Friday, July 10, 2009

Day 13 - Mississippi Headwaters

Today’s water adventures were to the historic headwaters of the Mississippi, which lie south of Bemidji, and to the most northerly headwaters, which flow through the Turtle River.  More specifically, we went south to Itasca State Park, and north to Concordia Language Villages. 

Recipe for a Clean Lake

To reach Itasca, we followed county gravel roods on the Schoolcraft Trail south toward Lake George.  Out of nowhere appeared the boat launch for Evergreen Lake.  


Evergreen Lake, Hubbard County, Minnesota.

There wasn’t a sound.  No boat, no swimmer, no breeze.  The water was crystal clear for many reasons that were plainly visible from here. Change one and it will begin the inevitable progression toward murkiness, turbidity, and stench. 

Being a kettle lake in the middle of the forest, there is little runoff from the land.  Thus, it’s spring-fed from the vast sand and gravel aquifer beneath the lakes country of north-central Minnesota.  In turn, the aquifer is recharged with cold snowmelt and rainfall.  With no agriculture, recent forest clearing, and only one cabin on its shore, there is little phosphorous entering the system.   Finally, the dense rim of vegetation surrounding protected bays, sops up most of the nutrient present, preventing algal growth.


Itasca State Park draws visitors primarily as the source of the Mississipppi River.  For Kristine, its the trees, the lovely Norway pines protected here before they got the axe.  

Old growth pine at Itasca State Park, Minnesota.

Most such tall trees were taken by the timber industry before conservation became a national priority.  Settler's Cabin, near Douglass Lodge, embodies both big trees and big ideas about conservation.  


Settlers Cabin at Itasca, built by CCC workers.  

It was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps Note that only four logs were used to raise the roof. 


Itasca wins my prize for the most effective water resource education.  They put them in the washrooms, above the urinals, in the sit-down stalls, above the sink, and next to the hand driers.


Sign at Itasca State Park, Minnesota.

Each is presented in the form of a question and answer.  Here are two examples, quoted directly “Q:  Where does the water come from that we use in the park?  A: It comes through ells dug deep down in the artesian aquifers.  The aquifers, which were formed by glacial drift or glacial outwash, are two to 50 feet thick.  Q: Did you know that the land you camp on and the lake where you fish or swim are directly linked?  A: They are linked by wetlands such as marshes and bogs, through which rain and spring waters flow as they make their way to the lake.”


Now that the trip is half way done, I’m getting pretty savvy at selecting targets to interview.  Benches are the best.  The odds are that anyone sitting on a bench is either resting or waiting, and therefore in no hurry to get up and leave.

My first victim caught me off guard. Colleen, a math professor from Bemidji State, comes to Itasca quite often for its naturalness and beauty. When I began my pitch, she caught me off guard by informing me that she already knew it, having heard my lecture the day before. That explained why she was vaguely familiar, and why she had such a quick answer. “You can drink it.”  That was her comment about water on the plus side.  Indeed, this is more important than anything other aspect of water, it meets or metabolic needs. 

On the down side, she reported that many countries in the world, especially the poor and developing nations in Africa, Asia, and North and South America no longer have access to potable water from streams and wells, due to pollution and excess demand.  This sets the stage for the commercialization of water sold in plastic bottles.

What’s in her head is not what’s’ in Chris’s head.   He was in Itasca for its latitude and longitude, a convenient and nice place for his wife to meet – for the first time – a “friend” she had met on the Internet.  On the ups and downs of freshwater, his answer had a literary flair, whether he knew it or not.  He said he was from Mobridge, South Dakota, which lies on the banks of the Missouri River.  When the river is up, everyone is happy, the marinas have plenty of business, and the recreational boating fishing, hunting, and swimming are wonderful.  When the river is down, the water is murkier and nearly stagnant, and its edge can be as much as 300 yards from the docks of the marinas.  Businesses go broke and people leave.  This is what’s been happening lately, a trend caused by drought but exacerbated by the ongoing recession.  Unlike Colleen’s metabolic and global views of water, his were ultra-local and related to the importance of water in controlling demographic and economic trends.


Tour boat leaving from Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park. 

Ollie and Virginia were from the town of Moose Lake, Minnesota, which actually abuts Moosehead Lake, which is fed by the Moosehorn River.  They were sitting outside Douglas Lodge, a delightful log building built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s.  I guessed they were in their mid seventies and had been married for at least half that long. “No,” Ollie said, “we’re engaged.”  At that point Virginia held up he diamond ring.  Ollie, who was quick with an opinion on everything, said that getting married was an economic necessity, but did not elaborate.  I suspect this might have been the case, because they actually got into an argument about water even as I was interviewing them.  He insists that she drink bottled water because Moose Lake city water has added chlorine, fluoride, and other stuff he doesn’t know about.  She accommodates his request some of the times, but prefers to drink straight from the tap, perhaps because it’s recently been shown that the plastic bottles release synthetic hydrocarbons into the water.


Dock at Douglas Lodge, Lake Itasca, Minnesota.

This lovely historic inn at the southeastern limit of Lake Itasca, may be the first source of pollution on the Mississippi River, sending molecules to it that eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico.  Note the well camouflaged drain pipe leading into the lake, which probably carries treated wastewater from the lodge.



Pink lady slippers at Itasca State Park. 

I loved Virginia’s response to the plus side of freshwater:  “We have a deep well and a tall tower.”  Indeed, the deeper it is, the less likely it is to be contaminated by surface and near-surface pollution, for example LUST, short for “Leaking Underground Storage Tanks,” a serious problem in many urban and suburban areas, especially from home heating fuel tanks and gasoline stations.   She didn’t have a negative comment.

Ollie sure did.  He was hopping mad at the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service for not giving him a straight answer about a sample of water he had brought in for testing.  Having not gotten a satisfactory answer form underlings, he worked his way up to the “top kick,” meaning the boss lady.  Ollie believed that she thought him to be “a plant from the opposition party.”  His story brings out something interesting, the politics of water, which will become increasingly challenging in the future. 

When I finished these three separate interviews from the same morning in the same place, I couldn’t help but think how much they differed.

Delicate Balance

Matt Snyder, the manager of Itasca State Park, is the kind of guy I’d be happy to work for: calm, confident, easy going, open to different ideas, and generous with his time and attention.  I very much appreciated his answers to my water questions.

Water education is a big part of the program at Itasca.  It's hard to avoid interesting water facts when you have nothing else to do but read.  Urinal at the park Visitors Center. Four other plaques are there as well, above the hand drier, near the sink, and guessed it...on the doors of the toilet stalls. This place is a veritable temple to water education. 

“I like the clarity of the water.” He was referring to the kettle lakes of northern Minnesota in general, and Itasca in particular. This comment was precipitated by his personal comparison with the prairie potholes of South Dakota, which become brown-green with mud-algae as the water table drops during the course of the region’s hot dry summer.  On the down side, he said that that clarity misleads people.  Though it’s often said that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you,” this is clearly not the case with water.  Crystal clear water can be toxic with transparent dissolved contaminants. 

The hardest part of his job was trying to find the right balance between exposing visitors to all aspects of the park, while simultaneously protecting the park from visitors.  On some days, he worries that the park will be “Loved to Death.”

We the got to talking about the three mega trends in my book Beyond Walden:  climate change, over-development, and the increasing alienation of children from nature.  Itasca is poised to be greatly changed by the end of the century if the predicted scenarios ensue. Drought will be more common, the water tables lower, the lakes murkier. The beautiful Norway Pines, which bring so many people to the park --especially at Preachers Grove where they are featured –, are not regenerating.  Is it the deer?  Climate change? Some complex ecological link we don’t understand?  He doesn’t know. Nor do the scientists at the University of Minnesota’s field station, which has used the park as a research facility since 1909.  I imagine a scene when the stronger windstorms predicted by climate models take down the trees, which cannot regenerate because the same models predict a shift away from pine forest to oak savannah. 

He agrees that overdevelopment is a major problem on many lakes.   Of special concern to him are the “Mom and Pop” family resorts, which have been an important part of local economies for three generations.  They are disappearing, being replaced by “pricey condos” full service resorts owned and run by larger corporations.  This leads to our third mutual concern, the reduction in the number of children being exposed to nature.   They are doing everything they can at the park to make it family friendly.

Itasca’s competition for the attention of children, will soon be a water park at the Red Lake Reservation, part of a massive casino development program I read about this in yesterday’s Bemidji Pioneer. When I asked Matt why he thinks the tribe is doing this he said, “To me, they’re trying to expand their clientele to family oriented people.”

I think that the whole idea of water park in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes is as absurd as a store selling sand in the Sahara.   It might also make economic sense in a world of with unlimited petroleum and no concerns about carbon pollution.  In influx of tourists to Red Lake will require thousands of unnecessary car trips to a very remote location. I fear for a future in which economic models do not properly take into account the environmental costs, which we all will share.

A Symbolic Act

I reached the headwaters just in time to snap the photo below.  It shows an elderly, cane-wielding gentleman attempting to cross the line of boulders placed across the headwaters of the Mississippi. Perhaps he thought it was a fountain of youth.


Crossing the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which drains northward from Lake Itasca, Minnesota.  

Ten seconds later, his cane slipped, he fell, got wet, and gave up, having slipped on rocks coated with slippery algae. Excess algae may be due to nutrient pollution from within the park.  

I was impressed by this man's initial determination, and by the equanimity of his resignation that his body was no longer quite up to the task.  Note that swimming and boating are also taking place in this scene.


Boulders at the headwaters, Itasca State Park, Minnesota.

These boulders, from the Archean age rocks of the Canadian Shield reminded me that all of the water in the world came from vapor steamed out of the early earth when it melted completely. These rocks were among the first to form on earth.   Something as delicate as the pink lady slippers we saw earlier exist because of this violent steaming phase of earth history.

A few miles down the road, we found some of that water flowing where it wasn’t a tourist destination.

Mississippi River from County 1 looking east, Clearwater County, Minnesota.

Though it seems to be flowing naturally, a look to the west reveals an old concrete structure built across the river. It now appear derelict.

Global Kids

North of Bemidji, and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a gravel driveway takes off from Beltrami County Road 20. It leads to a cut hayfield, where hundreds of empty cars sit roasting in the sun.  They had been parked by visitors to the International Day celebration at Concordia Language Villages, held on July 10.  Most of the visitors were here to meet their sons and daughters enrolled in what may be the finest language learning program in the nation.  


Students from Concordia Language Villages get together for a rave on International Day.

Clearly, the energy is very high and very happy in this extraordinary place, which was far ahead of its time when founded half a century ago.  Teachers and students come from all over the world to attend a summer camp to learn common languages like Spanish and exotic languages like Norwegian, and to make lifelong friendships that will help our homogenized world stay sane in the future. 

Many flags are flown at Concordia Language Villages, Turtle River, Minnesota.

The geographic nucleus for this whole program is an otherwise humble pair of kettles called the Turtle Lakes, drained by the Turtle River.  In the late 18th century, this stream was though to have been the source of the Mississippi.  This wasn’t a bad guess, for the Itasca is only a few miles longer.

One of my sons is an alumnus of the program: he learned Spanish there. So is my wife Kristine, an English language teacher who attended one of their TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) programs. 

I wondered if the students had to surrender their cell phones when they arrived, and what they might think of the wall phone from Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park, that was used in the 1930s by members of another good idea, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC.


Phone from Douglas Lodge, Itasca State Park Minnesota.

Leaving our car, we boarded a leased school bus for transport into the language villages.  Shortly after exiting, we met David (pronounced “Dahh veed” with an accent on the second syllable) who was dressed in period costume as a 17th century voyageur. 


Dah veed' is a French voyageur, a canoe guide, and a language teacher. He poses as a tough guy in this photo.

As part of their French program, he guided a student canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Some of them were dressed in costume as well; others as members of the Ojibwe tribe with painted faces.  David remarked that the best thing about freshwater was the experience of paddling to the middle of a giant lake on a clear day when the surface is absolutely still, then jumping in.  Almost as good is lashing two canoes together for stability, using a tarp for a sail, and gliding over the surface of the lake.  The worst thing about freshwater was when other canoeists destroy the beaver dams, rather than portaging around them.

In front of the main building was a station illustrating the second half of the student watering system from natural precipitation to human metabolism. 


Water station at Concordia Language Village, Turtle River, Minnesota.

The whole system involves, infiltration, aquifer storage, pump, pressurized pipe, spigot, plastic pipe, faucet, bottle, mouth, and esophagus. 

Next was a tour of the biohaus, on the site of the German Language Village.  In this highly engineered “green” house, water is used for space heating, after being heated with passive solar from a roof panel.


Biohaus at Concordia Language Villages, Turtle River, Minnesota.

Walking back to the main village, we heard some pounding music.   The students were having what I belive is called a rave which is not quite a dance, but more like a cheer to music that never stops (see earlier photo).

Just before catching the bus for our return trip, we spoke with two staff from the program. Steve was from Moorhead College, which has administered the program ever since it was started by one of its faculty.  His freshwater “upside” was family fun at the lake, in his case Tomahawk Lake in northern Wisconsin, which we passed a few days ago.  His  “downside” was the chronic flooding of the Red River of the North, which seriously overtopped its banks last year. His house was OK, but many of his neighbor’s houses were not.  The Red River is one of the most flood prone in the world because runoff from the clay-rich watershed is high and the river’s gradient is so negligible.

 Kerstin, another staff member of the language village, liked freshwater swimming because there were no sharks.  Her downside was murky water, caused largely by sediment pollution and algae.

Taking the bus back, we sat by Dan and Maggie. They were visiting Dan’s daughter, Angie, who was enrolled in the Chinese language program.  They were fanatical fisher”men” from the Twin Cities area whose favorite place on earth was Mille Lacs Lake, where the walleye is the only serious game fish.


Dan and Maggie visiting Concordia Language Villages, Turtle River, Minnesota.

They were soon to be married.  It's a match made in a here-and-now heaven called Mille Lacs  Lake.  Note that both have caps from Mille Lacs. He has a Gopher shirt as well, signifying his allegiance to the University of Minnesota sports program.   

When I asked them about freshwater, Dan’s upside was “multiple species.”  His downside was invasives.  Given the fact that he had a muskie on his screensaver, I figured he was referring to multiple species of fish in a Minnesota lake.  Of course, invasives are species as well.   His responses essentially boiled down to fish vs. weed, a local example of the familiar dichotomy between animal and vegetable.  He also told me about the ice fishing, and the ice-driving, with multiple plowed roads running every which way. 

Maggie’s downside was the tendency of Jet Skiers to whiz right by her boat when she’s fishing, when they could be anywhere else on this vast lake. How is it that Mille Lacs is so bit, and the other lakes so small.   It’s a shallow remnant of a much vaster lake that lay inside a kettle moraine.  This lake was the size of the ice lobe, whereas the kettles nearby were made from small blocks.

Her upside was Mille Lacs itself.  She’s been coming here ever since she was a child. Her dad brought her up from the cities on many weekends because he just loved the lake, in spite of his habit of calling it the “Big Black Dead Sea.”  About to get married, they will likely last, given the fact that the second love for both is fishing on one big lake.

The trip back was much easier than the way there. We arrived back just in time for dinner.