National Geographic's Guide to America's Outdoors: The Great Lakes
THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER VALLEY
Deep in the piney lake country of northern Minnesota, a small stream wanders north out of Lake Itasca. Pretty, yet unremarkable, it gives little hint as to what it will become: the mighty Mississippi, the largest and longest river in North America, the third most voluminous on earth.
From Lake Itasca, the young Mississippi scribbles along through pines and marshes, bleeding through wild rice paddies and across large lakes. It arcs through Minnesota like a giant question mark, fed by dozens of tributaries as it flows south to the Twin Cities. It continues to broaden as it forms the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, where sandstone bluffs of more than 500 feet rise to frame it. Classic northern rivers like the St. Croix and the Chippewa continue to add it its flow, draining hundreds of smaller whitewater rivers and streams.
Dropping little in elevation, the Mississippi settles in across a yawning valley that ranges from 1 to 6 miles wide. The river is perhaps at its most majestic here, rolling smooth and strong between craggy bluffs that are rocky and barren on the westward-facing Wisconsin side, and cloaked in hardwoods on the Minnesota-Iowa shore. As the Mississippi continues slaloming southward, it really begins picking up volume, absorbing the Illinois, the Missouri and the Ohio. The Missouri, entering at St. Louis, doubles the Mississippi?s size; the Ohio doubles it again. By the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River has covered 2,552 miles and drained 41 percent of the nation's water, from the foothills of the Rockies to the Appalachians. The Mighty Mississippi indeed.
More than 600 million years ago, a shallow sea covered what is now the Mississippi River Valley, depositing thick layers of mud, sand and sediment. This eventually compressed into the sedimentary rockï¿½the sandstone, shale and limestone, or dolomiteï¿½that characterizes the region. While glaciers scoured many parts of the Great Lakes region relatively flat, the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago, never advanced through the Upper Mississippi. Spared the leveling effects of glacial sediment or drift, this so-called "driftless area" is defined by chiseled rock faces, steep hills and twisting ravines.
The glacier played a role in other ways, though. As the last ice sheets began melting away, torrents of meltwater filled with corrosive gravel poured forth, gouging out a great north-south trough along which the Mississippi now flows and sluicing out hundreds of other channels that eventually became its tributaries.
A diverse array of ecosystem evolved, including river, sloughs, braided channels, backwater lakes, prairie and forest. Silver maple dominates the forest of the Upper Mississippi River floodplain, accompanied by pin oak, American elm and, moving south, sycamore and cottonwood. The river basin harbors 195 species of fish, almost one-third of the freshwater fish species in North America. For anglers, the Mississippi River system means everything from fly-fishing a pristine Northwoods stream for trout, to poling a johnboat through southern-like sloughs in search of catfish.
With an abundance of natural cover and food sources such as pondweed and sedges, the river valley provides perfect habitat for waterfowl. The Mississippi Flyway is one of the world's great migratory bird routes, an aerial highway followed by hundreds of species traveling between their summer nesting grounds in the north and warmer wintering spots. More than 40 percent of the nation's waterfowl and shorebirds migrate through the Upper Mississippi River Valley each year. An estimated 8 million ducks, geese and swans winter in the lower part of the flyway, along with thousands of bald eagles and other raptors.
Man has also traveled up and down this river valley for thousands of years. Even before the last glaciers receded, Paleo-Indians hunted megafauna like the woolly mammoth, mastodon and giant beaver. Much later, about 2,000 years ago, a unique mound-building culture evolved, building tens of thousands of animal-shaped effigy mounds. Several of these mound groups, found nowhere else in the world, still exist in Iowa and Wisconsin.
The Ojibwa, who named the river the Messippi, or "Big River," traveled the region in birchbark canoes, as did other tribes, French explorers like Marquette and Joliet, and the French-Canadian fur traders of the 17th and 18th century. But it was commerce of the early 1800s that would change the river forever. The Mississippi and its tributaries quickly became a key transportation network for the logging operations of the north, the lead mines of southwestern Wisconsin, and the Union Army during the Civil War. By the late 1800s, more than 1,000 steamships plied the river.
The Upper Mississippi's natural loopy course of winding channels and scattered sandbars confounded steamboat captains, so man began intervening. In the 1800s, workers dug a nine-foot-wide channel, which is still used and maintained today. In the 1930s, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined in the effort to improve navigation, constructing a series of wing dams that narrow the river at low water times to increase its velocity, along with closing locks and dams that direct river flow to a main channel. Today 29 locks and dams span the Mississippi, controlling its depths to allow passage of massive barges as long as 295 feet, which haul coal, grain, iron, petroleum, chemicals and other cargoes.
The diggings and dammings destroyed the natural ecology of the Upper Mississippi, changing it from a free-flowing river to a series of highly controlled lakes, each 15 to 30 miles long. While birds seem to thrive in the open waters and endless backwater pools and marshes, increased silt and sediment threatens to choke out some aquatic life. By forcing the river away from one shore and against the other, the wing dams accelerated bank erosion, prompting the Army Corps to armor hundreds of miles of shoreline with brush mats and stone.
We've impacted the river in countless other ways, too: widespread logging eroded the banks of northern rivers, adding more sediment; pesticides, fertilizers and other agriculture runoff drain into tributaries; urban sewage seeps in; and industrial effluent, unchecked for too long, has added PCBs and other toxic substances to the mix.
But Mother Nature occasionally takes back the wheel, as the great flood of 1993 proved. After record-breaking rains soaked the Midwest in spring 1993, the swollen Mississippi overpowered all human attempts to control it. It devastated city after city along its banks, drowning them in muddy waters up to 50 feet deep, destroying nearly 50,000 homes and rendering useless some 12,000 square miles of farmland. More than 1,000 of the 1,300 levees designed to control floodwaters failed. Like the fires of Yellowstone, the event raised countless questions about what man could or could not, should or should not, do to prevent such a disaster from occurring again.
As the debates roll on, there's comfort in knowing that the Mississippi somehow manages to roll on, too. While we owe it to ourselves and future generations to address the river's complicated problems, we also can enjoy its charms. So slip a canoe into a quiet channel or hike up to a high point...and lose yourself among the beauty of the birds, the backwaters and the bluffs.
KICKAPOO RIVER VALLEY
The thick ice sheets that flattened much of the Great Lakes region during the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago never advanced across southwestern Wisconsin and the adjacent corners of northwestern Illinois and northeastern Iowa. As a result, the land here is wrinkled into deep furrows, filled with crooked rivers, steep-sided ravines, sandstone outcrops and limestone escarpments. Because it is free of glacial sediment or drift, this region is known as the "driftless area."
The clear, spring-fed Kickapoo River showcases the driftless area perfectly, a crazy corkscrew of a river that twists for 125 miles to cover the 65-mile distance between the communities of Ontario and Wauzeka. The Algonquin Indians named the Kickapoo, which roughly translates to "one who goes there, then here." Less than a mile wide at its broadest, the river valley narrows to just a small gap in many places. Because the river valley predates the glaciers, geologists believe the Kickapoo may be among the oldest river systems in the world.
Normally a gentle river perfect for floating in a canoe, the Kickapoo can quickly rise out of its narrow banks after heavy rains. More than a half-dozen major floods occurred between 1907 and 1956, drowning several farming communities and prompting discussion of a flood control project. After decades of debate, the Army Corps of Engineers broke ground in 1971 on $24-million dam and reservoir near La Farge, designed to alleviate flooding and create a lake for recreation.
As environmental groups rallied to stop the project, the Corps moved forward, buying up 140 farms, rerouting roads and building dam towers. Four years later, 39 percent complete, the dam was mothballed for a host of environmental and economic reasons. (The passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 played a key role, since four endangered plants lived within the project area.)
The 8,600-acre tract sat in limbo until the late 1990s. Now the land has come full circle, a portion returned to the Ho-Chunk Nation and the rest reverting to state public lands for "education, recreation and low-impact tourism," and called the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Together with Wildcat Mountain State Park at its northern boundary, the area offers you ample opportunities to explore its delightfully twisting trails, roads and riverways.
Sigurd F. Olson: Voice of the Wilderness
Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) once described himself as "a freelance canoeman, trying to get the rest of the world excited about saving the finest recreational resource on the continent." He was speaking of the Superior-Quetico, the Boundary Waters canoe country that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border. Olson's appreciation and expression of that lakeland wilderness established him as one of America's most beloved nature writers and influential conservationists of the 20th century.
Born in Chicago, Olson grew up in the piney forests of northern Wisconsin, where he discovered the wonder of woods and water. At 24, he migrated north to Ely, Minnesota, and began a lifelong love affair with the Boundary Waters.
As an author, Olson wrote simply and eloquently. His eight booksï¿½most notably The Singing Wildernessï¿½espouse a sort of "wilderness theology," describing the treasure of the natural world and the deep peace it can bring to the human spirit.
As an activist, Olson lobbied incessantly to protect the wilds of the Superior-Quetico. In the 1920s, he fought to keep out the roads, then the power company dams. In the 1940s, he spearheaded a precedent-setting fight to restrict airplanes from flying into the Boundary Waters area, and in the 1970s, to ban boat motors from its lakes and grant it wilderness status. For that, he was booed, ostracized, and hung in effigy in Ely.
But by then, Olson's legacy was already assured. Over the years he had served as president of the National Parks Association, president of The Wilderness Society, advisor to the National Park Service, and advisor to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Olson helped draft the 1964 Wilderness Act, the pivotal law that established our nation's wilderness preservation system. He played a key role in establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, Point Reyes National Seashore in California and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota.
And the freelance canoeman did indeed get the world excited about that lakeland wilderness in northern Minnesota. His dream was realized in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed the bill that granted full wilderness status to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. "Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation, for they satisfy human need for solace, belonging and perspective," said Olson. "This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent. We can afford to cherish and protect it."