A Tale of Two Forks, pt. 2 – East Grand Forks, MN

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The Red River is one of the few major rivers that flow north.  It originates at Lake Traverse in Minnesota and flows northward to Lake Winnipeg in Canada, forming the state border between Minnesota and North Dakota.

In my previous post we talked about the Canadian part of the Red River which forks with the Assiniboine River (marked as #2 on the map).  On the U.S. side, the cities of Grand Forks, ND and East Grand Forks, MN is referred to as the Greater Grand Forks.  This is due to its location at the fork of the Red River and the Red Lake River (marked #1 on the map).

Red River of the North

Our home base at East Grand Forks was located in the flat, fertile Red River Valley, which was once a part of a glacial lake, Lake Agassiz.  The landscape around the Red River is described as excruciatingly flat.  The river is highly prone to flooding because of its northward flow.  As spring approaches, the snow melts from south to north along the river.  The flatness of the terrain and small slope of the river are significant factors making the area a constant flood threat.
Red River
There were two major floods recorded during the past century, one in 1979 and the disastrous one of April 1997, when all but eight homes on 2,301 residential parcels were flooded in East Grand Forks.
Flood of 1997
All told, $3.5 billion in damages occurred in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, making it the eighth most expensive natural disaster in the U.S. since 1903.
1997 obelisk memorial

Obelisk commemorating the 1997 flood and marking the level of several major flood events

What were once entire neighborhoods bordering both sides of the rivers has been converted into a giant park called the Greater Grand Forks Greenway.  This is where we took long walks during our visit on the Grand Forks side.

The trails here were wide and weaved through beautiful stands of trees along the river

The transformation was especially visible in East Grand Forks, where we stayed at the Red River State Recreation Area RV park (Steve’s review here).  It is located where one of the former neighborhoods stood before the 1997 event.

This wonderful park had many large trees and spacious sites

An “invisible” flood control wall has been built to protect downtown East Grand Forks. Its cutting-edge design provides the area with a view of the river instead of a dike.  If a flood threatens, additional sections of wall can be added to provide protection to a level approximately four feet above the crest of the 1997 flood, which was a 500-year event. Openings in the walls provide vehicle and pedestrian traffic throughways.

Invisible Flood Wall

Slots on each end of the wall provide for panels to be installed if the water rises dangerously

 Flood Wall

A section of the flood wall protecting Grand Forks, ND

During our stay we crisscrossed the bridges that connect the sister cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.  They have fully recovered and no visible signs of the devastating floods can be seen.  We shopped at the Cabela’s located right across the street from the campground.  It’s one of the large businesses that was confident enough to move into the area after the floods and subsequent upgrades.

Besides walking and doing some shopping, I found time to goof off a bit…



Steve ran out and stopped the ice cream truck for a treat on a particularly hot day

One of our favorite surprises is to run across a farmer’s market while walking around town, and that’s what happened on one of our Saturday morning treks.  Among other things, we were amazed by the size of the cabbages for sale by one of the vendors.


We ended up with a bag full of fruits and veggies that was not part of our plan, but we enjoyed walking home with our bounty all the same.


Our tale of two forks in one river in two countries gave us some history lessons and several enjoyable experiences we won’t soon forget!


Next up:  Scenic Backroads and Byways of North Dakota


Exploring the Headwaters of the Mississippi – Lake Itasca, MN

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I have always wondered where some of America’s largest rivers originate.  We’ve hung out around many rivers – big and small – yet we’ve never seen the actual place where any of them originate.  Now that we’re in Minnesota I can finally visit the beginning of the celebrated Mississippi River.  My first glimpse of the Mighty Mississippi was in New Orleans where the river, wide and muddy, was just 100 miles from its dumping point into the Gulf of Mexico.

I was excited to read Sherry’s detailed stories of their stay at Itasca State Park, since it was on our route as we headed north this year.  Although we couldn’t get a reservation in the park, we were able to grab one at nearby Camp Itasca (Steve’s review here), located just outside the north entrance to the state park.

Lake Itasca

A beautiful day at Lake Itasca

Lake Itasca is the official headwaters of the Mississippi River, and it’s located within the boundaries of Itasca State Park.  However, it seems there have been perennial questions relating to the river: Who discovered the true source of the Mississippi?  What is the source of the river?  Several exhibits and interpretive displays at both the Jacob Brower Visitor Center and the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center attempt to answer these questions.

The questions began in 1783, when the U.S. needed to fix its western boundaries.  Between 1798-1888 the race was on to find the source of the Mississippi.  Explorers, surveyors, officers, journalists and the government all had different claims of places as the source.

History of Mississippi River

Henry Schoolcraft ultimately got credit as the discoverer in 1832, and he concocted a name for the lake by putting together parts of two Latin words, verITAS CAput, or “true head.” His claim of Lake Itasca as the source was disputed until 1888, when Jacob Brower was sent by the Minnesota Historical Society to survey the lake.  Like Schoolcraft, he concluded the outlet at Lake Itasca was the only one with a surface flow and volume large enough to constitute the beginning of a river.  He included the entire watershed when declaring Lake Itasca as the true source.

Some folks believed Joseph Nicollet was correct when he described a river as beginning at the farthest point upstream where the first drops of water flowed.  This was contrary to Schoolcraft’s and Brower’s theory that it was the farthest point upstream where the flow first constitutes a river.  Even the length of the river was up for argument.  So much controversy, but we were just happy to be where it all began 🙂

Attics Headwaters

And so here we were, at the cool, clear and pristine beginning of the Mississippi river.  The boulders in the center separate the lake from the river, and this is where people linger in crossing, with some wading a few yards through the water.  As you can see the channel is lined with grasses, and pebbles cover its bottom.

Headwaters of the Mississippi River

The headwaters of the Mississippi River, looking north

This is a gussied-up version of the nascent Mississippi; in its natural state, it was a muddy swamp.  Civilian Conservation Corps crews revamped it with tons of rock and fill in the 1930’s.

From Itasca, the river first flows north to Lake Bemidji, then journeys south as it meets up with its tributaries for either 2,340 or 2552 miles (there’s that length argument).   About 90 days after leaving here it flows into the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Below is a picture I took of the river in New Orleans, 112 miles from where it empties into the Gulf.

MIssissippi River

March 2013:  From here in New Orleans the river has about 100 miles to go before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico

We saw an interesting display that showed some stats about the beginning and end of the Mississippi River:


After that exciting learning experience we did some hiking on the park’s trails, drove along its beautiful wilderness road, and finally ended the day with dinner at Douglas Lodge, also located within the park.

Hiking the trails –

Arriving early one beautiful morning, we opted to hit some trails while it was cool out, before exploring the rest of the park.  We followed the popular Dr. Roberts Nature Trail, which started at the south end of the lake shoreline.  This two-mile loop passed through a bog on its way to the Old-Timer’s Cabin, which a CCC crew built with four giant logs in the winter of 1933-34.

Old Timers Cabin

This was one of the first cabins built in the park by the CCC in 1933, constructed out of 4 huge downed trees

Halfway through, we were harassed by swarms of relentless mosquitoes and deer flies. Fortunately I still had our mosquito nets packed from our days in Alaska, so we hastily donned them for the part of the walk through the bogs.  Not a nice place!

Lake Itasca

Hubby prepares for the onslaught of flying critters

We decided to check out the headwaters in the evening after seeing how crowded they were in the morning.  While there we followed the 2.4-mile roundtrip Schoolcraft Trail in search of the Loons that spend their summers at the lake.  The mosquitoes weren’t as bad here, so we marched on without our head nets.  I was glad we did, because we saw not only Loons but also some other cool birds in the vicinity.


We heard the haunting call of the Loon

Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles on the hunt

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans


A little fellow collecting food for the winter

Driving the Wilderness Road –

Continuing past the headwaters, we followed the 10-mile Wilderness Drive, which soon turned into a one-way road.  Itasca contains more than a quarter of the state’s old-growth pines outside of the Boundary Waters, and for this reason the park was established in 1891 to preserve remnant stands of virgin pine and to protect the basin around the Mississippi’s source.  We stopped at two roadside displays, the Big White Pine and Big Red Pine lookouts.

The White Pine is 112 ft. tall and 300 + years old, while the Red Pine was formerly Minnesota’s tallest Red Pine standing at 126 ft. and 300+ years old.  Unfortunately, a wind storm broke off the Red Pine’s top in 2007 so it lost its stature as a champion tree.

We learned that the Red Pine has reddish brown irregularly-shaped bark, while the White Pine has very rough gray horizontal bark.

Near the end of the drive, a half-mile gravel walking path lead to the Aiton Heights Fire Tower.  The tower is 100 ft. tall, and we were rewarded with a wonderful 360-degree panoramic view of the park after climbing to the top.

We had a bird’s eye view of the headwaters from up here:

Mississippi Headwaters

Dinner at Douglas Lodge –

After all that walking, driving and excitement at the headwaters we were ready for a taste of nutty Minnesota Wild Rice.  As the rice eater in the family, I gave this Wild Rice Hot Dish two thumbs up!

Wild Rice Hot Dish

Locally grown and harvested wild rice

We had a great day at the headwaters and throughout the park.  Now we can say we’ve been to the beginning, middle and end of the most celebrated river in America, the Mississippi!


Next up:  A Tale of Two Forks






A glimpse of the City of Lakes – Minneapolis, MN

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Minnesota Bridges over Mississippi River

With Betsy’s family reunion out of the way, we trekked up north to the land of 10,000 lakes and a billion+ mosquitoes, Minnesota.  Our home base for this stop was at River Terrace Park in Monticello (Steve’s review here).  We planned to spend only one day in Minneapolis, and our friends Joe and Judy, who lived and worked here for many years, gave us a list of things we might want to do.  Armed with the list and a forecast of rain, we headed out with our umbrella to see what we could accomplish in the “City of Lakes” – which happens to be the meaning of the word Minneapolis.


Minneapolis skyline as we crested a hill into the area

We chose to visit the Basilica of Saint Mary as our first stop.  From the pamphlets we learned that this was the first church in the United States to be designated a basilica on February 1, 1926.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.  Its significance is ascribed to several attributes: excellent architecture and engineering design; an expression of Baroque influence in church architecture; an example of the history of religious movements in Minnesota; and its place as the first basilica in the United States.

Next we crossed over 16 lanes of freeway traffic on the Irene Hixon Whitney Pedestrian Bridge, pausing for a few minutes to watch the world go by in a hurry.

Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge

All of those frantic working folks…

The far end of the bridge dropped us into the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where we viewed various pieces of modern art showcased there.  But we really came to get a “photo op” of the renowned Spoonbridge and Cherry, the piece that has become somewhat synonymous as an iconic symbol for Minneapolis.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Spoon bridge and Cherry

After strolling around the garden and gawking at some art that we usually don’t “get”, we drove downtown to see for ourselves how Minneapolis is built to handle the incredible cold and snow in winter.  We wondered how these folks move around and go about their business during the bitterly cold weather.

The city is known for its “skyways”, where many of the buildings in the downtown core are connected by heated, enclosed walkways two floors above the street.  We discovered that they are able to navigate between their work and other businesses and restaurants in several different buildings very comfortably using these cool skyways.  Steve was so impressed that he’s thinking of building one between Betsy and the car this winter!

Downtown Minneapolis

We could get lost in these skyways 🙂

Since we love guided boat excursions, we hopped aboard the Minnesota Queen at noon and glided along the Mississippi River on a 1.5 hour tour.  We cruised under several bridges connecting Minneapolis and St Paul, and passed through Lower St. Antony Falls lock and dam, viewing the city’s skyline.


Bridges a-plenty, for all travel purposes

The St Anthony Falls is the first of 29 locks and dams allowing for navigation from St Louis to Minneapolis.  One interesting fact that we heard from the narrative is that it took an act of congress to recently close the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam in an effort to keep invasive carp from climbing further up the Mississippi River.

Lower St Anthony Lock and Dam

Getting a lift up-river through the Lower St. Anthony lock and dam

The narrator also pointed out that the Stone Arch Bridge is the only bridge of its kind over the Mississippi River, constructed in 1883.  It’s made of native granite and limestone, measuring 2,100 ft. long by 28 ft. wide.  The bridge consists of 23 arches spanning the river below St. Anthony Falls.

Minneapolis Skyline

Minneapolis Skyline and the Stone Arch Bridge

St. Anthony Falls was visible between the arches as we approached.  It’s the only natural major waterfall on the Upper Mississippi River, and it was covered with a concrete overflow spillway (also called an “apron”) after it partially collapsed in 1869.

Stone Arch Bridge

Designated a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark

After our scenic river tour, we decided to check out the biggest mall in the USA, the Mall of America.  We had seen an episode on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series that described it’s construction, and although we were here during summer vacation for the kids, this was our only chance to check it out.

Mall of America

It was amazing looking out at the multitude of rides at the Nickelodeon Universe in the middle of the mall.


Nickelodeon Universe – an amusement park within a mall!

And yes, we came out with shopping bags – containing new walking shoes for both of us!

To break in those new shoes, we wore them to Wright County Park (Yes John and Pam, you have a park named after you!), and walked 5.1 miles as we meandered along the Mighty Mississippi.  We learned that about 700 Trumpeter Swans visit the warm open waters in this area of the river.  Swan viewing opportunities peak between mid-November and March, and I would love to see them if it didn’t involve coming here in the middle of winter.  But I was still happy to see a Great Blue Heron along the river in its classic hunting pose:


Mississippi River

Steve chatting with a local

On our way home we discovered this snake on the street.  Steve and I disagreed about whether it was alive or dead, but we agreed that we weren’t going to touch it to find out. My subsequent research revealed it was a Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus) which turns blue when it dies.  So Steve won this bet 😦

Rough Green Snake

A green snake that turns blue when dead or severely injured – Rough Green Snake

After our short stay in Monticello we moved on to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca.


Next up:  Exploring the headwaters of the Mississippi – Lake Itasca, MN