Growing up the south central United States the Mississippi River is a part of your life, even when you don’t live near it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve crossed it from St. Louis down to New Orleans, going east and west to visit family and friends. It becomes a standard feature of travel: the bridges, the muddy water, the river towns, the seemingly languid flow masking the harsh current. It’s always there, always looking the same, always exuding the same force of nature that has to be dealt with. Eventually that becomes your image of the river and you expect it to be constant everywhere you have to deal with it.
But there’s an alter ego to the Mississippi, a more juvenile version if you will. The Upper Mississippi shows a completely different face to the world. Near its origin in Minnesota, the Mississippi isn’t a brown, muddy, sluggish, wide force of nature. It better resembles a well-behaved river, one that is part of the overall environment rather than creating its own. Seeing this southern beast in its early stages can be somewhat disorienting, flying in the face of expectation.
From Iowa northward the Mississippi displays the behavior of a braided river, flowing through several channels and creating wetlands of tree-covered sandbars and oxbow lakes. About halfway between St. Louis and the head of the river, the Wisconsin river flows into the Mississippi (the far right stream above is the Wisconsin) and the two create a flat plain that over the years has been settled by Native Americans and European explorers. Occupying this plain at the moment is the town of Prairie du Chien, famous as a trading post as well as a launching off point for other explorers.
Although the Mississippi is not a single broad channel at this point in its life, there remains sufficient breadth for it to serve commercial purposes. Even here the barge traffic would be familiar to any southerner.
However, the locks and dams farther north would be a surprise.