Friday, June 13, 2014

Itasca, the Beginning

The morning mist of Lake Itasca.

 Now that the first day of summer looms ahead of me, I drift back to where the trees are tallest, days are longest and water pours out over the rocks and starts an amazing journey to the gulf of Mexico. 
 Itasca State Park is Minnesota's oldest and most popular state park. The park was founded in 1891 to protect and commemorate the Headwaters of the Mississippi River.  The park with it's geographical and historic appeal, it's campgrounds,  50 miles of nature trails and peaceful lakes make it ideal for any type of north woods adventure.

It is easy to find Itasca State Park, located just north of Park Rapids, Minnesota.  But, in the days before it was mapped,  a steady stream of early explorers led many expeditions up the Mississippi to find the 'true source' of the mighty river. In 1832, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft cut his way through a thicket into a small weedy opening and saw what he would later write, "The cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view. It was Itasca Lake, the source of the Mississippi."

 Lake Itasca is a small by Minnesota standards with three arms reaching into the majestic  northern pines. The West Arm borders the park's wilderness sanctuary.  Bear Paw campground and the Bower Trail line the eastern part of the lake. The Headwaters and most of the parks facilities, swimming beach and boat ramp are located on the northern main part of the lake. On weekends and during the summer, the crowds flock here to see the origin of the Mississippi and to take a dip or rent a canoe.

The Headwaters sign.

 Everyone who's ever been there has a memory of crossing over the rocks at the Mississippi's birthplace. A line of hand-laid boulders form a crude dam at the outlet of the lake. Every kid from Minnesota has had their picture taken here either by the sign or wading in the creek. It is short hike from the Visitor Center and gift shop to the stream. On hot summer days, folks of all ages will kick off their shoes to wade the cool waters.

Dixon and Noel at the Headwaters.
 Having camped and kayaked at Itasca State Park with my family many times, I usually picked a spot near the lake so I could enjoy early morning and sunset paddles across the water.
Before the sun touches the water, I would carry my kayak from my campsite to the lake. The sound of loons echoing over the lake, a glowing mist hanging like a ghost over the lake, greeted me as I paddled through the reeds to open water.  Lost in the fog, I slid along the lake shore enjoying the solitude.
 Sunsets are just as tranquil on the lake. The water glistens. The sun burns orange and red before falling into the darkness over the forest. Before returning to my campfire for night, I have often enjoyed a sunset paddle on the lake with the company of only a few fisherman.
A quiet morning along the East Arm of the lake.

Trumpeter swans of the lake.
 One of the highlights of paddling the lake is seeing various wildlife. The trumpeter swans seem always aware and just out of distance, while the loons pop up from under the water looking surprised that someone is there. It's welcoming to see many bald eagles, ducks and geese around the lake, as well as deer, beaver, otters and turtles. The long and narrow eastern arm of the lake provides great opportunities for wildlife viewing.

Last day of summer, first day of fall.
  Itasca Lake was my source for serenity.  I have great memories of both kayaking and camping along it's shore.  In 2012, it was the place I went for my 100th paddling day of the season. Such an accomplishment needed a special place to share that milestone. Now living in California, I think of those days fondly hoping someday to journey back to the beginning.