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Chester Charles II transports passengers to days of yore

The Coborn family celebrates a quarter century of Lake Itasca tours this summer, the enterprise founded by Tom and Mickey Coborn. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)1 / 2
Chris, left, and Tom Coborn are behind the wheel when the Chester Charles II departs. Tom adds a bit of humor to the voyage. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)2 / 2

For more than a century, the source of the Mighty Mississippi eluded Europeans arriving on North American shores.

Zebulon Pike went looking for it; Lewis Cass proclaimed Cass Lake to be the river's starting point. Giacomo Beltrami claimed he'd found it.

Finally, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft decided to ask for directions from a native resident - Ozawindib. The Ojibwe were well aware of the source of the misi-ziibi (Great River). According to Schoolcraft's journal, Ozawindib pulled out a detailed map and showed him the lake Schoolcraft would later name Itasca. The source, he would soon see, was difficult to discern because of wild rice blocking the view.

Schoolcraft's visit was reportedly abbreviated by an onslaught of flies. The explorers returned to their canoes and headed to Star Island on Cass Lake, where Schoolcraft apprised Cass of his findings.

The geologist would marry a woman of Ojibwe and Scots-Irish descent. His journal, which he gave to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, became the source for the poet's epic "The Song of Hiawatha."

A journey upriver

Passengers boarding the Chester Charles II on Lake Itasca step back in time, revisiting the route taken by Ozawindib in1832 when he guided Schoolcraft to the Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi.

Tours recreating the historic discovery began in the 1930s, departing from Itasca State Park's Douglas Lodge. The excursions were discontinued in the 1960s.

Twenty-five years ago, Tom and Mickey Coborn determined the pivotal moment in history should be revisited; the Coast Guard captain/entrepre-neur/ordained minister made a proposal to the state.

"And it's been going ever since," said son Chris Coborn, who, with wife Jeanie and kids Cole, 11, and twins Kaisa and Kendra, 8, are now at the helm of the Chester Charles II.

The Coborn family has guided more than 6,500 tours to the mouth of the Mississippi, with Captain Tom often behind the wheel - wielding merry humor along the way.

The original Chester Charles was a 55-passenger vessel. "A few years ago, we decided to go larger," Chris said.

In 1999, the Coborn family purchased a 40-ton tour boat in Van Buren, Ark., along with a tugboat to send the vintage vessel upriver.

Move over, Huck Finn.

Family members lived on the boat, in tents on the top deck, as it moved from river to river on the 1,500-mile journey, ending in Red Wing.

"It was quite a trip," recalled Chris, who's also a certified U.S. Coast Guard captain.

Once on land - pulled from the water by a 500-ton crane - the 90-foot, 50-year-old boat headed north, the cumbersome freight escorted by State Troopers.

The Beulah Leona, as it was first christened, debuted on Leech Lake in the summer of 2001.

Weddings a specialty

Three years ago, renamed the Chester Charles II, the 141-passenger, flat bottom craft entered the waters of Lake Itasca welcoming guests for "not just a boat ride," but a narrated tour. With a draft of 3.5 feet, the boat moves easily through shallow water to the river's source.

Kim Coborn, a Minnesota state pilot, is often on board, pointing out the abundant wildlife, sharing the area's rich logging history and recapturing the enticement of discovering the river's source.

The Chester Charles II cruises depart at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 16. Picnic lunches are available at Douglas Lodge to take aboard.

The adventure begins at 1 p.m. daily from Aug. 17 through Sept. 5. Come fall, the boat departs at 1 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

The Coborns consider weddings to be their specialty, offering catering, music, rehearsal, the wedding itself and reception. A restroom is on board.

"Captain Tom" will conduct the ceremony upon request.

The Chester Charles II is annually inspected and licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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