Great Journeys: The Mississippi

Part 2: The Upper Mississippi

It is the third largest river system in the world by area; it is the fourth longest. It drains all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces and is one of the busiest commercial waterways on the planet.

It is Ol’ Man River and it is the Father of Waters, and its central branch, running from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana, is named the Mississippi. The muddy river is the “strong, brown god” of T.S. Eliot and for Mark Twain, it was “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”

Huckleberry Finn floated down it on a raft; I drove its length. Huck had the  advantage: Floating on it, he could always see it but driving along it, its waters were a rare sight. The road darts in and along the riverbank only intermittently, giving the traveler the same sense of the river’s power that one gets from the sun breaking through a sky of clouds.

Not counting its larger tributaries — the Ohio and Missouri rivers — the winding Mississippi is 2,350 miles long, although it covers only a little more than half that distance as the crow flies. “If you will throw a long, pliant apple-paring over your shoulder, it will pretty fairly shape itself into an average section of the Mississippi River,” Twain wrote.

Most writers divide its length into three characteristic sections, and so will we, as we follow its course for the next several entries.

The first section is commercially unnavigable and runs from its source to Minneapolis; the second runs through 29 locks and dams from Minneapolis to St. Louis; and finally, the river reaches its full maturity from there to New Orleans and on to the sea.

Above Minneapolis, the river describes a question mark, curving from Lake Itasca north to Bemidji, thence eastward through a series of lakes to Grand Rapids, recurving to the southwest through Brainerd and St. Cloud and finally straight to the Twin Cities, which function as the point below the question mark.

But it is also a question mark because it is not widely known. Unlike its southern reaches, the upper river is quick and clear, flowing like a mountain stream swelled with snowmelt.

At its source, it is less than a dozen feet wide and only calf-deep; by the time it reaches Bemidji, 25 miles away, it has grown to be as wide as a football field.

By Brainerd, it is a full-fledged river and as it crosses St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis — or what used to be a waterfall before it was dammed to make power — the river has earned its reputation as a great watercourse.

The numbers are clear: Before it reaches Bemidji, the river flows at the rate of 100 cubic feet per second; at Grand Rapids, 1,000 cubic feet per second; and at St. Paul, below the confluence of the Minnesota River, 10,000 cubic feet — still only one-half of one percent of the Mississippi’s volume at its mouth.

It is this North Woods river, with lakes along its length like pearls on a string, that runs past dark forests of tamarack and spruce, through Indian lands and the beds of wild rice — “a clean, free little flowage with the innocence and freshness of youth, mostly unblemished by the corruptions of maturity,” as John Madson writes in his book, Up On the River.

The sources of the river’s name are as confusing as the sources of its water.

It is an Indian name, no question, and it most likely is a French corruption of an Ojibway word, “Mis-sipi,” meaning either “large waters,” or “great river,” or “place where water is everywhere.” This last fits the headwaters best, for the forest is filled with boggy lakes and you can’t drive a hundred yards without crossing some sort of stream or passing a lake.

An alternate etymology holds the Indian name for the stream was “Mee-zee-see-bee” or “the father of waters.”

Other Indians had their own names for the river. It might instead have been named Sassagoula, Culata, Nomosi-sipu or Pekitanoui.

And if the river system were named in accordance with our habits of naming others, the smaller Mississippi would enter the greater Missouri north of St. Louis and end there. At Cairo, the Missouri would end as it enters the greater Ohio and it would be the Ohio that passes through the levees as it loops past New Orleans and drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

But the river on which New Orleans was founded was named the Mississippi before anyone had traveled its length. The river that forms at Pittsburgh was named the Ohio and the one that floats past Kansas City and off into the wilderness was named Missouri. It is a fluke of history and nomenclature.

The water’s source is just as foggy. Although Lake Itasca is chosen as the officially recognized headwaters, it is really more true, as T.S. Eliot — who grew up on its banks — has written, “The River itself has no beginning or end. In its beginning, it is not yet the River. What we call the headwaters is only a selection from among the innumerable sources which flow together to compose it.”

Or, as Walt Whitman wrote, “time beginningless and endless.”


To be continued

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