(C) Geoff Brookes
One of the most beautiful places in the world is an easy day’s drive from Winnipeg (4 1/2 hours of driving time). But in my conversations with fellow ‘Peggers, very few people know it exists.
Most Manitobans have heard of Bemidji, Minnesota. But not many have the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River on their map – just a stone’s throw southwest of Bemidji.
Lake Itasca is not large, in terms of square miles of water. Instead, this glacial lake is really two long, narrow fingers that join near the headwaters of the Mississippi. You’d think that it would flow from north to south, based on the fact that the water system ultimately flows south to the Gulf of Mexico. But it actually flows north, almost reaching Bemidji, until it circles around to the east, finally heading south through Minneapolis, on its way to the southern states. The two fingers of the lake are easily navigated – my daughter and I canoed the entire course of the western arm of the lake in two hoursof leisurely boating.
Depending on whether you measure it by length, volume, or drainage area, the Mississippi River is either the third or fourth largest river in the world. It gets its start by draining most of the water systems in Minnesota, beginning with Lake Itasca.
(A quick pronunciation note – the “i” is pronounced like “eye” by Americans. I incorrectly fall into the more Canadian-styled short “i”, but I guess it’s their lake, so “eye – taska” has got to be the right way!)
The headwaters is the focal point for visits to the park. The lake water flows like a slow river through the reeds as it nears the northwestern tip of the lake, then trickles over small rocks and stones between the near shoreline and a small outcropping of trees and rocks on the other side of the shore. It resembles a creek at this point, but quickly grows as it flows out of the park.
If you want to get a quick orientation to this Minnesota park, the main visitor centre is near the east entrance. There are some video presentations there, maps, and knowledgeable staff. Very near to that Visitor Centre is Douglas Lodge, and yet another visitor centre (“the Forest Inn”), with some good books for sale. Finally, there is an excellent visitor centre at the headwaters, near the north park entrance, which has a diorama of the entire Mississippi River, from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. There is a casual restaurant at the headwaters visitor centre.
A word about driving in the park – it’s slow, and you must watch carefully for bike paths crossing the road (with many cyclists). Watch out for wildlife and fallen branches or trees (after a strong windstorm).
There are many rooms of various types at the Douglas Lodge (with many separate buildings and cabins). There is also a youth hostel, and two campgrounds (all inside the park and near bike paths). There are many private campgrounds within half and hour of the park. Weekend dates will fill up quickly, and must be booked months in advance, but weekdays can be booked a month in advance, for the park campgrounds. You might find space in the private campgrounds in the surrounding areas, if you’re booking late.
The trees are spectacular. The best way to enjoy them is on the bike trails. The main bike trail goes about 7 or 8 miles from Douglas Lodge to the headwaters, with links to the campgrounds. Adventurous cyclists can also experience the 13 mile wilderness trail, which completes a circle around Lake Itasca, ending at the lodge. There are many smaller hikes off of these larger trails.
The cycling is challenging at times with the hills, but a weekend putz like me is able to make the 7 mile journey with my daughter, on my tandem bike. Neither my daughter or I are great cyclists, so it’s possible for the average biker to do it. Use your gears. If you’re not a great biker, and if you can get someone to pick you up at the headwaters, go south to north, starting at the main visitor centre near the east gate. Going this way, you can take advantage of the slight overall drop in elevation. It’s mostly uphill to the Pine Ridge Campground, but then mostly downhill from there to the headwaters. The easiest route is from Pine Ridge Campground (or the nearby University of Minnesota station) to the headwaters. If you plan to ride back and forth, take a break at either of the visitor centres before heading back the other way.
There is a beach, not far from the headwaters. It’s a nice way to cool off on a hot day. The beach is also on the northern stretch of the bike path. People also swim in the lake at the headwaters.
Also at the north side of the lake, there is a bike/canoe/kayak/boat rental operation. The people there are very friendly and helpful. You can also buy fishing supplies there. Check the map, and take one with you. The lake navigation is simple, but a map always helps to get the big picture. As with any navigation, make mental notes of the landmarks, as you go.
Supplies – bring them with you. The nearest towns are fun places, but Park Rapids is half an hour away – actually more than that, if you include the time driving through the park. You can get ice and firewood at the campground office. Get gasoline at the nearby towns – or at the gas station just north of the intersection of highways 200 and 71, near the east entrance.
The towns are a fun diversion from the nature experience. Park Rapids’ Main Street has old-fashioned parking – parallel parking in the middle of the street, and angled parking at the curb. It has a 60’s styled diner and soda shop, called “Minne-sodah “, complete with many antique period pieces, coke coolers etc, with ice cream, floats and milkshakes. There is also a nice Italian restaurant, “Necce”.
You can travel to the town of Walker directly from Itasca on highway 200, or indirectly from Park Rapids on highway 34, via Akely. In Akely there is a statue of Paul Bunyan. Walker is a quaint town on Leech Lake. At “Reeds” you can buy camping and boating supplies, and related fun things. Our favourite store is “Christmas Point”, which is not a Christmas store, but is named after a local place. In both stores you can buy excellent, Minnesota-grown wild rice.
But the towns are a side story. You can easily spend a week enjoying all of the scenery and recreational opportunities at Lake Itasca. Like my family, you might find that it becomes an annual pilgrimage!