Hmm. The water level guage, mounted next to a bridge along the Mississippi River, is conspicuously not even in the water. It stands up on a dried bank, surrounded by crisp, browned cattails, the 1 foot mark at the bottom of the scale clearly visible, and the metal post it’s mounted on visible below that. The water level is maybe another foot below the base of the guage. The water level is most definitely low.
Standing in the official headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River, the fourth longest and tenth largest river in the world, it’s hard not to laugh (or cry?) when the water laps at our feet, barely covering our ankles. The headwaters themselves are a tourist attraction, the small puddle in Lake Itasca State Park that begins to trickle northward towards Bemidji is the end of a short walking trail, popular with visitors, strolling retirees, and families. They all stare at us as we load our canoe with many months worth of supplies and begin to shove it down the trickle. “123 – HEAVE” and we move an inch or two. At the beginning, the river is a mere few feet wide and few inches deep, at best.
By the time we reach the water level guage, we’ve “paddled” for four days and seen only one other human – we’ve been pushing through nearly dry creek beds, wading in thigh-high quicksand (deeper if we didn’t have the canoe to cling to), pulling over rocky sections that would have constituted rapids had there been water to run over them, and paddled through many, many miles of swamp, navigating mearndering miles by following the current (and a few lucky guesses).
There have been perks to the low water for us – the swamps are so dry that we were able to spend two nights camped in the middle of them on dry reeds and cattails, with out own private little beach on the meandering little river. Our first night in the swamp, we tuned in to the local public radio station, listened the ‘back porch music” program (mostly bluegrass), jumped in the river, basked in the sun, and enjoyed two beers (chilled in the river) that we had carted along. Thai peanut vermicelli for dinner, and relaxing looking over the miles and miles of swamp – feeling alone and content in the northern Minnesota wild. I awoke before dawn the next morning to the full moon and the sunrise to make breakfast. Life is good!
As the river gains miles, it gains water. Two thirds of its water comes from groundwater in this early section, though with each small trickling tributary, the river does get bigger. We are now in the “first city on the Mississippi River” – Bemidji – and spent last night camped (trespassing?) in the Paul Bunyan city park, next to our canoe (locked up the first time).
We’ve left the section the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources describes as ‘wild’ and entered the ‘scenic’ portion, which essentially means we will see humans now – and houses. The river is wider, more paddleable, and our arm muscles are (begrudgingly) getting used to the idea.
As we continue on, low water won’t necessarily mean pushing for us, but it will mean trouble for the barges and ships we’re sure to encounter. So far, it seems like a foreign idea to share our river with anyone. Will we really be paddling behind ocean liners eventually??
And is there really snow forecast for tonight? Our next challenge – freezing temperatures! We had frost on the tent yesterday morning, but tomorrow calls for a 30 degree drop in temperature. (that’s fahrenheit, mind you) We’re heading indoors for the night – I’ve called on my bike touring roots and found a warmshowers host – Gerald who lives on the lake.