Water characteristics - check the river level report.
The Mississippi River, flowing south into Aitkin County, enters a flat forested plain, the bed of glacial Lake Aitkin. The river is deep, slow and sinuous in this stretch, with many oxbows forming islands surrounded by slack water. Most of the oxbows are not readily apparent from the main channel which gives the canoeist an opportunity to discover secluded river channels of another era.
Landscape - In Aitkin County, the topography of the river corridor is influenced by the glacial lakes Upham and Aitkin, which once covered most of this area. The landscape is flat and the streams meander through glacial material. The shrub swamp is a distinctive vegetative community with speckled alder, willows, bog birch and pussy willow shrubs growing 10 to 15 feet tall. Ferns, tall asters, sedges and wildflowers grow beneath these dense thickets. About 85 percent of the shorelines are in private ownership; many of these lands are managed for forests. Agriculture has been a significant land use in the past and many parcels are held in large acreage. Residential development is minimal along this part of the river.
Five islands lie in the channel below the confluence of the Mississippi with the Pine River. These islands are covered in the floodplain hardwood forest of maple, ash, elm, and cottonwood, typical of this section. At French Rapids, the river is confined to a narrow channel with timbered banks rising more than 100 feet above the river. Steep pine and oak covered hills rise straight out of lowlands covered with ash and maple. Potholes and ponds dot the inland forest. This is the most rugged area in the Headwaters region and is crossed by a variety of recreational trails.
Fish and wildlife - The still waters of the oxbow provide a suitable place for northern pike to spawn and muskrats to build houses. Floodplain hardwood forests provide food, shelter and habitat for animals requiring a large area of forest, such as songbirds and birds that nest in cavities of dead trees. Watch for muskrat, beaver, otter, turtles, herons, hawks, osprey and eagles along the shore.
Walleye and northern pike are the game fish most sought by anglers in this stretch. Northern pike are by far the more abundant species. Walleye fishing is best at the confluences of small tributary streams. Largemouth and smallmouth bass and an occasional muskie may also be taken.
The Minnesota Department of Health has guidelines for consuming fish taken from Minnesota's lakes and rivers. Go to the Fish Consumption Advisory Page to find out more.
Cultural Information - Big Sandy Lake, the site of an Ojibwe Indian village, was the scene of a battle in the 1760s between the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. Coming immediately before the decisive battle downriver at Crow Wing, the Sandy Lake clash was part of a campaign that resulted in the final expulsion of the Dakota from their lands east of the Mississippi.
Sandy Lake was also the site of trading posts established by the Northwest Company and the American Fur Company. Post employees lived primarily on a diet of wild rice bought from the Indians, potatoes they grew themselves, game and fish. Flour, salt and tea were luxuries.
Above and below Aitkin the Mississippi flows through the Cuyuna Iron Range. The Cuyuna differs from the Vermilion and Mesabi ranges in its high manganese content. In World War I, 90 percent of the nation's manganese came from the Cuyuna. The ore was first discovered here in the 1890s by surveyor Cuyler Adams. The name of the range is a combination of Adam's first name and the name of his dog, Una.
Aitkin became an important lumbering and transportation center in the latter half of the 19th century. Logs were floated downriver past Aitkin and riverboat traffic abounded, carrying passengers and freight to the north country.