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

Henry David Thoreau

What to do on a cold, wet, dreary day in Northern Minnesota.

Monday July 13,  2014
Bear Paw Campground
Itasca State Park, Minnesota



I do love maps and especially BIG relief maps.


Today was one of those cold, wet, dreary, northern Minnesota days.  The high never even reached 60 and it rained and drizzled all day long.  My bones were cold.  Now is when I miss my wood stove.

So we did what we said we’d do on that sort of a day.  We went to the Visitor Center to see all the exhibits.  Lots of other folks, especially the tenters, had the same idea.

Since we’ve been here we have learned a lot about Itasca State Park and the people instrumental in its founding to protect the old growth pine and the headwaters of the Mississippi.   This visitor center reiterated a lot of that and more.  It had excellent Natural History exhibits as well as information about the last Native Americans to call this place their home.

One of the things I love most about fulltiming is that I learn so much as I travel and excellent visitor centers are a big part of that.

Huge relief maps are often found as the first thing in a visitor’s center.  They are so interesting to study although it just gives you a big picture when you come to the center as soon as you arrive, as you should when you come to a park.  But it’s great when you come back toward the end of your stay.  We could  recognize so much more and see where things are now in relation to each other.

We spent over three hours inside the visitor center, had a great time and learned a lot.  Here are some of the highlights.  And I do mean only some.


Trumpeter Swans are really big birds.


While I hate that this swan is no longer alive and swimming free, it did give me the chance to see just how big a trumpeter swan is.   REALLY big.   I don’t see how they get off the water to fly.



There were many facts and illustrations of the grandeur of the Mississippi River.  Did you know that it is the 4th longest river in the world??  Or that a raindrop that falls in Lake Itasca will arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in about 90 days?   How do they know these things?  You can’t tag a raindrop. 

Did you know the average speed of the river is 1.2 mph, about 1/3 as fast as people walk.  The volume of water which leaves Lake Itasca is 6 cubic feet per second.  The volume when it reaches the Gulf of Mexico is 468,000 cubic feet per second, about 80,000 times more than when it started. 

The watershed of the Mississippi is huge.  Just look at all the waterways that feed into it.


So what to you think about this controversy?


There have been arguments about where the Mississippi starts for nearly 300 years and it seems to all depend on where you think the beginning of a river is. 

Is it A) the furthest up stream where the first drop of water flows?  Is it B) the furthest point upstream where the flow and volume first constitute a river.  And how big is that anyway?  We’ve been to the headwaters and it looks like a stream to me at that point.   Is it C) the highest point in the river’s watershed?  

I had never even thought about this until I read about all the explorers trying to find the source and championing one of these three ideas each of which leads to a different spot as the headwaters.  I am still am not sure why we white guys are so concerned about this sort of thing except for their own fame and glory I guess.  Who cares?  It’s a beautiful mighty river wherever it starts.   But there is a lot of information about this controversy and it does make you think.  

Which theory do you support?   Obviously Jacob Brower, whose life work was the creation of the park, and Itasca won the argument but there are still folks who aren’t so sure since Chambers Creek from Elk lake flows into Itasca before it starts north to run into Lake Bemidji.   Anyway……



David really likes old pictures, well old stuff in general.


Guess this is a good thing for me.

Throughout the visitor center there are lots of old pictures of the days right before the park was created and of the early days of the park.   David really enjoyed looking through the albums of photos they have.   He also, of course, enjoyed their section on the CCC Boys and the many pictures there. But you’ve seen and heard quite a bit about the boys in this blog over time.

Camping in the park had begun even before it was declared a park in 1891, the second state park created in the nation.  Niagara Falls was the first.  Being LONG time tenters, we had fun looking at all the old tenting gear.










Of course there is lots of information on the famous Mary Gibbs.  Well famous around here at least for being, at age 24, the very first female park Superintendent and a woman who stood up to the loggers in their attempts to dam the lake and flood out the beautiful ancient red pines. 

Her story is very interesting. More about it and her tomorrow when we go to the Headwater’s center dedicated in her honor in 2005.   She is the photographer for most of the early pictures of the park which the visitor center has on display.



I bet they wish they could change their minds about being so nice to the explorers.



I found one of the most interesting sections of the visitor’s center was about the Native Americans who foolishly led the explorers to the headwaters and thus opened the area to them and very shortly to the loggers who nearly clear cut the entire state.  They were led by Ozawindib, an Ojibwe brave.

On display is a small Ojibwe Wiigiwaam, the name they gave their homes which means “we dwell”.  Families traveled throughout the year to different campsites to gather food seasonally.  Once there, the women were responsible for putting together the wiigiwaam or building another.


Frameworks of flexible poles driven into the ground were often left in annual camping places.  Coverings for the framework made of birch, elm, or cedar bark, hides, woven mats were sometimes carried by the women from place to place.


I took the picture below with a flash through the opening of the wiigiwaam.  The inside looked mighty cozy with all the woven mats and skins. 







Were these folks the first real fulltimers, moving their home from place to place?



It’s all about the river AND the trees.


There is also a great deal of information about the other big star of this park in addition to the river, the old growth forest. 

At one time significant sections of Minnesota were covered with a gorgeous forest of pine, cedar, spruce, hemlock and fir.   And then dollar signs began to shine in people’s eyes and the logging began.  It was pretty much a frenzy in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century.  

Take a look at these maps of Minnesota’s old growth forests, where they were and where they are now.   Only two areas of Minnesota still contain significant old growth acreage, Itasca and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.   There are other very small areas on the map.  We have been to the boundary waters before and it is a beautiful area.  I am really sorry their flooding this year kept us from visiting again.  It and Voyageurs National park were on our original agenda between Apostle Islands and Itasca.   I can’t begin to describe the difference between the majesty of an old growth forest and any other type.


After all this education, it’s time for recess.

There is a great kids area with books and a tree and puppets and all sorts of fun learning things.  By the time we were finished looking at and reading everything, the kids were all gone except me.  These are the times when being about the size of a big kid pays off.   Puppet show anyone?






After all that playing, I could easily have curled up in front of their nice fire for a nap.  I did think seriously about bringing my book back and sitting here for a while reading.  The center is open until 8pm.




  1. We really loved that visitor center. I think understanding where the headwaters of a river might be is extremely important if you are trying to manage that river's watershed. Soils/geology/habitats all affect the river and where it starts will be significant if you are trying to manage/model how that river might behave in various situations. So, with that in mind, my vote is for the highest point in the watershed that feeds the river.

  2. What to do on a cold, wet, dreary day in Northern Minnesota?

    Hop in my house on wheels and drive to where the weather is nicer! :-)


  3. You are right, that is a very impressive Visitor Center. We share the love for maps. Even as well as I know the Smokies, I could stand for hours gazing at the giant map at the entrance to Sugarlands Visitor Center. Hope the weather improved. We are very grateful for the slight reprieve from the heat down here in the south.

  4. You guys look like and sound like you had a marvelous time. What a great place! I loved visitor centers wherever we went. I always collected WAY more brochures than I should have!

  5. Nice visitor center. Days like that always make me thankful we don't tent camp anymore!

  6. You were very lucky to have an awesome and big Visitor Center to spend your rainy day in. A RV can get smaller by the hour as rain comes down.

  7. I think I walk about as fast as the Mississippi flows.

    I know you don't like loggers and such, but have you ever put yourself back to that time in your mind to imagine how they thought of surviving or making a living? I wish the first settlers had done things differently too, but I'm not sure it would have been realistic thinking at that time. Coming from Europe mostly, how could they mentally step back to a Native American existence? Just a discussion point.,,

    1. Actually I have thought about it Judy and it would be a great discussion. Wish we were together to have it.

  8. I like that " you can't tag a raindrop!" Very informative posts. I know we will not make it there so I will just travel through your detailed and interesting post and pictures.
    We felt the weather reprieve as well. And for the first time in months we sat outside and enjoyed the cool air in Indiana.

  9. Lots of great information. Sometime a rainy day is nice... gives you a chance to slow down and really enjoy something you might otherwise miss!!

  10. That place is loaded with information for young and old! Perfect pasttime on such a day I think. The wiigiwaam looks big inside. It is neat to be able to visit the 'headwaters'; tough to know how many water droplets can be said to make up a stream or river.

  11. Interesting fact that it takes a raindrop to travel 90 days to the sea. Never realized that the Mississippi had such a huge watershed!

  12. What a great visitor center! I'm with you on the headwaters question...who cares! All of the water is equally important but what water course it feeds really has no impact in my eyes. Water is water is water...an essential part of life that must be protected from man and his greed and carelessness.

    Another weird thing about waterways I learned recently is that there is no naming convention. Whoever names it gets to decide if it's a creek or a river or a stream...it has nothing to do with volume or any other factor. We recently hiked by something I would have considered a river, but it was a creek...thanks to whoever named it in the 1800's.

    Great way to spend a bad weather day! Thanks for taking us there!

  13. Such a shame about the loss of all that old growth forest, sure glad a few pockets were saved. I loved the Boundary Waters when there many decades ago, except for the nightly invasion of mosquitoes. That fire does look inviting on a cool drizzly day. Love you in the tree.

  14. Sounds like a perfect way to spend your cool, damp day. Looks like a wonderful visitor's center. Loved you in the tree, Sherry:) It is amazing how much we learn living on the road.

  15. I'm spending a cold, rainy day in NJ painting and hanging doors. I liked your idea better... ;c)

  16. Neither cold or rainy here. But is cool enough to be making a pot of chili! Must do it before it heats up this week end.

  17. Perfect way to spend a drizzly day - I think reading by that fire is a great idea :-). Well you may be glad that David likes old things....but you look 20 years old in the picture by the swan (even younger in the tree)! While I don't think our ancestors could have fathomed the full impact their actions would have on the environments they were stripping (wish I'd been smarter about tanning in my youth :-)), I am grateful for the Marys of the past who had the forethought to begin preservation. The current population who should know better......that's another issue :-(.
    I'm thinking that instead of whining about the heat like I've been doing, I should go spend the day at a museum! I hear L.A. has a couple :-)))))). Thanks for the reminder!

  18. We really enjoy visitors centers too, a lot of times like this one they do a great job.

  19. I love visitors centers too, but I tend to be selective in the stuff I read and look at. There is just too much in any of them to take it all in one visit.

  20. looks like you made the best of it - what a fun looking place!

  21. Looks like a good visitor's center for a cold day.

  22. What a great visitor's center -- we would enjoy looking at all of the old-time tenting gear, too! It's definitely good to have a back-up plan for cold, rainy days. Cute photo of you peeking out of the tree! :-)

  23. Love the owl puppet! The fire place would look inviting except it's too warm here for that to be true-


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