What I had for brunch: A Trip to Bitch Lake

Amanda next to the tallest white pine tree in Minnesota

They say Lake Itasca is the source of the Mississippi. This is why there is a big state park surrounding the lake, a park that preserves some beautiful old forest despite the best efforts of 19th century lumberjacks to cut it down.

I've been to Itasca a number of times, and I've even done archaeological research there (which didn't turn out to be very interesting). But when I went to Itasca last week, it was my first visit with no work agenda, and I got to spend more time poking around and seeing the sights. I was visiting because Amanda was recruited to run demos for the research lab she has been working in for the incoming bio grad students (who are all sent to the forest the summer before they start), and she got to bring me. So I drove over from the cabin.

There surely were much larger trees in this state before the lumberjacks killed them all, but at the moment, the tallest white pine is here at Itasca. I've seen taller white pines, but this one is pretty impressive and, of course, its tallness is impossible to photograph.

The tallest red pine is supposedly in this park as well, but I'm not so sure. If you look at it (picture below) it seems to be missing it's top. In comparing the drawing of this red pine tree on the plaque commemorating its tallosity to the actual tree, I'd say there is about 22 feet missing.

Supposedly tallest red pine.

But what about this source of the Mississippi thing?

Well, this is kind of interesting. Lake Itasca was firmly established as the source of the Mississippi in 1889. This was over 80 years after the source of the Missouri was established. The source of the Nile was established at this level of certainty (though it was earlier claimed) in 1871. And with the source of the Mississippi what, less than an hour from the cabin, how could this have been established so late in the game? The city of Bemidji, just down stream from Itasca, on the river, was incorporated in 1896!!!!

Lake Itasca is shaped like a giant tuning fork. The fishing here isn’t bad.

I'm not going to bore you with the details of this story, nor am I going to support any one of the possible arguments that one could lay out about what the source of that great river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico really is. But I will give you a few interesting tidbits to chew on.

First, at the large scale, consider the Missouri river. Where the Missouri and the Mississippi river combine, they are pretty much the same size: Big-ass. The Mississippi, on an average day, is larger, but the Missouri floods are much much larger, so on average, it might be difficult to pick one vs. the other as the main river vs. the tributary. If straightness (the Missouri makes a turn into the Mississippi) was a factor, well, fine, but there are plenty of rivers where the straight one is the short one and the less straight partner is the longer river with the greatest flow.

Visitors to the outlet of Itasca enjoy pretending to be the coolest thing this side of the Mississippi. Or no, THAT side of the Mississippi. No, wait, THIS side of the Mississippi. And so on, until they get hungry and walk up the trail to the gift shop and restaurant newly built.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that the Mississippi flows south, "down map" for much of it's course, while the Missouri comes in at an angle, "across map." That seems strange, but it matters to some people. Note, for instance, that the Mississippi up here in Minnesota makes a big question mark (or, as some say, a fishing hook). It flows out of Itasca to the north, and eventually wanders eastward, then southward, then westward, then southward again. This is so enigmatic to so many visitors to the state park that there is actually an educational exhibit explaining how the Mississippi River flows 'up map' for a while. Can you believe that?

This is the sort of thing that makes me laugh when people extol the great abilities of the human mind.

Here's another point. Here in Minnesota, there are multiple lakes that were originally suggested as the source of the Mississippi, and in fact, this is where the confusion has occurred causing this issue to be settled so late. We now understand that the local people, mainly Native Americans but also some African Americans, French (prior to their expulsion and subsequent widespread mispronunciation from the state) and the mixed ethnic offspring of these presottans, knew where Itasca was ... it was not 'discovered' by Henry Schoolcraft when he first visited Itasca in 1832 (thus beginning the debate over which lake was the source). But this origin question was more of interest to European types who had been fighting out similar issues elsewhere in the world, and who had taken to using rivers as boundaries rather than as central themes in their cultural geography.

Just last week, this happened: Amanda and I were driving around the lake, and we pulled over to look up some plants and watch some birds. So there we were gazing across a stream passing through a marsh opening into Itasca. The stream was an outlet from another lake behind us. Another lake. Upstream from Itasca. So why was that lake, known today as Elk Lake, not the source of the Mississippi?

It's complicated, and the short answer is that this part of Minnesota is a giant swamp with some parts of the swamp being more open water (those are the lakes) and some being less open (those are the forests). The real source of the Mississippi is either some muddy stream uphill (like by nine inches) from Itasca, or it is simply this entire quagmire taken as a whole.

What about the name "Itasca"? All these names up in these parts are either French or Native. The French names are always butchered as part of a deep seated hatred Minnesotans have of the French. For instance, the following lake: Lac l'homme Dieu (Lake of the god-man?) is pronounced as follows:

Lake La Hama Doo.

Mississippi means "Father of Waters" down in the state of Mississippi, but here in Minnesota (which means either "sky colored" or "muddy" waters) it is said to mean "Great Waters."

Itasca is, however, different. Neither Native nor French, it is from the Latin, derived from the words veritas and caput (truth and head ... the true head). This name was provided by the 'discoverer' Schoolcraft. I suppose it started with:


And then they played around with it for a while: ritascap ... veritascapu ... ascaput ... itascap ... itasca. Itasca! That one sounds Indian, by jove, we'll use that one!

But as you may imagine, the lake was not always named Itasca. It already had an Indian name or two. Could have been worse. The lake I mentioned before, Elk Lake, was for a while named Lake Glazier, after some guy named Glazier, who claimed that ... ah let's see ... right, Lake Glazier is the source of the Mississippi. He also drew maps of Lake Glazier and Itasca, and in his maps, Glazier (Elk) is much larger than it is in real life.

Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan is the original native name, Ojibwe, for, wait for it ... Elk Lake. So Elk Lake became True Head Lake and Glazier Lake became Elk Lake.

But .. in between being called Omashkoozo and being called Itasca, it was called ...


... La Biche.

And what, you may ask, is this word from French, "La Biche"? I'll bet a lot of French speaking people are not sure, but I'll tell you. It means Elk (female elk, to be exact). It was Elk Lake!

So, you may ask, are there Elk in Itasca Park? There were. In the 19th century, Itasca was well inside of wild Elk range. Today the nearest wild Elk is about 75 miles north. (There are of course "domestic" elk here and there ... we eat them now and then.)

Itasca is nice. If you are ever in the neighborhood, do try to drop in. And if you do, stop by the cabin, we'll cook up some elk burgers.

For more blog posts about the wilds of northern Minnesota check out "Notes from the North Country"

Photos by the author.

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What does source even mean? Is it the place where water starts flowing into the system that is furthest away from the mouth? (Mouth? What is that anyway?) Seems like an entirely arbitrary designation.

i have within a arm reach a photo of the "true" source of the Mississippi--really--some years ago my wife and i took our canoe into Elk Lake,which flows into Itasca and paddled around until we found at the north end and running into the lake a large spring on a hill side.really many small springs about the size of a kitchen sink all bubbling out iron rich cold water.mats of rust colored algae mixed with thick growths of watercress defined the area.Elk has several iron springs,we deemed that one to be our true source.

"Bitch" is not appropriate. In French, a man might call his wife or girlfriend, "ma biche", which is a term of endearment, like "ma cherie" or "my dear"(not deer).

"And what, you may ask, is this word from French, "La Biche"? I'll bet a lot of French speaking people are not sure, but I'll tell you. It means Elk (female elk, to be exact)."

You don't know a lot of French speakers, do you? "La biche" means "the doe", as in a female deer of pretty much any species. Translating it specifically as wapiti, as you seem to be doing, is bizarre.

A native French speaker is as likely to know the word biche as a native English speaker is to know the word doe. I, a non-native French speaker, certainly knew it immediately.

Ambrose @4--The endearment, "ma biche" means "my doe" so it could actually be translated either "my dear" or "my deer."

By hoary puccoon (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

Hoary, thanks for your perspective on modern Fremch in France. You should assume that I was using the translation pertinent to the time and place that the word was used.

I know one or two French speakers, having, for instance, lived in a French speaking country for a few years, a reasonable drive from another French speaking country for decades, and been raised in an academic environment where French is number one second language in K-12 and beyond, for some reason.

Which did not help me in knowing what this word meant, I admit. But I do appreciate your outline of what the word means in your particular corner of French speaking land.

By the way, when the Europeans used the word "La Biche" which was later translated to "Elk" they (the Europeans) may have been speaking of what are locally known as moose.

Hoary, I appreciate your precision. I simply wanted to make a distinction from the title.

In France, the moose is known as the orignal. Perhaps in Canada it is different. The elk is known as élan.

Greg Laden @6--
In my particular corner of French speaking land (the old hexagon itself) deer, especially roe deer, on the roads are a serious traffic hazard. I've never heard anyone make a joke about "les biches" being a real bitch, but then none of my neighbors speaks English.

By hoary puccoon (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

@7: Depending on the exact timing, there may be something to that theory. Apparently the Swedish word for moose is älg, which is cognate to "elk". I don't know if the French do something similar (which the Swedes may have borrowed when they imported a king from France), or when Swedish immigrants started settling in Minnesota.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

Eric: The French do something similar, as to the English. US Elk = Red Deer in England cerf noble or élaphe in French; US Moose = Elk in England, élan in France. Hind and boe (in English) are biche in French, not specific to species.

Very interesting. Of course it should be kept in mind that by the time European's arrived finally arrived with modern records, the original populations of indigenous people had already been greatly reduced by introduced diseases in some cases a hundred years and more prior to that, so that what we might consider the natural scene,based on old written records, the original range of wild-life and even the presence of 'old trees' might not have been the same as it was when those now decimated populations were there actively extracting resources and modifiying the land with fire and selective harvesting plants and trees, as well as constraining the wild populations of animals, for many generations prior to the euro-epidemics. The pristine and empty wilderness where indigenous people were retiring hunter gatherers living in harmony in an empty land might very well be a myth that was perpetuated to further the dreams of manifest destiny. Cheers

One of my pleasant memories is from the 1960s when I worked on Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis as a liaison between the University and the (mainly) Chippewa (yeah, I know: Ojibwe) population there. One weekend we drove up to Ponemah on the Red Lake res for a pow-wow, taking with us an old Chippewa woman and her youngest granddaughter, the latter around 5 years old. At grandmother's request we made a detour to Itasca so she and her granddaughter could see the source of the Mississippi for the first time for both of them. Watching granddaughter and grandmother holding hands crossing the creek shown in your pic generated a very good feeling that lasted right up until late that same night when a bunch of Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge res decided to show those Chippewas how to really dance after the tourists had gone.

Doug: Indeed. One way occidento-normative types have handled that is to display the aboriginal people in the Natural History Museum.

Of course, all people have a place in the Natural History museum, but putting only certain people there leaves out certain truths.

Greg Laden--
As long as you brought up this thread again, it may warm your heart to know that you* have been the cause of some happy laughter in a small, French village. The neighbors have asked me to inform you that the French know *all* the words for things they can eat. (Venison, especially from the local roe deer, is a popular delicacy in these parts.)

*When I say "you," I mean that anonymously. I don't think the neighbors would recognize your name, or hold this against you if they did, but why take the chance?

By hoary puccoon (not verified) on 23 Aug 2010 #permalink

Hoary, I 'm glad you brought that up, because I went and checked on a couple of things, up at La Biche itself, last week.

1) There was a lake called La Biche.

2) A valid translation for La Biche is "The Hind" (meaning the female deer)

(Many North Americans must now be reminded that "deer" means: moose, elk, red deer, roe deer, mule deer, a few other deer, oh, and yes, white tailed deer. ... North Americans generally go right to "white tail" when they hear "deer" ... in essence, in modern US English, "deer" means Odocoileus virginianus, at least in much of the country east of the Rockies.)

At the time of La Biche, the common deer in the area was NOT the white-tail, but the American Elk (known in Europe as Red Deer).

It is known that La Biche was previously named by the Ojibwe as "Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan" which means "Elk Lake." We assume the French, on calling the lake La Biche were simply translating the Native name.

When the name of Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan/La Biche was translated into English, it was translated to "Elk."

So, yes, I know it is hard for Les French to hear that there are words that are French that they may have a hard time understanding, but it applies as well to the English (in this case, the actual meaning of "hind" or "doe"). It may well be that "Le Biche" simply means "the Elk" in the same way that, in South African English, "the Buck" means "The Antelope" even though it originally meant "the male antelope/deer."

It may be worth noting as well that the French of which we speak here and the French of your petit village are separated by centuries and one or two cultural gulfs.

Sadly, there are no elk in Itasca today.

The traditional livelihood in my petit village was raising sheep, and, unlike your poor elk, there are still several herds of them around today. Yet I've hardly ever heard the word "mouton" ("sheep", as I'm sure you knew.) The word the neighbors commonly use is "brebis" ("ewe.") So, yes, it's entirely possible that French explorers used "la biche" to indicate elk in general.

By hoary puccoon (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

Here, as you surely know, we have "cows" everywhere. Boy cows and girl cows.