The phrase “Mississippi River” conjures a swirl of images in our collective imagination: wide, turbulent, muddy waters; chugging steamships and heavily laden barges; violent, life-altering floods; maybe even Mark Twain chomping on a pipe. Everything outsized, legendary. But at the headwaters of the river, in a quiet corner of northern Minnesota, the scene is a world away from all of that.

Press the next arrow to browse photos of the Mississippi headwaters.
Photos: Mark Hirsch

Lake Itasca — whose name is a Latin neologism meant to translate as “true head” — was first identified as the source of the 2,300-mile Mississippi in 1832. Six decades later, by a margin about as narrow as the creeks that feed the lake, the Minnesota Legislature declared the area — which is home to more than 100 lakes in all — a state park. Today it’s a popular attraction, with nearly 500,000 annual visits and a year-round naturalist program.

But when photographer Mark Hirsch visited Itasca for Grist in mid-March, he had it all to himself, save for the park’s staffers. Spending a few days at the remote location was an eye-opener, he says: “Having lived near the Mississippi River my entire life, I have always viewed it as a wonderful but dirty, polluted river. At the headwaters, it is a crystal-clear stream … It was a fantastic time of year to visit the park and experience its solitude.”

Want to see more of the Mississippi? Check out Grist’s road trip to riverfront cities, our special series on the Army Corps of Engineers and agriculture in the heartland, and Wayne Curtis’s dispatches from New Orleans.