National Geographic : 1958 Nov
The Upper Mississippi light enough to carry around obstructions. But when you meet almost nothing but ob structions for 18 miles and repeatedly find yourself with a three-inch-draft boat in two inches of water, you are inclined to give this part of the river back to the mosquitoes. The river came out into a great marsh and lazily looped back and forth. There was no sign of other human beings-no house, bridge, or road, nothing but swamp a mile wide backed by forest. River Wanders in a Wilderness The solitude was a lively solitude, ringing with song, for what could be a better bird para dise than this forest-bordered open swamp full of bugs and free of humans? The red-winged blackbird's gug-lug-gee sug gested the gurgle and ooze of the swamp. The purple grackle twanged his piano wires. When we neared the trees, we heard the pea nut-roaster's whistle of the cedar waxwing and the tremulous spiral of the veery. Muskrats and beavers swam out of our way. Deer stood at the edge of the woods. Wood land sounds were untranslatable, but we had been told by foresters that the animal popula tion of this northern part of Minnesota is still sizable. The big gray timber wolf still roams the northern woods. In winter he ventures out on the ice of lakes and is hunted by plane for a bounty of $35. A farmer's wife looked out the window one day in 1957 to see a big timber wolf trotting away with a lamb in its jaws. In the Wildlife Museum at Bemidji one may see a wolf that was trapped within three miles of town. The wolves survive by preying on deer, whose number has remained fairly stable in recent years. The black bear continues to be a source of amusement and distress to campers and rangers in wilderness canoe country (page 655). Occasionally a bear may attack sheep grazing in isolated areas. The river finally left the swamp, became less tortuous, and plunged down a chute several miles long between high banks topped by tall trees. Every few yards a fallen tree blocked our way, and we carried around it through almost impenetrable underbrush. And all this time we were going in the wrong direction! Wrong if we wished to reach New Orleans. For 60 miles the young Mississippi flows northeast, as if determined to reach Hudson Bay. Then it turns eastward and finally, after many an indecisive loop and twist, heads south toward the gulf. Its farthest north is Bemidji Lake, and here we spent the night in our 21-foot trailer, which we had parked there some days previously. The next day we took to the air in my son Bob's little Navion to see the stretch we had just covered so laboriously. The river twisted beneath us like a tormented boa constrictor (page 651). In every direction were blue gems in dark settings. The Minnesota water land in its far reaches is best seen from the air. Then you are quite willing to believe that it is the "Land of Ten Thousand Lakes" -by actual count more than 11,000.* The river as it flows out of Bemidji Lake is navigable for small craft. From here on the stream would carry Mary and me comfortably, without need for frequent portages. We did not camp out. We had someone drive our car to the point where we planned to end our day's canoeing. From there we drove back to spend the night in our mobile home. Every few days the trailer was moved farther down-river. It is easy to imagine oneself a French voya geur while paddling down this unspoiled river. It flows between walls of dark-green conifers, aspen, and snow-white birch. It slows in lilied swamps or speeds down narrow chutes. It embraces charming islands or swirls rudely around rocky capes. It passes through lake after lake. Wild Rice Grows in Shallows In the river's quieter stretches the canoe slid through reedy shallows that reminded us of the water-soaked rice fields of Japan. Arriving in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, we inquired about what we had seen. Yes, it was rice, but wild-a commodity in which Minnesota does an annual million-dollar business. It has long been one of the staple foods of the Indians, who still are the chief harvesters. There is money in wild rice. Some boats (two persons in each, one to harvest and the other to paddle or pole) make $40 to $80 a day (page 664). At one of the rare waterside farms we went ashore near a small beachside cabin that was belching smoke from its chimney. It was as windowless as a fort, and the door was closed. Could this be a Finnish sauna? * See "Minnesota, Mother of Lakes and Rivers," by Glanville Smith, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1935.