Banjo Fords the Mississippi Headwaters

You guys know that Tracy used to take September off work to kayak a different section of the Mississippi each year. He moved on to major lakes only after he’d reached his goal of kayaking 1,000 miles of the river. Seriously. One-thousand miles.

He paddled a large part of the upper Mississippi, but he never launched from the headwaters. He’d heard that it’s shallow and narrow and rocky, and that some folks put in there just for a couple of paddle strokes, then get out and truck their kayak farther to where they can put in for real; that way they can say they started at the headwaters.

But he had only heard about this; he’d never seen the headwaters himself. So … we were driving on Highway 2 west through Minnesota, me with my iPad in my lap looking for possible places we could stay the night, and Tracy remembered that the headwaters could be nearby.

Voila, we’re at Itasca State Park, created around the Mary Gibbs MIssissippi Headwaters Center.

Minnesota Friendliness

If you’ve been reading this at all you know I’m not keen on providing you with facts about where we’re staying. I’d like to say it’s because you could look that stuff up yourself, but closer to the truth is that I read this stuff on signs while I’m hiking and then I promptly forget a lot of it.

I will tell you a bit about the headwaters though because it’s interesting enough even for me to remember, but first let me give you a taste of what I’m fascinated about while traveling, which is the social aspects.

When we pulled up to the state park entrance, I did my usual masking up and getting out of the truck and walking over to the park entrance station to check us in. You never know if you’ll find a knowledgeable park ranger or a kid hired for the summer or no one at all, just a folder with your name on it. I rely on this moment of interchange though because I need to know where our camping spot is, where the dump station is, if the person I’m speaking with thinks our site is a good one (or if a better one might be available), and any other info I can glean.

So I walk up to the ranger station here in Minnesota, and two ladies are working there, dressed really well, like for church, and smiling. The first one says,

Oh, I see you’ve got the Cadillac of trailers! I’ve always wanted one of those.

I give her a look (for one thing, who drives a Cadillac anymore?) but smile, and she goes on. And on, and on.

You know they refurbish the old ones now. I was in one from the 1960s once that had yellow and green curtains, and it was just like the 1960s. What year is yours? Oh my goodness that’s the newest one I’ve ever seen. I bet it’s gorgeous inside. No yellow and green curtains for that one.

And she and her friend crack up.

Meanwhile, the Eastcoaster in me is thinking that I just want to register for my campsite here, lady. So I laugh with them and change the subject to the campground. I say something like, “I just made this reservation an hour ago from the road, but it looks like such a nice place. I bet I’m gonna wish we were staying longer.”

My funny lady responded, “Oh, check-out isn’t until 4:00 pm so you can stay all day!”

Okay, for one thing that is an unprecedented late check-out time. They do really want us to stay all day here! How do they turn over the campers like that? Also, though, I had booked two nights, not one, so I tell her that. She responds,

After two nights you’ll be ready to leave, for sure. You’ll have seen everything!

And then she and her friend crack up, like dying laughing, with tears. They are having a blast back there in the ranger station with their skirts and jewelry on. I loved them.

That was a really long story probably not worth all this space. I’ll be shorter with Tracy’s typical Minnesotan story.

He had to go out of the park to get the tire patched (done!) and while out he bought some wild rice; this area is famous for it.


They guy who sold it to him talked his ear off about the rice (Tracy didn’t care to repeat the conversation to me, sadly), but he did bring home the guy’s mother’s recipe for rice, which the guy insisted on giving Tracy. Pure Midwestern, right there.

And the group of campers across the way from me right now are playing cornhole, but extremely quietly, subdued you could say, polite. Instead of trash-talking, they’re giving each other tips. Behind them are like 30 casseroles on the picnic table that ladies are lifting foil from and testing for warmth. From my extensive experience of Minnesota (aka listening to A Prairie Home Companion), this too is typical.

The Headwaters

You guys know that the Mississippi is the fourth-longest river in the word, plus is notable for the size of its watershed and the amount of water that flows down it each year. We walked among a kazillion well-designed park signs about the related topography and ecosystems, but this park is all about the headwaters, so most signs were about the historic struggle to locate them: the controversies over where they are and who found them.

This is Lake Itasca, which is a Latin combo of “true source,” I believe. The white guy—the one who actually listened to the native guys during his search for the headwaters and decided that this lake is it—changed the native name to this Latin name, and then a state park was formed to cement the deal. Before him, a bunch of other white guys searched and argued and for some reason made a really big deal over where exactly the headwaters are, which is all documented at length.

This is the spot according to the park, and Banjo is walking across the official beginning of the Mississippi in the header image.

Tracy has read that this is what the originally claimed headwaters look like, though. Marshy and unpicturesque. So the park built it into a defined stream so you can take a picture of your dog walking across it, and then walk along beside it on a lovely boardwalk. (Then follow the suggestions to take home a souvenir from one of several park gift shops.)

The white guys ignoring the natives in their search for the headwaters and stealing maps from each other and claiming different areas and arguing over it is all yadda yadda yadda to me. What I did find interesting is the namesake of the headwaters as the park calls it, Mary Gibbs.

She was the first female park superintendent, although serving for only four months and only because her father died while holding the position. But while she was in charge, she had a stand off with lumberman over opening a dam at the lake to let lumber come through and flood the forest (which, as a conservationist, she didn’t want).

Apparently, she had her hand on the lever that would open the dam, and she would not budge. The lumbermen were armed, and so was she. She said,

I will put a hand on there and you will not shoot it off, either.

Thus began the first stand-off between conservationists and industry in the area. Mary Gibbs didn’t get her hand shot off, but she also didn’t get elected to her post after her temporary position ended, and the timber industry did end up logging the hell out of the area.

Still, the headwaters are named after her (and not after the native men who thought it weird that the white men were so wild about locating and claiming it).

Minnesota is kind of a weird place. I wish we were staying longer, but we need to get west and to higher elevations before this heatwave strikes again. Tomorrow: North Dakota.

Uke Segment

I can’t stop playing this song. Here’s a quieter version.