Where the big river is born.

IMG_2570The headwaters of the Mississippi River are simply stunning. Here, the surface of the lake from which the river flows mirrors the sky so seamlessly that the pattern of clouds above appear to continue below, as in a canvas. The elements of water and air manifest to form a canvas to which nature adds a sweeping brush stroke of darkest green and feathers of lime yellow.

Here in the far northern reaches of Minnesota, only 100 miles from Canada, the waters of Lake Itasca constantly spill over offering up part of its resources to form what the resident Ojibwe named simply, “the big river”. Here at the source, the river wanders north and east for about 60 miles, as if gaining momentum for its long journey through the heartland before emptying some 2,300 miles downstream into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Since creating this marker, it’s been determined that the river winds a bit over 2,300 miles, not 2,552 miles.

In the early years of the 1800s, the source of the headwaters was hotly contested. The British gave up their claims to lands south of the Great Lakes, and west to the Mississippi River (known as the northwest territories) in 1783. The River, already a major highway for trade, settlement, and exploration, had been explored from the south but not fully mapped to its source.

It wasn’t until 1832 when Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, with the help of the Ojibwe leader, Ozawindib, discovered the true geographic source of the river. He made up a new American name for the lake from which it came – “Itasca”, using the last four letters from the Latin word for “truth” (VERITAS) and the first two letters from the Latin word for “head” (CAPUT) and thereby uttering the final word in the discussion about the river’s source. He found it. He named it.

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Sculpture at the Headwaters Visitor Center of water maiden releasing the turtles.

But, to paraphrase the wisdom of a well-known quotation, we don’t inherit the river from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. And I wonder, how are we caring for the precious resource that is this majestic river, beginning so modestly at this beautiful place?

In the Ojibwe creation myth, earth is saved by water creatures who carry pieces of it on the backs of turtles to a new place. In a sculpture near the headwaters, a water maiden releases the turtles back to the river, in harmony and respect for the natural rhythm of life.

Peace and all good things.

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