Float #110: Upper Mississippi River

27 Aug

Lake Itasca to Coffee Pot Landing

Mississippi 1.ai

Upper Mississippi River
Clearwater County, Minnesota
Monday, August 4
17 Miles

The highlight of our trip to Minnesota was paddling the Mississippi from the headwaters. The landscape was ever-changing and different from most waterways we float in Missouri. Early that morning, DW drove the car down to Coffee Pot Landing and rode his bike the 12 miles back to the campground, while I readied the gear. We started out from our campground in Itasca State Park and paddled across the lake to the outlet that marks the beginning of the Mighty Mississippi.

Lake Itasca

Lake Itasca

Paddling through the grass above the headwaters

Lake Itasca

Approaching the headwaters

Mississippi River

Mississippi River headwaters

Mississippi River

We portaged our boats around the rocks and then we were officially on the Mississippi. The first few miles through the park were very shallow and much like a creek. We had to do a bit of portaging to get through the low spots and disturbed quite a few ducks along the way. A few people walking along the trail asked if we were headed all the way to the ocean! Soon after the river left the park the landscape became boggy. It was confusing at first because the water is so choked with grass and there is no discernible channel. We soon learned that there are different plants that mark the banks of the river, so anything between those lines was the river channel. The water was only a foot deep in the best spots and a few inches in the worst. There was no solid ground, just soupy bog mud, so you had to paddle through. No easy portaging here! There were several times where we paddled along in an obvious channel, only to have it disappear among thick grasses. We paddled several feet to one side or another and the channel would usually reappear.

Mississippi River

Paddling through the park

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

The marshy Mississippi

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

Me, paddling through the bog

Mississippi River

Where did the river go?

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

Lunch stop at Wanagan Landing

We soon reached Wanagan Landing, where we stopped for lunch. There is a nice campsite there with a shelter, fire ring and picnic table and two people were camped there. We chatted with them for a bit after eating. They were on an expedition, floating all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. We talked about kayaking and their preparation for the trip, which included physical training and lots of gear purchases. They were from Nevada and had never really kayaked on a river before. They had a 14′ Hobie sit-on-top peddle boat. Since the peddles were not working in the shallow, marshy sections of the river, they were relying on their paddling skills, and were still learning about currents and paddlestrokes! After DW and I left Wanagan we both expressed our skepticism that they would make it all the way in that boat. A few days later we learned that they abandoned the trip, due to one of them being too sick to continue. They were going to try again next summer. I hope they have better luck next year! After Wanagan the river changed yet again, into a boulder-strewn mountain stream. Evergreens towered above us and fallen logs and boulders provided lots of challenges.

Mississippi River

The landscape changes

Mississippi River

The first of many obstacles

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

Beaver dam

Mississippi River

An old bridge

The mountain stream landscape lasted about five miles. We took a short swim break at the only deep pool we crossed on the entire trip. The landscape then became more like a prairie, with tall grasses on the banks and a narrow, twisty river channel. There were several concrete bridges on this section as the river flowed under county roads and highways. We floated under the first “double span” bridge which consisted of two tunnels. The river was much deeper here, but still only a couple of feet at best.

Mississippi River

The first double span bridge on the river

Mississippi River

A replica of the 1886 bridge across the river, the first to allow vehicular crossing

Mississippi River

The landscape changes again

Mississippi River

Another beaver dam

The last few miles to Coffee Pot Landing were eventful because we became confused as to where we were. The river relentlessly switchbacked over and over. Every 5-10 yards was another hairpin turn. It felt like we had paddled for ages, but had gone less than a mile as the crow flies. Around several of the turns we surprised various birds and wildlife. I paddled around a tight turn to discover a deer drinking from the middle of the river. We startled each other and she bounded off into the grassland. Of course I saw her again right around the next turn! We also saw some ducks and one bald eagle. We probably saw the eagle four different times as it sat in a tree and watched us squiggle back and forth. I swear the river went in a nearly complete circle several times. I don’t know how that could possibly be the path of least resistance!

Mississippi River

Hwy 40 bridge

Mississippi River

An ugly duck

Mississippi River

A bald eagle

Mississippi River

One last beaver dam before Coffee Pot Landing

Eventually we arrived at Coffee Pot Landing around 6pm. We hauled our boats up the bank and loaded them onto the car as quickly as we could to avoid the hoards of mosquitos. I was very tired from paddling all that way. I am used to paddling upwards of 20 miles in a day, but I usually have some current to help me along! I imagine it must be very difficult to paddle a long kayak loaded with gear through the upper parts of the Mississippi. I bet the rest of the trip to the Gulf would be much easier as far as paddling goes. DW and I enjoyed this trip and it was a new experience for both of us. A few days later we spent some time in Minneapolis and paddled the Mississippi there, which is much more like the Mississippi I’m used to!

Critter Count: Ducks, Beaver, Deer, 1 Bald Eagle, Mosquitos

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