Richard Harwood

Minnesota -2003

Travel to Northern Minnesota in 2003

In June of 2003, myself, my wife and our dog, Cinder, headed north for a week of visiting relatives, camping and travel in Minnesota. After visiting some of Kristine's friends and relatives in southern and central Minnesota, we headed north to Lake Itasca State Park.

Lake Itasca is the source or headwaters of the Mississippi River. The river starts by flowing over a dam that was built by the park system to "increase it's natural beauty". The original location for the headwaters was just to the west of the present day location, but was moved before the area was a park by the logging companies that worked the surrounding forests. When Lake Itasca became a park there were plans to move the river back to its original location, but due to the swampy, unattractive nature of the original site, it was not moved. Lake Itasca State Park sits atop nearly 180 meters (approx. 600 feet) of glacial deposits. Numerous glacial landforms are found within the park, including kettle lakes, moraines and eskers. Kettle lakes form when large continental glaciers retreat. As the ice melts and retreats, often large chunks of glacial ice are left behind, either completely or partially buried in the glacial till (deposits of silt-, sand- and gravel-sized rock debris). The melting of this stranded block produces a depression in the glacial till. If the water table level is high enough the depression fills with water and a kettle lake is formed. Many of the kettle lakes in the park are slowly being destroyed by natural processes. As vegetation in the lake grows and dies, the dead material accumulates on the lake bottom and slowly fills in the lake. In Lake Itasca State park, three distinct phases of this process can be seen. Some kettle lakes still have mostly open water, while others have been partially filled with vegetation debris. Lastly, there are lakes that have been nearly or completely filled with vegetation. Immediately beneath the glacial deposits are bedrock layers of 100 million year old siltstone, 2.5 billion year old volcanic deposits and 2.5 billion year old iron formations. None of these bedrocks are found on the surface within the park, but are known from geologic drilling operations and studies in the area.

From Lake Itasca, we headed north to International Falls. Despite the name, there is no natural waterfall in the town. There is a dam on the river over which water flows, but that's all. International Falls is best known for its cold winter temperatures. They often experience some of the coldest temperatures within the contiguous United States. Just to the east of International Falls is Voyageurs National Park. This National Park is primarily accessed by means of boat or canoe. There are only a few road accesses into the park. On this trip we were not planning to go boating or canoeing so our visit was limited to a couple of visitor centers, a few trails, and a good shore view of Kabetogama Lake.

After spending the night at Ash River State Forest, we headed south to Soudan and the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The Soudan Mine was given to the state of Minnesota by U.S. Steel after the mine closed in 1963. It is Minnesota's deepest iron mine with 27 levels which go down to a depth of 730 meters (2,400 feet) below the surface. Kristine stayed on the surface while I toured the mine. At the 27th and deepest level, after a short train ride, visitors are shown how the iron ore was extracted and told about mining conditions and work of the individual miners. Also located within the mine is the Soudan Underground Laboratory. I took the mine tour, but we were give a very brief look at the MINOS neutrino detector. For more information on this facility check out the Soudan Underground Laboratory web page.

From Soudan it was onto the town of Ely. Ely is best known as the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but it does have a few other things to see. Our first stop was at an outcrop of Ely Greenstone ellipsoidal pillow basalts on the north edge of town. Pillow basalts form when a basalt lava flow (like the kind which are seen erupting and flowing on the island of Hawaii) either erupts underwater or flows into the water. Pillows of lava form as the flow is quickly cooled by the water, but pressure of the flowing lava inside the pillow quickly fractures the hardened surface of the pillow and oozes out forming yet another pillow. In the picture you will see a particularly large pillow in the center of the image and a number of smaller, more difficult to see pillows surrounding it. In addition to this outcrop in town, on the highway just to the west of town is a roadcut through the Ely Greenstone which has also exposed similar pillow basalt deposits. Greenstones are metamorphic rocks that contain significant amounts of the minerals chlorite, actinolite and epidote (green-colored minerals - hence the name greenstone). Mafic igneous rock such as basalt will often become greenstones when subjected to metamorphic conditions of higher temperature and pressure. This metamorphism is often associated with mountain building events. Rocks gets squeezed and deformed in these events. The pillow basalts of the Ely Greenstone were originally basalt lava flows. A metamorphic event turned the basalt into greenstone and deformed the pillows into an ellipsoidal form.

Two other stops were made in Ely. The International Wolf Center is located on the east side of Ely. It is primarily an education center dedicated to educating the public about wolves. They have both timber wolves and arctic wolves there. You can see their wolves and learn more at the International Wolf Center web page. The other stop we made in Ely was to view the Vermilion Fault. This is a Precambrian aged (older than 570 million years) strike-slip fault. It is the largest of Minnesota's Precambrian faults and runs for over 400 kilometers (250 miles). It is similar to the San Andreas Fault in California which also has a strike-slip style motion. The surface expression of this fault is often a long, narrow valley with steep sides. This is the natural expression of the fault. The bottom of the valley is more easily eroded as it follows the broken rock along the fault trace. The fault valley near Ely has been used for a road and power lines and so has been cleared of trees, which helps to accentuate the valley.

Scenic State Park, located near the town of Big Fork, has an excellent example of an esker, the Chase Point Esker. Eskers are narrow, sinuous ridges of glacial till. They form as the result of sediments being deposited by a stream which flows beneath a large, continental glacier. The Chase Point Esker is a narrow ridge between Coon and Sandwick Lakes. There is a nice trail which follows the crest of the ridge.

From Scenic State Park, we made a quick stop at the Mine View in the Sky overlook which looks down upon the town of Virginia and the Rouchleau Mine's open pit iron mine. The mine produced more than 300 million gross tons of iron ore.

After a visit to a relative in St. Paul, we headed home following the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. One of our favorite places to stop along this route is Pikes Peak State Park near Marquette, Iowa. There is a view platform on the bluffs that gives a great view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, the wetlands and the bluffs along the rivers.

The map of Minnesota and surrounding states shows the areas that were visited and the routes traveled (red line).
Click on the camera image to view pictures from that area or on the links below.

Map of travel routes Lake Itasca Headwaters of the Mississippi River Kasey Lake Vegetation-filled lake Vegetation-filled lake Chase Point esker Chase Point esker Rouchleau Mine Voyageurs National Park Banded iron formation in Soudan Mine Level 27, Soudan Mine MINOS neutrino detector, Soudan Mine Ellipsoidal pillow basalt Ellipsoidal pillow basalt Vermilion Fault Arctic Wolf Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers

Click on the link to view the pictures on the links below.

Lake Itasca
Headwaters of the Mississippi River
Kasey Lake
Vegetation-filled lake
Another vegetation-filled lake
Chase Point esker
Another view of the Chase Point esker
Rouchleau Mine
Voyageurs National Park
Banded iron formation in Soudan Mine
Level 27, Soudan Mine
MINOS neutrino detector, Soudan Mine
Ellipsoidal pillow basalt
Another view of the ellipsoidal pillow basalt
Vermilion Fault
Arctic Wolf
Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers