The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in North America. It is also the second-largest drainage system on the continent. The Hudson Bay drainage system lays claim to first place in both categories. The Mississippi drains parts of 32 states as well two Canadian provinces, over 1.2 million square miles. By the time it reaches New Orleans, it is discharging an average of 593,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico.
Living on the Mississippi gives us a unique opportunity to view nature close at hand. Bald eagles are frequent visitors, as are orioles, cardinals, robins, goldfinches, pileated woodpeckers, muskrats, beaver, otters, raccoons, deer, blue herons, bats, Canadian geese, butterflies, turtles, frogs, turkeys, and dragonflies. Seasonally, we see sand-hill cranes, loons, pelicans, and swans on their travels north or south. We’ve watched dragonflies emerge from the nymph stage, looking like creatures from an aliens movie.
We live among maple, oak, birch, white pine, jack pine, mountain ash, cottonwood, elm, butternut, walnut, hickory, apple and cherry trees. Our fall colors are among the best in the nation.
Our river changes daily, with the water level rising and falling throughout the year, depending on rain and management of the dams to the north and south of us. After a
particularly strong storm, we may see entire trees float past our home. Islands grow and shrink. Those islands with sand bars provide enough shallow water to attract boaters who anchor near shore to play with their children and party with their friends. When the river freezes over in the winter, it gives snowmobilers another place to play, and it carves changes to the shoreline during the spring thaw.
We live on the west shore of the Mississippi River, on land that once belonged to France. Had Thomas Jefferson not made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, I might be writing this post in French instead of English. As President, Jefferson wanted to secure access to the river for the United States. The land had changed hands a few times since being taken from the indigenous populations living there. France had controlled the territory of Louisiana since 1699, lost it to Spain in 1762 following the French and Indian War, then regained it when Spain transferred it back in 1802. Fortunately for Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte’s quest for empire left the country of France cash poor, and he was willing to sell the territory. A deal was struck for $15 million (3 cents per acre), and our young nation was suddenly almost twice as large as before. What a bargain! Adjusted for inflation, the cost today would be about $340 million (64 cents per acre). The purchase included most of the land that now comprises the states of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, plus parts of Minnesota, Louisiana, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas
We will soon be embarking on our own Mississippi River expedition, taking a riverboat cruise south from St. Paul to New Orleans. Before boarding the ship, though, we are taking a few short road trips, beginning with Lake Itasca, where we will begin following the Great River Road to St Paul, Minnesota where the boat actually sets sail.
To prepare for this trip, I read “The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation” by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley. The book was written in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. The authors talk about the general history of sections of the river, and also introduce the reader to many of the interesting people who have lived or made history along the Mississippi River. In addition to good reading, it makes a beautiful coffee table book with many photographs by National Geography photographer Sam Abell. Ambrose, Brinkley and Abell traveled south to north, from New Orleans to Itasca State Park, the reverse of our upcoming trip.
In addition, we are bringing “Road Trip USA: Great River Road,” by Jamie Jensen, a small paperback travel guide. Jensen gives short histories of small and large towns along the river, plus tips for sightseeing and restaurants. I expect we’ll be referring to it quite often.
Sounds like another amazing adventure. Wish we could meet you in Itasca.
We just got notified that the cruise is cancelled. Maybe we can go in September, or maybe we’ll just skip it this year.