Headwaters

Headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca

The photo sort of says it all. From this outlet of Lake Itasca, a little stream merges with some other mighty rivers to flow more than 2500 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

Itasca State Park was established in 1891, the first state park in Minnesota and the second in the U.S. (after Niagara Falls).  Extensive logging of the native red and white pine timber had already begun in this area, since the 1830s, but one man’s lobbying effort persuaded the MN legislature to preserve an area near the Lake Itasca outflow for future generations — by a margin of just one vote!

Headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park, MN

Just in case we weren’t paying attention, a sign tells us the significance of this little stream.

Headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca State Park, MN

It’s sunset in Lake Itasca State Park. There should be moose in these wetlands that drain into the Mississippi, but their numbers have declined significantly in the past two decades in this state.  Wolves, beaver, black bear, and a variety of other mammals still reside in the park, but are infrequently seen.  A variety of warblers sing from the deciduous trees mixed in among the red and white pine. And all around us…lots and lots of mosquitoes, deer flies and giant horseflies! It’s been a wet year here.

Showy Lady's Slipper orchids at Lake Itasca State Park, MN in July

Bunches of Showy Lady’s Slipper orchids are clumped at places along the sides of trails where it is especially damp.

Red Pine forest at Lake Itasca State Park, MN

Red Pine, like these here, would have dominated the old growth forest in this area, with a scattering of white pine among them.  Deciduous trees were probably in low density in the old growth forest before European settlers came here.

Itasca’s old growth forests are almost as famous as the lake and its Mississippi headwaters.  They are one of the few remnants of such old growth forest in the state.

Tallest White Pine, Itasca State Park, MN

Only a few of the really big trees are left, like this 112 foot White Pine, the oldest and almost tallest in the park (it lost its top and the record a few years ago).

Even though logging here ceased in the 1920s, reforestation of the native pines hasn’t really taken off.  Increased numbers of White-tailed Deer browse the seedling pines setting their growth back, and suppression of fire actually retards the growth of the pines that depend on fire to clear out the undergrowth and open up the canopies.

Barn Swallow male, singing

A Barn Swallow dad took time off from feeding his youngsters to sing a few songs in the evening sunlight.

Barn Swallow fledglings

I found the Barn Swallow chicks sitting in the middle of a bush, chirping wildly to attract the attention of their parents.

Barn Swallow fledglings being fed by a parent

Barn Swallow parents apparently perform a “fly-by feeding”, zooming in, depositing food, and flying out again in just a couple of seconds.  It must take a lot of flying around to get everyone fed to their desired fullness.

northern bogs and forests

What a great diversity of habitats we encountered on our extended field trip to the northern reaches of Minnesota this past weekend.  One of the first stops just north of Virginia, MN, was the Laurentian Divide, which I had never heard of.  This modest rise of granite divides two watersheds:  north of the divide rivers empty into Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean, while south of the divide, rivers drain into the Atlantic, either via the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.

Here it is -- the Laurentian Divide runs through northeastern MN

I am standing on the Laurentian Divide that runs through the middle of North Dakota, northeastern MN, and most of southeastern Canada.  This exposed granite was scoured clean of vegetation by past glaciation, and today is covered by thin soil and sparse vegetation. 

The granite of the Laurentian Divide is part of a huge formation called the Canadian Shield that comprises the ancient core of the North American plate and today underlies most of Canada and part of the northeastern U.S.  The exposed rock was formed approximately 2.7 billion years ago! during a series of volcanic events that resulted in upheaval of a vast area of rock that may have reached 39,000 feet elevation (12,000 m), but is largely eroded to modest hills today.

This boreal forest area of Minnesota is a composite of granite knobs, forested slopes, and boggy lowlands, each with their unique fauna and flora.  In places where the land flattens out over river flood plains, there are expansive grassland hayfields, suitable only for grazing it seems.

Pale Corydalis

Pale Corydalis colonized the barest, rockiest, driest areas of the granite knobs.

Pale Corydalis plants colonized the barest, rockiest, driest areas of the granite knobs.

The flower reminds me a little of bleeding heart, but it is not in the same family.

A mixed deciduous-coniferous forest typical of northeastern Minnesota.  Birch, apen, maple, and basswood are interspersed with red and white pines.

A mixed deciduous-coniferous forest typical of northeastern Minnesota. Birch, apen, maple, and basswood are interspersed with red and white pines, and a dense fern understory.

Ground Pine (not a miniature pine but a Lycopodium sp.) was common in some places.  The spores of the brown spike at the top of the plant are harvested for a variety of uses, one of which is the flash powder used by magicians.

Ground Pine (not a miniature pine but a Lycopodium species) was common in some places. The spores of the brown spikes at the top of the plant are harvested for a variety of uses, one of which is the flash powder used by magicians.

In the low areas at the base of the hills, black spruce and tamarack are the dominant species found in the bogs.

In the low areas at the base of the hills, black spruce and tamarack are the dominant species found in the bogs.  Oxeye Daisys were one of the most common colonists of bare areas on granitic slopes.

Gray Jays replace Blue Jays in the mixed forest.

Gray Jays replace Blue Jays in the mixed forest.  They are smaller and much quieter than their jay cousins, but just as curious.  They are resident year-round here, managing to eke out an existence and even raise their chicks during mid-winter when temperatures are coldest.  They store food in the summer in sticky balls plastered to the vegetation for later consumption, and may eat anything from fruits and insects to small animals.

Lots of Pink Lady's Slipper orchids were blooming in the understory, along roadsides, and even in open, wetter areas.

Lots of Showy Lady’s Slipper orchids were blooming in the understory, along roadsides, and even in open, wetter areas.

A hummingbird clearwing moth sipped nectar at the honeysuckle flowers

A hummingbird clearwing moth sipped nectar at the honeysuckle flowers.  Swallowtail and Pearl Crescent butterflies also visited this plant along with the moth.  I saw many more butterflies in the northern mixed forest than I have seen in my own garden.

Water percolates through this boggy landscape in channels.  You would get really wet feet trying to walk here.

Water percolates through this boggy landscape in channels. You would get really wet feet trying to walk through this area, which is why fur trappers moved their cargo primarily during the winter across the snow instead.

There is much to see in this northern boreal forest, but hikes are not really a pleasant experience right now with all the mosquitoes and flies that attack bare skin.  Maybe that’s why the warblers like it here — lots of flies to eat.