Tag Archives: Notes from the North Country

To Jeffers with Jaf: A trip across time, space, and culture.

There is a swath across the map of Minnesota that runs northwest to southeast across the state, separating the major biomes of the eastern two thirds of the country, and for complicated reasons. North, it is colder, south warmer. Much of the moister in the region, especially in the summer, comes from the Gulf of Mexico, directly to the south, whence air masses move north and swerve east. So, there is a west to east gradient of increased rainfall, and a south to north gradient of decreased rainfall. However, the cooler conditions to the north mean that what rain does fall counts for more, as there is less evaporation. There are other factors. Ultimately, the complex interaction between continental westerly, southerly gulf air masses with their storms, moisture gradients, and temperature gradients means that to the west of a certain line prairie (grasslands) is more likely to thrive, while woodland and forest should predominate to the east. And, north of a certain line, evergreen forest is more likely to thrive than deciduous. The exact mix of trees that thrive in each area depends on historical contingency, so each interglacial can have a different dominant species. In the present era, we see white pine in the north and oak with hickory in the south, but that changes even as we speak and various species grow back to replace the wanton, out of control lumbering of the 19th and early 20th century.
Continue reading To Jeffers with Jaf: A trip across time, space, and culture.

What I had for brunch: A Trip to Bitch Lake

Amanda next to the tallest white pine tree in Minnesota


p class=”lead”>They say Lake Itasca is the source of the Mississippi. This is why there is a big state park surrounding the lake, a park that preserves some beautiful old forest despite the best efforts of 19th century lumberjacks to cut it down.

I’ve been to Itasca a number of times, and I’ve even done archaeological research there (which didn’t turn out to be very interesting). But when I went to Itasca last week, it was my first visit with no work agenda, and I got to spend more time poking around and seeing the sights. I was visiting because Amanda was recruited to run demos for the research lab she has been working in for the incoming bio grad students (who are all sent to the forest the summer before they start), and she got to bring me. So I drove over from the cabin.

There surely were much larger trees in this state before the lumberjacks killed them all, but at the moment, the tallest white pine is here at Itasca. I’ve seen taller white pines, but this one is pretty impressive and, of course, its tallness is impossible to photograph.

The tallest red pine is supposedly in this park as well, but I’m not so sure. If you look at it (picture below) it seems to be missing it’s top. In comparing the drawing of this red pine tree on the plaque commemorating its tallosity to the actual tree, I’d say there is about 22 feet missing.

Supposedly tallest red pine.

But what about this source of the Mississippi thing?

Well, this is kind of interesting. Lake Itasca was firmly established as the source of the Mississippi in 1889. This was over 80 years after the source of the Missouri was established. The source of the Nile was established at this level of certainty (though it was earlier claimed) in 1871. And with the source of the Mississippi what, less than an hour from the cabin, how could this have been established so late in the game? The city of Bemidji, just down stream from Itasca, on the river, was incorporated in 1896!!!!

Lake Itasca is shaped like a giant tuning fork. The fishing here isn’t bad.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of this story, nor am I going to support any one of the possible arguments that one could lay out about what the source of that great river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico really is. But I will give you a few interesting tidbits to chew on.

First, at the large scale, consider the Missouri river. Where the Missouri and the Mississippi river combine, they are pretty much the same size: Big-ass. The Mississippi, on an average day, is larger, but the Missouri floods are much much larger, so on average, it might be difficult to pick one vs. the other as the main river vs. the tributary. If straightness (the Missouri makes a turn into the Mississippi) was a factor, well, fine, but there are plenty of rivers where the straight one is the short one and the less straight partner is the longer river with the greatest flow.

Visitors to the outlet of Itasca enjoy pretending to be the coolest thing this side of the Mississippi. Or no, THAT side of the Mississippi. No, wait, THIS side of the Mississippi. And so on, until they get hungry and walk up the trail to the gift shop and restaurant newly built.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that the Mississippi flows south, “down map” for much of it’s course, while the Missouri comes in at an angle, “across map.” That seems strange, but it matters to some people. Note, for instance, that the Mississippi up here in Minnesota makes a big question mark (or, as some say, a fishing hook). It flows out of Itasca to the north, and eventually wanders eastward, then southward, then westward, then southward again. This is so enigmatic to so many visitors to the state park that there is actually an educational exhibit explaining how the Mississippi River flows ‘up map’ for a while. Can you believe that?

This is the sort of thing that makes me laugh when people extol the great abilities of the human mind.

Here’s another point. Here in Minnesota, there are multiple lakes that were originally suggested as the source of the Mississippi, and in fact, this is where the confusion has occurred causing this issue to be settled so late. We now understand that the local people, mainly Native Americans but also some African Americans, French (prior to their expulsion and subsequent widespread mispronunciation from the state) and the mixed ethnic offspring of these presottans, knew where Itasca was … it was not ‘discovered’ by Henry Schoolcraft when he first visited Itasca in 1832 (thus beginning the debate over which lake was the source). But this origin question was more of interest to European types who had been fighting out similar issues elsewhere in the world, and who had taken to using rivers as boundaries rather than as central themes in their cultural geography.

Just last week, this happened: Amanda and I were driving around the lake, and we pulled over to look up some plants and watch some birds. So there we were gazing across a stream passing through a marsh opening into Itasca. The stream was an outlet from another lake behind us. Another lake. Upstream from Itasca. So why was that lake, known today as Elk Lake, not the source of the Mississippi?

It’s complicated, and the short answer is that this part of Minnesota is a giant swamp with some parts of the swamp being more open water (those are the lakes) and some being less open (those are the forests). The real source of the Mississippi is either some muddy stream uphill (like by nine inches) from Itasca, or it is simply this entire quagmire taken as a whole.

What about the name “Itasca”? All these names up in these parts are either French or Native. The French names are always butchered as part of a deep seated hatred Minnesotans have of the French. For instance, the following lake: Lac l’homme Dieu (Lake of the god-man?) is pronounced as follows:

Lake La Hama Doo.

Mississippi means “Father of Waters” down in the state of Mississippi, but here in Minnesota (which means either “sky colored” or “muddy” waters) it is said to mean “Great Waters.”

Itasca is, however, different. Neither Native nor French, it is from the Latin, derived from the words veritas and caput (truth and head … the true head). This name was provided by the ‘discoverer’ Schoolcraft. I suppose it started with:


And then they played around with it for a while: ritascap … veritascapu … ascaput … itascap … itasca. Itasca! That one sounds Indian, by jove, we’ll use that one!

But as you may imagine, the lake was not always named Itasca. It already had an Indian name or two. Could have been worse. The lake I mentioned before, Elk Lake, was for a while named Lake Glazier, after some guy named Glazier, who claimed that … ah let’s see … right, Lake Glazier is the source of the Mississippi. He also drew maps of Lake Glazier and Itasca, and in his maps, Glazier (Elk) is much larger than it is in real life.

Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan is the original native name, Ojibwe, for, wait for it … Elk Lake. So Elk Lake became True Head Lake and Glazier Lake became Elk Lake.

But .. in between being called Omashkoozo and being called Itasca, it was called …


… La Biche.

And what, you may ask, is this word from French, “La Biche”? I’ll bet a lot of French speaking people are not sure, but I’ll tell you. It means Elk (female elk, to be exact). It was Elk Lake!

So, you may ask, are there Elk in Itasca Park? There were. In the 19th century, Itasca was well inside of wild Elk range. Today the nearest wild Elk is about 75 miles north. (There are of course “domestic” elk here and there … we eat them now and then.)

Itasca is nice. If you are ever in the neighborhood, do try to drop in. And if you do, stop by the cabin, we’ll cook up some elk burgers.

For more blog posts about the wilds of northern Minnesota check out “Notes from the North Country

Photos by the author.

Walking around the lakes

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at lakes, but the idea of walking around a lake hardly every occurred to me or anyone else. This might be because the lakes were either really big (like the Great Sacandaga Reservoir) or nestled into deep sided rock canyons carved out by glaciers, and thus, not walk-aroundable. Lakes were central places, termini of inland pathways, points along long distance hikes, not things you walked around.

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How Young is the Grand Canyon?

To answer that question briefly, it is really really old if you mean “how old are the oldest rocks that are exposed by the Grand Canyon,” and it is probably just a few million years old (5 or 6 by some estimates) if you mean “how long did the canyon itself take to form.”

An African peneplain elevated by doming along the Eastern Rift Valley. The original surface, once flat but now raised as “mountains” in the distance, is shown by the dotted line.

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The Mystery of the Returned Boat Motor widens

First there was the question of Goldilocks, a Very Cold Winter Night, And a Strange Sense of Empty-ness. Then, there was The Mystery of The Returned Outboard Motor. Which turned into The Mystery of the Missing Boat Motor Deepens. Then there was the complexification described in What makes a perfect day at the lake?.

And now, I have received the strangest email:

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Global warming and the Minnesota Moose. Part I.

Minnesota moose experts generally agree that global warming is forcing the southern edge of the distribution of the moose northward into Canada, threatening this important US population of this ginormous deer species. Global warming denialists insist that this is the moose’s fault, and has nothing to do with global warming. This is the first of a two part look at this question.

This is an Alaskan moose. But someday he hopes to visit its relatives in Minnesota. If they live long enough…

Continue reading Global warming and the Minnesota Moose. Part I.

What makes a perfect day at the lake?

When the wind stiffens it blows the fog off the lake and replaces it with a biting spray. And when the wind slackens the sound of air rushing though the leaves and around the cabins is replaced with the crashing of the white caps that stand off from the more protected bay. Either way it is chilly and inhospitable, with ambient temperatures near 40 and a wind chill that might be close to freezing.

In other words, a perfect day at the lake.
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Global Warming, The Decline of the Moose, and “Minnesota Nice”

We have had a cool summer here in Minnesota, and this has brought out the miscreants who for their own reasons do not want to get on board with the simple, well demonstrated scientific fact that global temperatures have risen, that we humans are the primary cause, and that this climate change has negative consequences.

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Brett Favre. Any questions? I thought not…

A very interesting day. I got word in the AM that Derick would be digging a trench across the Cabin property tomorrow, and as an archaeologist I could not possibly skip that, so I ripped a rotten board out of the porch as fast as I could, threw in some laundry, and watched the beginning of the football game.
Continue reading Brett Favre. Any questions? I thought not…