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updated 8/5/2004 4:01:33 PM ET 2004-08-05T20:01:33

In its first few miles of existence, the Mighty Mississippi more closely resembles the underdeveloped adolescent who is the target of those back-of-comic-book ads than the he-man of American rivers. It’s so scrawny that we spent almost as much time outside our canoe as in it on the first day of our 14-day dash down the river to the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, at least two-thirds of us did. I managed to stay almost completely dry while our guide, Terry Larson, and media editor Jim Seida hopped out and dragged me and our plastic canoe over rocks, shallows and snags that sought to halt our trip down three of the river’s earliest miles. I resolved that I should maintain my perch so that I could chronicle the splash and colorful epithets certain to fly if one or the other should tumble.

There was, as it turned out, no need to document disaster, but my concentration wasn’t wasted. For while the river is of scant depth as it takes its first tentative steps toward the gulf, it’s not stingy with its beauty.

We awoke at our riverside camp site at Wanagan Landing, 5 miles below Lake Itasca, to the sight of a pale full moon slipping down into a ghostly fog hanging low on the river, the cries of nearby eagles and other birds piercing the stillness from their unseen perches in the pine and spruce forest.

As we grabbed a quick breakfast, the rising sun made short work of the mist, giving a clearer view of  the graceful stalks of wild rice waving ever so slightly in the current of the crystal clear waters. Dew-laced spider’s webs in nearby reeds added diamond bursts to the morning’s glory.

It was into this tableau that we slid our canoe, with the 49-year-old Larson doing most of the work from the stern and pointing out wildlife, wildflowers and the many varieties of berries that grow wild along the river, including blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, plums, grapes, black currents, choke cherries, june berries and high-bush cranberry.

This part of the river also is home to black bear, white-tailed deer, beaver, otter, muskrat, pine marten, fisher, mink, though they apparently were all deep in the shade and beating the heat on this day.

We did spot two painted turtles, a sociable flock of cedar waxwings and a flight of pelicans that drifted over from a nearby lake and took a good look at the out-of-season boaters.

Larson knows this stretch of river as well or better than anyone, having grown up just upstream from our entry point and having spent many happy childhood years playing on the farm of his grandparents, Carl and Adelaide Gulsvig, the first private tract outside Itasca State Park. One of seven Gulsvig grandkids who now own the land, Larson takes the responsibility of acting as a steward for the river and the land seriously, serving on the Mississippi Headwaters Board, giving nature talks at Itasca State Park and sharing his love of the river with his canoeing customers.

“I think the Mississippi has treated me really well in my life and I think I’m able, maybe, to give a little back when I have customers in my canoe and they’re from another state where the rivers are maybe not as protected or maybe not as clean,” he said.

Apart from the occasional tugs and pushes needed to get across the shallows, and a short portage to get around a log-choked cataract, our voyage passes without incident and ends all too quickly.

We’d love to do the trickier next section of the river, with rapids and bogs and beaver dams create a maze of dead ends, but with only two weeks to reach the river’s mouth, we have to get on the road and make the five-plus-hour drive to Minneapolis in time for a quick tour of the thriving downtown river district, with its fabulous no-cars Stone Arch Bridge.

Someday, perhaps, we can cover the entire 495 miles from Lake Itasca – a voyage that takes most canoeists three weeks – but for now we’ve got to get ready for tomorrow’s rendezvous in Red Wing, Minn., with members of the Prairie Island Indian Community and a state expert working to restore freshwater mussels in the upper Mississippi.

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