Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Biking to the Headwaters and Wild Rice Hotdish

Tuesday July 15, 2013
Bear Paw Campground
Itasca State Park, Minnesota



After yesterday’s drizzle and cold, today is a lovely and perfect for biking to the headwaters.



The park has just finished the bike trail from the campground to the headwaters and will finish the portion going the other way, from the campground to Douglas Lodge, sometime this summer I think.  So next year, you will be able to bike all the way which will be about 10 miles one way I think.  

Here’s where the trail starts in the campground going North.  It begins on a very nice boardwalk taking you over sensitive wetlands.  Then it becomes paved and even has a water fountain along the way.  It’s the little stone structure on the right in the lower picture.  Nice touch.







Of course we stop at every spot of interest along the way.



The trail runs along Lake Itasca and passes by the beach where kids are in swimming and clearly others have just been in.  Many people are relaxing with a good book so I sneak some pictures of the titles.  I’m always interested in what people are reading.

We try the water and it is actually warm enough for me to swim in although David says not for him.  But he’s not much of a water person so don’t take his requirement for bath tub temperatures too seriously.









Next stop is another CCC Building.



This one is called the museum and it is one of the older type information centers that I remember from a childhood trip to Mammoth Cave.  I love the entry door, the old screen door and the lovely rock chimney.  The boys did a very good job on this building.





It may be older but it has a lot of information in it about the geology of the park and some of its lesser seen residents like the weasel.  I had no idea they were so small. The short tailed weasel here is only a foot long.  Those ermine coats women used to wear are actually weasel fur.

But then I read, “Of all the small mammals in the park they are the most aggressive and blood thirsty.”  The information says “It is fortunate that these animals are no more common than they are, for their lust for blood never seems to be satisfied.  At times they apparently kill for the joy of killing and take the lives of far more victims than they can possibly use.”


Well Ok then, on to some geology.  Do you know what kettle lakes are?  Neither did I.   Mary Lake and Elk Lake are examples of kettle lakes.  Kettles are large depressions created by ice blocks breaking off of a glacier.  When the ice melts they become lakes.  It seems everything up here was carved by the glaciers.



The geology is so interesting.  This picture shows the “Itasca Moraine” which creates a divide.  This moraine is material carried by the glacier and then deposited.  Sometimes ridges of debris are deposited along the sides of the glacier.   The Itasca Moraine divides the park so that the waters on the west flow into Hudson Bay in Canada and the waters on the east flow into the Gulf of Mexico. 

You can also see that the Mississippi River actually flows North into Lake Bemidji before it turns south toward the gulf.



Our last stop before the Headwaters is at Wegmann’s.



Theodore and Johanna Wegmann built their pioneer home here in 1893.  I assume perhaps this was not part of the park which was created in 1891 or maybe you were allowed to build if, like the Wegmann’s you also built another building to be used as a store and post office.  

Wonder if they are related to Wegman’s Grocery chain and some ancestor just dropped the additional M.

The buildings have been allowed to deteriorate but in the 70’s, before the cabin was totally gone, a master log builder came, took measurements and built an exact replica which you see above.   Not sure why they wouldn’t want to keep the original restored but both of these are questions I’ll have to find someone to ask. 




Here is what is left of the original two buildings.


Finding someone to ask is not easy.  We have been surprised to find very few rangers here, even in the visitors center.  All the “brown shirts” are  mostly volunteers and interns.   Like all states, the general fund of Minnesota is providing less and less support for the parks despite the increased public use and tourist income to the local community.  

In 2013, a committee was formed to study the problem.  I read their report.  It is very thoughtful, realistic  and has many good recommendations including increased appropriations from the general fund and a recreation access fee on license plate renewals  .  I hope the people of Minnesota will demand that the portion of their state taxes going to support their parks be increased. 





My odometer says 2.7 miles as we arrive at the headwaters.


We reach the headwaters just after crossing this darling bridge over the baby Mississippi where we find a mother mallard and her brood busily finding something delectable in the grasses growing in the water’s edge.





Here is the mighty Mississippi near its proclaimed headwaters.  Remember the question from yesterday about where does a river begin?  The decision was made in the early 20th century that it begins at the point it becomes a “true river”.  This sure looks like a stream to me.





Not very far upstream from the previous group of mallards was another mother.  After gathering in the grasses for a while she took her tribe and swam over to a sandy bank on the other side.  We stayed quite a while at this lovely site watching the ducks and had the spot all to ourselves.









The headwaters building is new and its set up is very interesting to me.  The information part is all outside while the building contains the gift shop and a café serving pizza, subs, ice cream and other lunch type foods. 

I love the large globe at the entrance showing the 6 or 7 longest rivers in the world of which the Mississippi is #4.



The building is very environmentally conscious as you can see from the solar panels all over the roof on both wings and at the ridge line.  There are some information panels talking about the creation of the building and the materials used.  The shelves inside for instance are made of “sunflower hulls and/or wheat straw”.

There is a short film, 10 minutes, about the discovery of the headwaters and the controversy. (see yesterday’s post).  The film is also outside.  I wonder how these things fare in Itasca’s –30 degree winters.

We learn more interesting facts about the Mississippi.  Did you know that

  • The Mississippi Watershed drains more than 41% of the continental U.S., between 1.2 and 1.8 million square miles.
  • 15000 miles of waterway and over 100 tributaries make up the Mississippi  River system and forty-five of these tributaries are navigable for more than 50 miles
  • The watershed includes 31 state and 2 Canadian provinces.
  • and lots more


Mary Gibbs let the Mississippi flow.


Mary Gibbs

The big story here is about Mary Gibbs for whom the center is named.  The short story is that Mary was appointed park commissioner in 1903 upon the death of her father who was the previous commissioner.  She knew the job well and took it seriously.  She had lived in the park with her family and loved it.  She felt she was to keep the river flowing and the park pristine. 

So when the logging company, against the law for how high the lake could be, dammed the river and the lake began to flood the and threaten the magnificent pine forest, she got an injunction and faced down a gun toting foreman who apparently told her he’d shoot off the hand of anyone who tried to open the dam. 

But she did and she may well be the first woman environmentalist in this country.  She risked her life to open the dam and for her efforts, she lost her job.   It was over 80 years before there was another woman appointed to her position.  

One of the songs on the CD Wilderness Road that I recommended is about Mary Gibbs and it was in large part Charlie Maguire’s long research into this incident and her life that has resulted in the headwaters building being named in her honor.   Read more about her story here the details are really interesting.


I love her handwriting.  A seriously lost art these days.

Mary Gibbs1



And now for the headwaters itself. 



Anyone who has seen the mouth of the Mississippi but never seen the headwaters is going to be pretty surprised.  But first…..

On the path to the headwaters is a beautiful cast bronze sculpture entitled Heartwaters Caretaker which was commissioned of Native American sculptor, Jeff Savage,  for the building’s dedication in 2005.  I love this sculpture. 

On the information board next to it, we are asked to Please Touch.   We are also told that “in the Anishinabe (Objibwe) belief, it is the women who are the Caretakers of the Water. We are to respect this responsibility of the sacred work of women by keeping this precious resource pristine and renewable for all future generations to enjoy.”   Wouldn’t it be great if this was our entire country’s belief.  All our waters might be as pristine as Lake Itasca and the other lakes within the park which are all crystal clear.




In this sculpture, a woman is leaning over releasing a clutch of small turtles from a basket, renewing the seasons and continuing the waters of life.  Her flowing hair is like flowing water.  The turtle’s shell is round like the Earth, the moon, the sun and the cycle of the seasons.  The legs of the turtle point in the 4 directions, his head points up to the sun and his tail down to the Earth.  He and she are powerful symbols for this place where the heartwaters of this country begin.



Yes we do finally get to the headwaters themselves.


The following  pictures were taken early in the morning this past Sunday on our way to the Wilderness Drive.   Thus we avoided today’s crowds but did not get to see the information and the inside of the buildings.  We biked up today for that.  The selfie is a bit dark but it was that or a flash.

I REALLY wanted to walk across the headwaters like we had done on our trip with Carrie in 1991.  It was way too cold on Sunday morning at 7am but today it is just right.  So the last picture in this group is from today, crowds and all. 




I hate to burst your bubble but if you come here, you’ll find this out anyway.  The lovely rocks so naturally strewn were actually permanently affixed atop a small damn by the CCC in the 30’s as part of the headwaters beautification project.  The policy now is to let things remain natural, however that is, but this spot has been so photographed that they dare not change it.   It is lovely so forget I mentioned this.



David is taking a photograph back toward the headwaters along the river as it flows out of the lake toward Lake Bemidji.  You can walk along this boardwalk for some ways here.   It is a good thing we came to take these pictures on Sunday.  When we arrive today the entire boardwalk is roped off with ugly orange construction fabric.  They are working on the bridge which had seemed just fine to me 3 days ago. 







Wish you were here Carrie!!



Our trip back is uneventful except for the large number of chipmunks we see eating the newly planted grass seed along the bike trail.  I swear they were spaced out about every 6 feet.  I hope that burlap has protected some of the seed.  The chipmunks sure were busy.






A final cool thing about this bike trail is that every point at which it crosses the main park road has a lighted flashing stop signal for the bikers and a lighted flashing caution light for the traffic.  I assume it is triggered by a biker approaching it but I just love it and hope this becomes a standard for bicycle paths.   I couldn’t get it flashing obviously but I did manage to get it lit up.  Notice the solar panel on top of the pole which I guess provides the electricity.  Nifty!!




David says this is what it looked like to him.   I think he’s on Dex.  LOL




Now for what you’ve been waiting for. It’s time for the food.


We biked back to the campground really wishing the trail was finished all the way to Douglas Lodge so we would not have to go back and get Ruby to get there. 

We really wanted to bike straight from the headwaters to Douglas Lodge and then back to the campground.   That would have been a good ten miles.  It should be ready for you later this season.

Some people bike on the park road but I think it is too dangerous.  It has no shoulders at all and is very narrow for a two lane road.  Fine for cars at the slow speed they go but bicycles tie up the traffic since the road is curving and mostly has a double yellow line.




We’ve come for the Wild Rice Hot Dish made with local Red Lake wild rice harvested from this area by the Ojibwe.  In true Minnesota fashion, if you’ve ever listened to A Prairie Home Companion, it is called Wild Rice Hotdish.  The rice is blended with mushrooms, celery, water chestnuts and ground beef. 

Since they serve both bison and elk burgers I think this dish would have been even more interesting with one of those meats.   But it is excellent as it is. 

The hot dish is served with delicious coleslaw and a fantastic bread stick of some sort. This is the best bread I have eaten in a long time.  David asks for seconds.   


The family foodie is very happy with everything including the Blueberry Malt we also ordered which was served first.  I guess it was our drink rather than our dessert.







Me too, right down to the last drop!




Our table has a great view.  
As we are finishing our meal, the river boat tour docks just outside.
What a surprise! 
A great finish to a fun day at Itasca.





  1. Do you have time to visit the 'Lost 40' before you head to ND? I think you would both love it. It's the 40 acres of old growth forest that were never logged. Within driving distance of Chippewa Nat'l Forest around Leech Lake.

    There were a gazillion people at the headwaters when I took my grandgirls there on July 3rd. It's something you just have to do.

  2. It's wonderful to see you having such a great time this summer. Keep it coming :-).

  3. Despaired of u ever showing or getting to the headwaters...!!! It looked lovely.... but not at all like the Mississippi in Davenport, Iowa!!!! or further South. That rice looked yummy!!!

  4. I agree we need to protect our nation's wonderful resources. One thing that sets us apart from any country I've visited is the fact that most of our natural attractions are free. Asking the people of a state to add a fee to their license isn't fair, in my opinion. The answer is to stop fighting all the senseless wars we get dragged into by the companies who are really making money on our involvement, and quit subcontracting everything out. It looks good on the books that a govt agency such as the Forest Service has such a low cost of operation, but the subcontractors aren't usually included in the figures. The govt. pays it all, so let's call it what it is and get federal employees to do everything more cheaply and better in the long run. And don't forget our wonderful volunteers, without whom everything would fall apart.

  5. I loved that sculpture so much as well. Even have a treasured photo with me behind her. Great stories.

  6. I'm glad that you finally crossed the mighty Mississippi. I have made that crossing in all possible manner. I have to admit that I tend to use the bridge to avoid the queue at the rocks.

    One last suggestion as you depart Minnesota. Buffalo River State Park is gem on the way to North Dakota on Highway 10 in the town of Glyndon. Buffalo River (& the adjacent Big Bluestem SNA) protect a sizable chunk of tallgrass prairie. Less than 1% of native tallgrass prairie remain. I have found this spot to be a virtual wonderland of flowers and butterflies, the amount of biomass is astounding (no other biome on earth can match an intact tallgrass prairie). Be forewarned that this includes mosquitos, bring the nets.

  7. Nice bike trail which will be even better when it is finished. We haven't made it to MN or MI yet but looks like lots of interesting places to visit.

  8. Glad you had a pretty day - and, a malt :) I love the sculpture.

  9. That is definitely an area to visit when we get up to that part of the country. Love the bike trail. Should be very nice when it's all finished.

  10. Always enjoy a good bike trail:o) What fun to 'cross' the Mississippi!!

  11. I remember the headwaters and thought it was neat to go from East of the Mississippi to West of it. You had a full day. So much to see! The ducks & chipmunks were cute. And, that protector of the waters with the turtles was definitely a nice touch. Wish I was there!!

  12. We are so happy to see the continued growth of bike paths and the Rails-To-Trails organization. When we first started traveling, it was hard to find good dedicated bike paths in a lot of the places we went. I think Minnesota it one of those states that has always been ahead of the game and I'm sure excited about traveling there with bikes in tow. Thanks for your wonderful detailed posts.

  13. So cool to be able to see the beginning of the Mississippi! The views from the bike trail are fabulous. That meal hotdish looks fantastic, and a blueberry malt!

  14. Your time at Itasca has really been full of great activities. So happy that you have seen and have done so much. I had no idea Minnesota offers so much.

  15. Love that bronze- What a great view of the mighty river's beginnings.

  16. Heartwaters is very moving. I love that she invites people to connect with her :-). Growing up in the desert, water always equaled life, a gift we didn't take for granted.

    Good thing weasels are as small as they are - they sound scarier than bears!!

    Malt before meal - works for me :-)!

  17. ah. . .the joy of being an adult. . .you can have your malt first. . .LOL!

    Glad to get a peek of the the headwaters before we get there. . .at least I know what to expect!

    Loved it. . .

  18. You got some 'splaining to do. Riding your bikes on the trail when the sign said it was closed. Then doing a post about your ride and putting it on the Internet. Hope you've got a good lawyer... :cD

  19. Yet another great trail. Old visitor centers, especially CCC, are so much more interesting buildings than the new ones. I'm seeing a lot more 'info' boards put outside. Hope that doesn't been shorter hours for the visitor centers. Hard to believe you're standing ankle deep in the mighty Mississippi. Hope you didn't get eaten alive by the mosquitoes there. My motto, dessert first because I can. :)

  20. Even though the weasels may kill more than they can eat I'll bet it benefits some other animal that might be hungry. It seems there's always a reason for everything when you dig deep enough. LOVE the sculpture, I misted up just a tiny bit reading your description. The Native Americans sure had a way of respecting how we all fit in on this planet together. Too bad the Europeans didn't take time to learn from the "savages" instead of decimating their culture, right? I took note of the hotdish...I have buffalo burgers from Trader Joes's I could crumble up and make it with....

  21. The Headwaters sculpture is indeed inspiring! It is wonderful to see you both enjoying your time so much. Dex Day! Oh, yeah!

    Virtual hugs,


  22. The Heartwaters Caretaker bronze is absolutely beautiful -- I love that it's "Heartwaters" instead of simply "Headwaters." Your story of it is well-told, too. (Haha, OF COURSE you stop at every point of interest along the way! That's one of the qualities that makes you such wonderful travelers!)

  23. I love Itasca and their great woods and waters, but I do not understand why the Mary Gibbs Visitor Center is all outside and the expensive building is reserved for sales in the Gift Shop and Cafe and the restrooms. When the weather is inclement, as it often is, visitors are screwed and can only chose between shopping and eating but not reading about the interesting natural & cultural history, geology and wildlife of the park. Sad the emphasis on money.

  24. Wow! They didn't skimp on portions of that rice dish! Looked good- just remove the hamburger for me please and add some more mushrooms. Reminds me of past Thanksgivings at my aunt's house. She weighed 125 pounds her whole life I think (and she was 5' 7' I think). We'd have wild rice and I'd be disappointed because that took the place of mashed potatoes. xxxooo


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