The sun beats down on my exposed arms and legs as I rest my kayak paddle across my lap. The lake water drips merrily off either end. I gaze around me, grateful for the sun, the water, the air, my family. I tilt my head back, ever so slightly, and it suddenly hits me that I couldn’t be luckier.
The sky is an azure, sprinkled with wispy clouds. Its jeweled vibrance startles me, forming a perfect dome over my head. Reflecting the sky, the lake shifts and swirls, nearly oblivious to my presence. Except the ripples radiating from my kayak. The ripples travel farther, getting smaller and smaller, distorting the reflections at the lake’s shore. The trees’ full crowns waver ever so slightly, brilliant and murky greens smearing together. Evergreens rise proudly from oaks and aspens, asserting their quiet tenacity and continuity. Lying in the water at their roots grow water lilies. Their buttery petals pop against the lake’s multi-colored reflections like fireflies against the night. A slight distance away, aqueous grasses wave above the water like thin strands of Mother Earth’s green-blonde hair.
These are the headwaters of a great American river. Its source, Lake Itasca, sits contently in the far reaches of northern Minnesota, and its mouth lies along the Gulf of Mexico. Here, at its start, the Mississippi is naught but a thin stream, somewhat choked by cattails and easy to wade across. To think that the Mississippi pours out 593,003 cubic feet per second at its mouth seems impossible. As it is, it is easy to scramble across the moss-slicked rocks dividing the Mississippi and Lake Itasca. I would know: a couple days ago, I was carefully stepping across those stones. The water was delightfully cold in the day’s heat, and my feet absolutely reveled in it. I made it to the other side, wild joy racing through my veins. I had waded back across, mindful of my dry shorts, toward my parents, laughing as they gritted their teeth against the rock-strewn bottom. I walked across the Mississippi two and half times. Just call it a herculean feat.
But I know that the river cannot be tamed by one such as I. My family and I had followed it up, leaving Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and some of Minnesota in our wake. I had sat in the car, peering out the window, legs criss-cross. Trees pressed against the two lane road in emeralds and jades, occasionally giving way to glimpses of the Mississippi and massive bridges spanning its width. I felt part of a whole other world as we drove through the picturesque river towns. I couldn’t help imagining life on the Mississippi. Steamboats huffing and chuffing, canoes and other small crafts bobbing along. Living off of what the river gave you, watching it shape the American frontier.
Yes, just bobbing here in a yellow kayak does not really tell of the power and strength Lake Itasca secretly supplies. It is so easy to simply change its surface with tiny ripples. And yet, I would be a fool to think myself so powerful to influence the headwaters. Even as those tiny ripples mar its waters, this lake feeds a river so long and so swift that it created its own ripples in midwestern American society. A wonderful source of fresh water and yet disastrous to cross. An excellent means of transportation and yet devious to transverse. Its power resonates, rearranging everything and everyone into a new, slightly smudged image as it is beholden.
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