Every time I cross the river, I take a quick glance upstream and down through the blue bridge girders. With the season for barge traffic and pleasure cruising long since complete, I check ice buildup along the shoreline. Knowing only later, after deep-freeze temperatures, will the ice floats appear in the main channel.
When you go “over the river and through the woods” as often as I do at Wabasha it is easy to see this small segment of a massive watershed as simply another sight along the trip. But the Mississippi is anything but commonplace. It is a river that people from around the country, from around the world, wish to visit; simply to claim they have seen, or crossed, or boated on the Mississippi. And while the scenery may not be as dramatic as the Matterhorn, numerous Swiss cousins (once – fünf Frauen am Fluss) have enjoyed a day spent along the river, watching barges work their way through Lock 4 at Alma.
Starting at the confluence of the Mississippi and the St. Croix Rivers (Hastings, MN and Prescott, WI) the Mississippi becomes more than just a navigable waterway, it takes on the monumental task of separating governmental units, state-by-state, as it flows south to the Gulf. But, before Hastings, west and north, the Mississippi wends its way through fields, prairie, and forests to humble beginnings at Lake Itasca.
While history books, written from the perspective of the white immigrant, attribute the discovery of the headwaters to the Henry Rowe Schoolcraft expedition in 1832, this small beginning of a massive waterway was known and sacred to Indigenous People for millennia. And, it must be noted, Schoolcraft reached his destination only with the aid of an Anishinabe guide.
Poet Mary Oliver, whose poems always present the perfect blend of words to describe our world, offers us this observation: “It is the nature of stone to be satisfied. It is the nature of water to want to be somewhere else.” Each time I stand on the sandy shore where a small stream flows into Lake Itasca there is a sense of awe. Regardless of the number of people laughing and splashing from one side to the other, I recognize I am in a holy place. My 21st century, rational mind knows that the droplets sprinkling in the sunlight may cease to exist as flowing water; diverted to human consumption, agricultural irrigation or simply becoming part of a natural evaporation – precipitation cycle. But there is also the real possibility that the very water that I see flowing over the CCC-placed stepping stones, water that will touch millions of lives before a wide river slides muddily past New Orleans, will finally blend with the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That connection with an entire continent transforms each visit to Lake Itasca into a spiritual experience.