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Mississippi Headwaters/Following the infant river through peaceful Minnesota Two months ago the Monitor began a five-part monthly series of articles about places in the Midwest that offer a special feeling of wildness, solitude, and forested silence. Such spots pepper the United States, lying within a day's drive of major cities and beckoning those who want their ``wilderness'' without an arduous week-long journey. Here is another such ``wilderness next door.''

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1985



Lake Itasca, Minn.

It's an unprepossessing start. Not much more than a puddle abutting a spreading lake, really. But over the assembled walking stones, a stream about the width of a sidewalk trickles off into the underbrush past a homely sign telling you that you are right smack at the point, well into the midsummer forests of northwestern Minnesota, toward which numerous exploring parties drove in futile quests to find the source of the country's greatest river -- the headwaters of the Mississippi.

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The Ojibwa myth has it that the puddle and stream come from a crying maid. Or, as the discoverer of this place, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (whose writings inspired Longfellow to write ``Hiawatha''), put it, ``these were tears, indeed, by fair Itasca shed.'' In fact, they are the runoff of a lake left by retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.

You can walk ankle-deep in the stream. The river itself, stretching down half a continent to the sea, lies beyond your sight, beckoning. And the beauty of it is that you have also landed in a perfect spot to sample the heart of Minnesota country.

From this place in Itasca State Park to Bemidji, 40 miles away, the infant river cuts through a region of backwaters and forests and isolated communities. You can follow it on unmarked back roads, as my family did last summer, along much the same course that explorer Henry Schoolcraft and an Ojibwa party took when they discovered the headwaters in 1832.

In the process, you can find a bit of wildness to lose yourself in. There are also reminders of the warlike but sedentary Ojibwa people, whose character, in romanticized form, has been impressed on the world by Longfellow's legendary poem.

Established in 1891 to preserve what was left of the virgin pine stands and to protect the basin source of the river, 32,000-acre Itasca Park is habitat for more than 60 kinds of mammals -- from coyotes to black bear to chipmunks -- and over 100 species of birds such as the osprey, bald eagle, and great blue herons.

Wilderness Drive takes you to the Wilderness Sanctuary on the edge of a 2,000-acre virgin forest. Elsewhere around the park, Peace Pipe Vista gives you a splendid view of the lake; and Big Pine Trail takes you to Minnesota's largest red pine tree, 300 years old and 120 feet high, the second tallest living Norway pine on record.

The Mississippi headwaters draw half a million tourists a year to this place. That means you have to reserve a spot in advance in the Douglas Lodge, which offers rooms, cabins, and meals right at the southernmost end of the lake. Camping facilities are more readily available, as are motor home sites.

We came to Itasca State Park from the southwest on a hot August afternoon. Our route was along the flat country roads through Detroit Lakes on Minnesota highway 34 -- where you can rent an inner tube for $2 and be towed four miles up a small river to float gently downstream -- and then up US 71, watching the land shed its human comforts and become more and more itself.

There was no reason to stop until Preacher's Grove, a one-time open-air prayer meeting site halfway from the south entrance of the park to the headwaters. Here a group of 250-year-old pine trees stands in open invitation to the scant passing traffic. If you get out, you find yourself looking up at trees reaching, slender and distinguished. All the rest is forest and silence, except for the singing of birds and the occasional sound of a passing car.