Itasca State Park’s newest summer program, “Science of Nature,” brings scientists and visitors together to explore Minnesota’s oldest state park.

Benton Fry, a student researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station, and Connie Cox, the park’s lead naturalist, recently led a Mississippi River walk to discover the ecology, animals and plants that call this special river home.

Beavers are constantly attempting to dam the important river, building a lodge by the headwaters.

“Every fall, our maintenance crew has to come down every single day and pull out the material,” Cox said. “Who do you think is trying to pull up wild rice and stop the flow of the mighty Mississippi? It’s our industrious beavers, already trying to dam up the rocks for the fall and winter.”

Before venturing into the water, participants touched the soft pelts of beaver, mink and muskrat.
Before venturing into the water, participants touched the soft pelts of beaver, mink and muskrat.

Muskrat, mink, river otter, mice and water shrew live in the river and along its shore. A family of mallard ducks also reside here.

Beginning at the headwaters, participants waded through the Mississippi for an hour, pausing to identify whirligig beetles, wild rice and more.

Wild rice flowers in erratic patterns, that's why it ripens at varying times in August, Cox said. Minnesota has strict guidelines on harvesting wild rice.
Wild rice flowers in erratic patterns, that's why it ripens at varying times in August, Cox said. Minnesota has strict guidelines on harvesting wild rice.Shannon Geisen/Enterprise

Fry pointed out the river level dropped considerably over recent weeks. “With the water being down, there are some issues that could happen with the river. This is considered an impaired body of water” because of a lack of oxygen, he explained. “During the day, there’s productivity from the plants. At night, that oxygen gets used up by the animals and bugs. The fish species that can live in here are limited.”

Schools of baby bullheads scurried away from passersby, while small bass and perch hid under aquatic plants.

After guessing how long it takes water from the headwaters to reach the Gulf of Mexico, participants conducted a quick experiment with Fry’s help. By timing how long it took a tennis ball to float 10 feet, they calculated the current’s speed – a mere .74 miles per hour. Therefore, it takes roughly 131 days for water to travel the river’s 2,340 miles.

Prior to wading through the Mississippi, river walk participants calculated the current's speed through an experiment.
Prior to wading through the Mississippi, river walk participants calculated the current's speed through an experiment. Shannon Geisen/Enterprise