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Mississippi River gets visitor center
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The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area consists of 72 miles of Twin Cities waterfront. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
The people in the cars whizzing over the Twin Cities' Mississippi River bridges may not realize that they're passing over a National Park site. But they are. The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area consists of 72 miles of the Father of Waters and a host of parks, trails, and historic sites along the riverbanks in the Twin Cities area. This weekend, the National Park Service celebrates the opening of a visitor center in downtown St. Paul to help acquaint people with the attractions along the National River.

St. Paul, Minn. — Park Ranger David Wiggins sometimes describes people's enthusiasm for the Mississippi River and the open spaces along it as if it was an infectious malady.

"Those that catch the bug, that start to discover these places, really get it pretty bad," Wiggins says. "And it's a great thing to see."

Like a good epidemiologist, Wiggins has studied the origins and progression of this river fever. He's found a correlation between how much people know about the Mississippi and how much enjoyment they get from spending time along it. Wiggins says he's encountered travelers ready to immerse themselves in the river's nature, history, and lore.

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Image Ranger David Wiggins says visitors get the Mississippi "bug"

"If you start to get into this river story, you really can't get out," Wiggins says. "I've even talked to people that have gotten so engaged with this as visitors, they're thinking about moving here, believe it or not. It's such a cool place, it's great to see people appreciate it the way we do."

The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is unusual within the Park Service. There's no grand entryway to the park, no fence around its boundary. Superintendent JoAnn Kyral says hardly any of the land is owned by the federal government.

"There's dozens of partner sites within our boundary," Kyral says. "Such as the parks in Dakota County, Anoka County parks, Ramsey County, the city of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and even a state park -- Fort Snelling State Park."

The park at Coon Rapids Dam, Minnehaha Falls, and the Sibley House Historic Site are examples of places that are managed locally, but which together make up the National River. The approach is unique within the Park Service, but Kyral says there's talk within the agency that it could be used as a model for future units.

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Image Harriet Island Regional Park is part of the National River

While this stretch of the Mississippi became a national river 15 years ago, it is only now gaining a visitor center, which is housed in St. Paul in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Wiggins says the center will give visitors -- and local residents -- an overview of the scenic and historic nooks and crannies along the Twin Cities waterfront.

One computer terminal in the center links visitors to information about local sites. Another provides information about places to visit along the length of the Mississippi.

"Well, let's see what's down here," Wiggins suggests as he slides the mouse to pay a virtual visit to the lower river. "Right down in Arkansas and Mississippi we can see what's available in Clarksville. And get to a detailed map of that and get to information about the Delta Blues Museum, if we like."

"These are all Internet resources," says Wiggins. "That's the great thing about doing a visitor center at this time. You don't have to invent ways to present this information. This is already up and presented. We're just stitching all this together in a way that makes it easier for visitors to use."

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Image JoAnn Kyral is superintendent of the National River

The center is also laced with interpretive displays that will change over time. The first batch includes kiosks on the tribes of people who have lived along the Mississippi, how humans have changed the river through engineering, and how the river has influenced art, literature, and music. Over the strains of Louis Armstrong's "St. Louis Blues," Wiggins reads an exhibit caption.

"'Could the muddy currents and backwaters of the Mississippi have influenced musical tradition?' Well, indeed they did. And we help visitors discover that the Mississippi is really behind a whole lot of music, all the way up to rock and roll," he says.

Superintendent Kyral says rangers at the center will help visitors plan trips not only to nearby and downstream attractions, but also to other Park Service units. This weekend, a visiting ranger from Canyonlands Park in Utah will be on hand. Kyral says having it serve as a gateway to the entire Park Service system is something else that makes the Mississippi River center unique.

"For the national park system, this is the first visitor center or site where someone can come in and have information about all units of the National Park System, all 388," Kyral says.

National Park Service Director Fran Mainella will be on hand for Saturday's ribbon cutting at the new center. Sunday's activities include riverboat excursions focusing on history or birdwatching.

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