headwaters of the mississippi river in itasca state park in northern minnesota

Step lively: The mighty Mississippi River starts at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, above, where it’s about 18 feet wide and can be crossed by walking—carefully!—across the rocks. (Brett Whaley, Flickr)

My District: Is Where the Mississippi River Begins

By Doug McPherson | Feb. 23, 2021 | State Legislatures Magazine

“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to tell us about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the virtues only the locals know about.

One of the world’s most iconic bodies of water—the Mississippi River—gets its start at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and runs more than 2,500 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. NCSL connected with Senator Paul Utke (R), whose district includes the lake, to ask him a few questions about the area.

What comes to mind when you think of Lake Itasca? 

It is the beginning of the great Mississippi River. How it starts so small and grows to the size that we see in Louisiana is pretty neat. Over a half of a million people visit the headwaters each year. People travel from all over the world to visit Lake Itasca and the headwaters and I live within 22 miles of it. 

Any favorite memories of the lake or the area? 

Itasca State Park in general is a great place to visit and to enjoy the outdoors. We have had many great times in the park. From the boat rides on Lake Itasca, outdoor church services in the majestic pines, bike rides around the wilderness drive, hiking the walking paths and even deer hunting among the large Norway pines.

Have you waded across the headwaters?

Yes, like everyone who visits Itasca State Park, you have to walk across the rocks at the headwaters. But be careful, the rocks are slippery!

Over the years, some researchers have questioned whether Lake Itasca is the true source of the Mississippi. Do you have any doubts?


What else would you like people to know about your district?

My district covers a large area of northwestern Minnesota. Tourism is huge with all of our pristine lakes and activities. We also have farming, ranching, logging, industry and so much more. And at the northern most point of the district you will find the Northwest Angle—a part of Minnesota that is separated from the mainland by the waters of the Lake of the Woods. The Minnesotans who live in the Northwest Angle have to drive through Canada to get to the mainland of the state. The Northwest Angle is also home to the only operating one-room K-8 schoolhouse in the state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. NCSL was unable to reach Minnesota Representative Steve Green (R), whose House District 2B also includes Lake Itasca.

Doug McPherson is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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