca and St. Louis, the Mississippi is altered 43 times by dams, which are used for power generation, flood control and recreational purposes. In the lower stretches of the river, there are also hundreds of wing dams that are intended to adjust the Mississippi's flow and keep the main navigation channel open, while also limiting erosion to its banks.
The Native Americans who lived along the Mississippi for 10,000 years would not recognize their great river. It is plagued in many stretches by industrial pollution and agricultural runoff. Asian carp have invaded many stretches and essentially overpowered the fish that are historically found in the river.
At the point below New Orleans where it threads into a wide delta and dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is dramatically different than its humble beginning at Lake Itasca. The huge waterway throws an estimated 500,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Gulf.
After having seen the Mississippi at its source, at its end, and many places along the way, you gain some sense of its massive influence on such a large part of our country. It provides irrigation, recreation, transportation, energy, food sources and a convenient boundary between states.
The Mississippi is also something we need to better understand and preserve. It will never again be that pristine path of a thousand years ago, but with cooperation and commitment, it certainly can be a cleaner and safer waterway for the future.
Matt Markey is the A-T outdoors columnist.
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