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In the vast pine forest of northern Minnesota is the beginning of the great river known to all the world as the Mighty Mississippi. At the Mississippi's source at Lake Itasca, the water is transparent and beautiful. You can actually remove your shoes and wade to the other side, or drop a twig in the water and imagine it floating to New Orleans.

Explorer's Map 1

As you discover the Mississippi's headwaters, it's easy to reflect upon Itasca's colorful history. You can almost see the flashing paddles of the Ojibwe in birch bark canoes. Or hear the rollicking songs of the voyagers.

Cabin by Lake Itasca And while thousands of people come each year to see the beginning of the river, I find the fifty square miles of towering red and white pine the real attraction. Some stands are over two hundred years old, including the oldest and tallest pines in the state of Minnesota.

I'll never forget the first time I visited Itasca. Richard and I were in our "courting stage", and we decided to drive up for a little holiday. We parked the car on a hill above the lake, and as I opened the door and got out, the scent of pine surrounded me like fog. The smell was magnificent - sharp, tangy and pungent. It was something I would never forget. Consequently, over the past 16 years, we have made several trips back to Itasca, and it has remained one of our favorite places to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

Part of the fun is staying at Bert's Cabins located at the far perimeter of the park. The cabins are everything a cabin should be...seasoned, cozy, and warm, with an old brass bed in the middle of the bedroom.

Island in Lake Itasca

We find that Autumn, in particular, is a nice time to visit the park and stay at the cabin. It's fun to cook dinner, eat by candlelight, pour a little wine, all with the windows opened a crack to let in that intoxicating air. And if you're lucky, you might even catch the howl of a wolf just before bed.

A myriad of 100 lakes and ponds and miles of big pine forest trails take care of daytime hours. Once we rented a canoe and paddled out the to the island on Itasca Lake. It was an overcast day and not terribly warm out on the water, but once we reached the island, we were protected by a sentinel of trees. The wind and a mass of rolling dark clouds set the mood for exploration. Almost immediately, Richard found a wonderfully big pine jutting out from some rocks. Since these things take time, I left him and his bevy of camera equipment and went off on my own. I had my own camera and just fired away at whatever caught my fancy.

We had a picnic-style lunch in the canoe on the way back, and then, after dropping off the canoe at the rental, drove to the head of Red Pine Trail. This may be my favorite trail in Itasca. It passes through some of the largest stands of red (Norway) pine in the park and winds past two small lakes before intersecting with Ozawindib and Okerson Heights trails.

Along the way we ran into an old cabin that was in the middle of restoration. It was an interesting place to investigate. The park rangers had taken several downed pines and had hewn some of them to match the logs on the original structure. We walked around a bit, studying the area, until I found two roughly carved "chairs" made from a couple tree stumps. Richard and I enjoyed the break. We sat there not talking, just looking...and listening to all the sounds a forest makes. Later that evening, we went back to the sports rental and found a two-seater bicycle. We spent an hour peddling around Itasca's great bike trails.

Nicollet Cabin

The next morning was our last day in the park, so right after breakfast, we headed out along Wilderness Drive, a curvy, narrow, one-way road through 2,000 acres of virgin pine. Our destination was the Landmark Interpretive Trail. Numbered posts along the trail correspond to the numbers in a small booklet found at the trailhead.

It was a cool morning and overcast again, but a spunky chickadee flitting among the trees perked up our hike. At times the bird was so close we could have reached out and touched him. I coaxed Richard into hauling out his camera to try to get a picture. This was no small feat as the puffy little ball of feathers moved every other second, fluttering erratically from branch to branch. But diligent as ever, Richard tried his best.

Tall Norway Pines

During other trips to the park, we've also climbed the fire tower to find the panoramic view. And if you do spend time hiking or climbing, there's not a greater pick-me-up than a bowl of wild rice soup served in the old Douglas Lodge. The log hotel, built in 1900, was once described as, "a jewel standing in mud." Inside, it's all logs and beams and glass overlooking the lake. There's also an impressive stone fireplace. In the fall, birch logs pop and crackle in the hearth, releasing a woodsy smell into the room.

If you don't feel like walking much, there are still plenty of things to do and see. Preacher's Grove is named for a religious convention that once camped there and where a stand of old red pine began growing in 1714. There's Peace Pipe Vista, the Bison Kill Site, Indian Mounds, and the old Wegmann Cabin. You can also see Minnesota's record white pine, and the state's record red, or Norway pine, both over 300 years old. And of course, don't forget the Mississippi Headwaters, where the mighty river begins its run to the Gulf of Mexico. This past September, Richard and I visited the park again and were greatly disturbed by all the downed trees. Beautiful white and red pine, some over 100 years old, were snapped like toothpicks by straight-line winds during a violent storm last summer. The storm was dubbed the worst in twenty years and cut a swath of destruction seventy miles wide.

It made us heartsick to see "our" wonderful pines lying dead in all directions. So when I ran into a Park Ranger, I asked her if she felt as bad about the damage as we did. To my surprise, she said, "It's a blessing."

Tree blown down by a storm

After I stared at her like she'd suddenly grown horns, she explained: "For years we've been trying to replenish the park with new pine seedlings but have had little success. Deer and rabbits eat most of them, and those that do manage to survive the first couple years die off from too little sun. Red and white pine need open spaces and lots of light to grow. But over the years, the woods in the park have become overgrown with scrub pine and popple, and the red and white pine seedlings have perished in their shadow. The storm was Mother Nature's way of making room for her offspring." I felt a little better after this. Even though so many trees seemed to be gone, I have at least seen them in my lifetime. It's good to know that Mother Nature has done her best to make sure future generations can experience the beauty and pungency of Itasca's red and white pine.

Map of Minnesota showing Itasca State Park2

1Map adapted from "Sources of the Mississippi River 1834," From The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Volume 4, 1834, to accompany "Narrative of an Expedition through the Upper Mississippi to Itasca Lake, the actual Source of this River; embracing an Exploratory Trip through the St. Croix and Burntwood (or Broule) Rivers; in 1832. Under the direction of Henry R. Schoolcraft. New York. 1834," (June 27, 1996).

2Map adapted from "All About Minnesota Map Section," North Star - Minnesota Government Information and Services, (July 12, 1995)

Official Itasca State Park siteItasca State Park information

If you enjoyed this article, check out the other photos and stories listed under Minnesota's State Parks above.

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Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

May 20, 1996