Minnesota Memories, Part 4

A Pilgrimage To Cass Lake, Bemidji & Lake Itasca

June 27 – 30, 2000


By Lewis Nolan


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Speedy Links to Trip Segments:

Part 1: Memphis to Minneapolis

Part 2: Minneapolis to Cass Lake

Part 3: Cass Lake

Part 4: Bemidji and Lake Itasca

            Part 5: Cass Lake to Memphis

            Photo Index


Thursday, June 29, 2000 – To Bemidji and Lake Itasca

After breakfast at the Comfort Inn, we hooked up with Jim and Carol and drove to downtown Bemidji
Lewis & Betty in Bemidji
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
(pop. 11,245). The first stop was at statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox that I remembered so well from childhood. Paul towers 18 feet over the tens of thousands of visitors to the lakeshore city park and welcome center. The folk hero characters were made of concrete in 1937 and have become the symbol of the North Woods logging era and the signature of Bemidji.

The folk hero has a state forest named after him and also lives on in advertisements by area businesses. A country music radio station broadcasts its "Fishing Paul Bunyan Country" show twice a day. The Paul Bunyan Playhouse offers professional summer theater. The Paul Bunyan Mall has 30 specialty shops and a Kmart. There is a Paul Bunyan Realty, a Paul Bunyan Motel (located on Paul Bunyan Drive, of course) and a shopper tabloid newspaper entitled "Paul Sez." The Paul Bunyan Trail is a state bikeway stretching 120 miles from Bemidji to Brainerd along an abandoned railroad route.

Sadly, the famous figures at Bemidji are diminished by the immediate proximity of a cheap carnival that has marred the town's front porch for decades. Nonetheless, we took lots of pictures.

An Indian Trading Post across the street attracted our attention and our dollars and we bought some postcards and souvenirs. Many more of our dollars were spent a few blocks away at Bemidji Woolen Goods, an outlet store that features well-known brands plus a little of its own piecework. I bought a cotton sweater for Betty and for myself a red plaid, Pendleton shirt reminiscent of the "uniform" of my teen years in California. The four of us had some laughs modeling coonskin caps and Jim bought a heavy, wool jacket that my father would have loved.

Following a good lunch at one of the Perkins Restaurant chain locations, we drove around the town and Bemidji State University campus. Both were clean and neat and showed very well alongside the blue water of Bemidji Lake, one of many clear lakes carved out by glaciers eons ago. Jim and Carol liked the college and environs well enough to add the town to their list of possible retirement locations for a future date.

We drove 35 miles to Lake Itasca and its Headwaters Park. The Mississippi River starts as a small
Lewis, Betty at headwaters
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
stream one can almost jump across at Lake Itasca. It flows South to Bemidji Lake, then to Cass Lake and Leech Lake and then southward, where it eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico. The total length, including the countless bends and turns from ongoing meanders, is 2,552 miles. Below Cass Lake, the Mississippi River is marked at bridge crossings. It is only 15-to-20 feet wide and runs clear and fast. It bears no resemblance to the broad-shouldered “Big Muddy” at Memphis.

Headwaters Park was established by state government in 1891. It now encompasses 32,000 acres. More than 500,000 people visit the Park annually, with a great many of those walking and wading across the stepping stones at the exact place where the Father of Waters departs Lake Itasca. Cabins and other accommodations are available and the park seems to be a popular destination for cyclists. The leader of one group told us the biting deerflies were not a problem unless you stop pedaling.

The Mississippi's headwaters had long eluded the white explorers. Zebulon Pike mapped the river as far north as Cass Lake in 1806. Later, Lewis Cass, then the governor of the Michigan Territory, reached the same lake and conclusion 12 years later. It was not until 1832 that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was led by a Chippewa guide to the small stream flowing from Lake Itasca that was the beginning of the Mississippi.

The guide was Ozawindjib, who lived on Star Island, a geographic anomaly that is in the middle of Cass Lake and has its own lake. Star Island has 1,163 acres and a 195-acre lake, Lake Windigo, giving Cass Lake a lake within a lake. Star Island is the site of a few isolated cabins and three campgrounds and serves as a "summer community" for families who have been coming there for generations. Jim recalled that his mother once swam from mainland to island, a distance of perhaps a mile from Norway Beach.

Schoolcraft named the spot where the beginning of the Mississippi flows from the lake "Itasca," a contraction from the Latin words "Caput" and "Veritas," meaning "true head." The site is 1,475 feet above sea level.

A narrow bridge made from a cut log allows visitors to walk back and forth over the headwaters without getting their feet wet. The more adventurous - like the hordes of young Scouts there when we visited - wade across or jump from slippery stone to slippery stone.  Thankfully, there are no reeds – and presumably no hiding leeches – at the spot.

Following our drive back to Bemidji, we said goodbye to the Connors, had an early, light dinner and retired early in preparation for a pre-dawn departure the next morning.


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