Like most large rivers in the upper Midwest, the Minnesota owes its birth to the melt waters of glaciers that receded from the continent some 10,000 years ago. In this regard, the Minnesota stands prominently at the top as having received the primary outflow of the largest glacial lake in North America, Glacial Lake Agassiz, which once extended from west central Minnesota to Manitoba. The eminent geologist, Warren Upham, mapped its shoreline over one hundred years ago and named the prehistoric lake in honor of Louis Agassiz, who established the theory of glacial drift. Upham named its southern outlet the River Warren, whose millennial flood waters carved out the two to 5 mile wide Minnesota River valley from Big Stone Lake on Minnesota's western border to the Mississippi at St. Paul.
Native Americans called it the "Watapan Menesota, which means the river of turbid water" (Keating, 1824). Early French explorers called it the "Riviere St. Pierre" or St. Peters. Today it's called the Minnesota, a relatively small river flowing in an immense river valley. The river today is still turbid and continues to contribute the primary source of sediment to the Mississippi River above Lake Pepin. However, recent studies have indicated that as a result of land use changes, sediment contribution from the Minnesota watershed have increased ten fold over conditions that existed prior to the 1850s and is resulting in a accelerated sedimentation in Lake Pepin. Besides sediment, the Minnesota is a major contributor of nutrients, pesticides and bacteria to the Mississippi and strongly influences its quality for many miles below its confluence. Having an interest in the Water Quality of the Mississippi River along Wisconsin's border, I decided to take an excursion on the Minnesota in June 2002 to observe first hand the quality of its tributaries and its mainstem as it flows from Big Stone Lake to St. Paul.
The Minnesota officially begins at the dammed outlet of Big Stone Lake and then winds its way across the entire state for 328 miles before it finally meets the Mississippi not far from the Twin Cities International Airport. Along the way, its waters are initially held back by 3 dams in the first 40 miles to provide flood control and fish and wildlife habitat. Waterfowl abounds in this reach with white pelicans being the most prominent due to its large size. The river's only hydrodam is located at Granite Falls. Minnesota Falls Dam is located a few miles further downstream and also once provided power, but its hydroplant has been removed. From here, the Minnesota flows "freely" through a wide river floodplain for 249 miles to its confluence with the Mississippi. The length of this undammed reach makes the Minnesota unique among similar sized rivers in the Upper Mississippi River system, which are typically beset with dams.
The Riviere St. Pierre was an important waterway for Native Americans and early explorers. It provided an important trade route linking Hudson Bay, via the Nelson and Red Rivers, with the Mississippi River. The Minnesota River valley is rich in history and early encounters with the flora, fauna, geology and native peoples have been interestingly documented in the journals of Willian H. Keating and George W. Featherstonhaug who traveled the river in 1823 and 1835, respectively. As I descended the river, I reflected on what these and other earlier travelers have observed on their ascent up the Minnesota and have included selected citations here for contrast and comparison. To be sure, their colorful observations are immensely better than my own and provide an important reference to a period of time when the river was not greatly influenced by human settlement.
My trip down the Minnesota started out under drought like conditions in western Minnesota. Heavy rainstorms early in the excursion resulted in substantial runoff from the Minnesota's many tributaries especially the Redwood, Cottonwood and Blue Earth Rivers. As a result, river levels and flows were above normal for most of the trip and my observations are reflective of these conditions. I apologize to the poor quality of many pictures that have been included in this journal. The fault is my own for contaminating my camera lens with specs of sunscreen.
"This is eminently the river of Minnesota, for she shares the Mississippi with Wisconsin, and it is of incalculable value to her. It flows through a very fertile country, destined to be famous for its wheat; but it is a remarkably winding stream, so that Redwood is only half as far from its mouth by land as by water. There was not a straight reach a mile in length as far as we went..."
"Potentially one of the most beautiful prairie rivers in the nation, the Minnesota functions as a drainage ditch for farmers and as a toilet for many rural Minnesotans. Its cleanup poses daunting challenges and costs."
"Channel of the River Warren, the outlet of Lake Agassiz. Looking southeast over the southeast end of Lake Traverse and the town of Browns Valley to Big Stone Lake at a distance of 6 miles."
Plate 1, Upham (1896).