Only time knows ‘truth’ of Great River

The Mississippi River, photographed from the Minnesota side aboard the Empire Builder. (PHOTO: Charles Fulton, Flickr CC)

The Mississippi River, photographed from the Minnesota side aboard the Empire Builder. (PHOTO: Charles Fulton, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

With more than 1,000 lakes and many rivers, Itasca remains one of Minnesota’s most watery counties. And like the old adage goes, “whiskey is for drinking, but water is for starting wars.”

The word “Itasca” comes from the inner syllables of the Latin words “Veritas” and “Caput,” meaning “Truth” and “Head” of the Mississippi River. Of course, this really refers to Lake Itasca, in Clearwater County, though the whole region was once part of a much larger Itasca County earlier in Minnesota history.

All of this Cliff Clavin trivia might be rendered moot, however. According to a July 23 Star Tribune story by Kim Ode, one geologist says the *actual* headwaters of the Mississippi River may be found in South Dakota.

The logic follows that, from a geological standpoint, the Minnesota River is the true pathway of the river that drained glacial Lake Agassiz down into the heart of North America. In Ode’s story, geologist Wendell Duffield explains the Minnesota River shrank after the glacial runoff stopped.

Thus, people thought the Mississippi River continued up toward St. Cloud, Brainerd, Grand Rapids and Bemidji. Native people held the falls at St. Anthony to be sacred for millennia, so of course the river above those falls would be the one people followed. In truth, Duffield says, that was just a former tributary that now appeared larger. If you look at the river beds instead of the rivers, it’s clear that the wider of the two was the Minnesota.

The Minnesota River may be named for our state but, like the Mississippi, doesn’t start in its namesake. Instead, the Minnesota forms in tiny Veblen, South Dakota. There residents happily exist in the general belief that they’re the headwaters of jack squat.

Perhaps geology fails to measure a river’s true story.

This year I spoke with Dean Klinkenberg, who just released a new book “Headwaters Region Guide” through his website Mississippi Valley Traveler. He was kind enough to include an interview we did about the Iron Range in the book.

Klinkenberg’s “Headwater Region Guide” shares tips, tricks and recommendations for traveling along the northern reaches of the Mississippi River. He pays special attention to ways to enjoy the outdoors along the river, and small “mom and pop” businesses along the way.

“Much of the joy in living and visiting the region comes from being outside,” writes Klinkenberg. “But when you go out, you may need to shield yourself from extreme cold or clouds of mosquitos and flies. But people do it, whether it’s out of toughness, stubbornness, or immense practicality. Maybe that’s why the region grows so many larger-than-life characters, like Bob Dylan and Paul Bunyan, or the guy sitting next to you at the bar who just left his backwoods cabin for the first time in four months.”

I don’t know what will be harder for me to tell Klinkenberg, that Paul Bunyan isn’t real or that Bob Dylan is.

Klinkenberg will speak at the Grand Rapids Area Library on Aug. 11, with a talk entitled “The River Ends Like it Begins.”

Something is evident in Klinkenberg’s detailed travel guide for the headwaters. The northern reaches of the Mississippi River mean more to our culture than they do to our understanding of geology.

I thought maybe Johnny Cash could settle this with his song “Big River,” but even Johnny won’t make any guesses north of St. Paul. He just teaches us that people have long been entranced by the seductive allure of the Mighty Mississippi.

“Go on, I’ve had enough, dump my blues down in the gulf,” sings Johnny. “And I followed you Big River, when you called.”

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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