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When most of us consider the Mississippi River, images of a vast, expanse of muddy river dumping into the Gulf of Mexico just south of New Orleans probably come to mind. Significantly, the Mississippi River forms the largest river basin system in the United States and North America as a whole. Its banks and waters define many state borders. While it is easy to imagine that the Mississippi River starts small and continues to get larger and larger as it progresses toward the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River's widest point actually occurs at Lake Winnibigoshish (aka Lake Winnie) near Grand Rapids, Minnesota when the lake stretches to over seven miles across. In total, the Mississippi River basin is responsible for the drainage of approximately two-thirds of the United States. Throughout the history of our great country, its waters have transported goods and people, allowing commerce to flourish.
Whether you are talking about New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis or Minneapolis, the mighty Mississippi is an integral part of the lore and legend of our country. The Mississippi River's existence has been essential to the development and success of the United States. While the Mississippi River is certainly vast and awe-inspiring in parts, every river needs to start somewhere and the Mississippi makes a surprisingly unassuming and charming start at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. Set amidst magnificent old world pine forests of northern Minnesota, that Mississippi River headwaters start an approximate 2,550 mile journey of North America's largest river system. A drop of rain falling into Lake Itasca, Minnesota will reach the Gulf of Mexico in about ninety (90) days. Like a snowball that starts the avalanche, thus the mighty Mississippi is born here at Lake Itasca.
Here at Lake Itasca, visitors can cross the headwaters of the Mississippi via stones that meander across what would appear to be a large stream. People of all ages will delight in being able to boast to their friends that they forged across the waters of the Mississippi without life jacket, boat or fear. The Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center provides hands-on exhibits for adult and children alike. In the early 1900's, a young woman by the name of Mary Gibbs assumed the duties of park manager at Itasca following the death of her father, the previous manager. While she only served as the manager for several months, Mary Gibbs gained much fame when the logging industry sought to construct a dam in the Lake Itasca area. Such a construction would likely have flooded and killed much of the gorgeous pine forest of the region. Fortunately, Mary Gibbs stood firm in her opposition to the logging industry's plan and legend claims that she even stared down the barrel of a gun held by one of the logging foremen. A folksinger by the name of Charlie Maguire gave Mary's story new life when he wrote a song in her honor in 1991.
To gain great appreciation and understanding of the significance of the Mississippi River basin and its sources, a visit to the Mississippi River Museum in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota should definitely be added to the itinerary. While the historical, cultural and economic significance of the mighty Mississippi River are paramount here, the beauty of Lake Itasca itself is nothing short of spectacular. Visitors flock to this region throughout all four seasons of the year to experience the peace and serenity of the Minnesotan North Woods. Fishing, relaxing on one of the beaches, exploring the wilderness, or just simply chilling with a good book out on a dock are but a few of the great ways to spend an afternoon at Lake Itasca. Many who visit fall in love with the region, opting to return year after year for their family getaways. Cabins, vacation homes and Mississippi River lots line the shores of Lake Itasca and the Upper Mississippi River basin, providing four season access to this extraordinary region and land once called home by the likes of Mary Gibbs. Many cabins may even be available for shorter rental for those who are interesting in visiting, but have not yet committed to purchasing real estate in this area.
Wildlife in the Lake Itasca region is amazing. Bird watchers will be delighted by the numerous species including loons, grebes, cormorants, herons, ducks, owls, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, vireos, tanagers, hummingbirds, warblers and finches. Keep a look out for the deer, squirrels, black bears, porcupines, wolves, chipmunks and beaver on the trails and waterways here along the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River.
Whether winter, spring, summer or fall, come and experience the wild beauty of the Mississippi River. While you're here, take some time to gain greater understanding and appreciation for the origin of the mighty Mississippi River; a river that has defined and influenced our nation in countless ways. It is sure to be a vacation that will create memories to last a lifetime.
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