‘The Wild Mississippi’ starts close to home

The Mississippi River at Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 2019. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

“But I never saw the good side of a city, ‘til I hitched a ride on a river boat queen.”

“Proud Mary,” by John Fogerty

John Fogerty wrote “Proud Mary,” arguably the definitive song about the Mississippi River, for Creedence Clearwater Revival. But Fogerty isn’t from anywhere near the river. Rather, he was born and raised in northern California. He attributes his affinity for the bayou to a leaky basement in his mom’s house. 

This just shows that the Mississippi River reaches farther culturally than it does geographically. Its iconic bends, bluffs and banks shape the story of America— from Fogerty’s California to Henry David Thoreau’s Massachusetts.

This brings me to a recent new book, “The Wild Mississippi: A State-By-State Guide to The River’s Natural Wonders” by Dean Klinkenberg (2024, Timber Press). This guidebook features beautiful color photos and detailed itinerary information for anyone planning to journey along the Great River. From a day trip to an extended vacation, “The Wild Mississippi” is a helpful tool for the backpack or glovebox.

Klinkenberg starts with a history lesson. As a fan of backstory, I love any book that starts on the ancient continent of Pangea. In just a few pages, he takes us all the way to the present. Then we learn about natural life along the river and what we might find in the ten states that touch the Mississippi River.

I see the Mississippi River at Grand Rapids a few times each week. Comparing the river there to St. Louis or Memphis is like wondering how Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing became Bob Dylan from America. Not sure. But it happened.

In northern Minnesota, the Mississippi flows with cool, clear water along a subtle riverbed carved when the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago. You can hop over the river on the rocks at Itasca State Park, or heave a rock across near Bemidji or Aitkin.

Klinkenberg identifies overlooked public parks and wildlife reserves, reminding of hidden gems like Schoolcraft or Crow Wing state parks. These are both located an easy drive from the Iron Range. 

By the time the Mississippi reaches Minneapolis and St. Paul, however, it’s a force of nature. You see how it shaped several millennia of life on this continent. Here’s where Klikenberg’s experience shines. As you go state by state, you learn of parks and trails that could fill the days of hardcore hikers and bikers or those who prefer to stick to the visitor centers. The book gives just enough information to prepare a trip, sharing beautiful pictures to inspire your own experiences.

I have friends who piloted a pontoon boat through the locks and dams all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi. It’s not unusual to meet canoeists, kayakers and boaters in northern Minnesota on their way to Louisiana. They seek adventure or to bring attention to some cause.

But you don’t have to make a trip of a lifetime to enjoy the Mississippi River. I’ve spent time along the river bluffs of southeastern Minnesota and in the riverboat city of Dubuque, Iowa. I learned there that the best way to enjoy the river is to find a good place to sit and just watch it go by.

Klinkenberg’s “The Wild Mississippi” provides a practical resource for touring any part of the river, but also strong encouragement to try. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, June 1, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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