Artist Kathy Porwall grew up in a city so known for its rivers that the professional football stadium bore the name "Three Rivers."
But when the Pittsburgh native moved to the Brainerd area, Porwall was surprised at the reaction to one of the nation's most famous rivers.
"When I moved, it was kind of surprising that people kind of ignore it," she said.
She wondered where tourists went to stop and see the Mississippi River as few spots were highlighted or readily visible beyond the area bridges. And Porwall said she often thought about where the river could be opened to the public.
Residents along the Mississippi River often boat to hidden coves, around islands and through channels to adjoining lakes. Reclamation project signs are visible on some banks to indicate efforts to keep banks from further erosion. (Dispatch Photo by Renee Richardson)
About four years ago, Porwall and her husband, Cy, moved to a riverside property along Highway 25 just north of Potlatch. The river became instrumental in Porwall's inspiration to open a business called Mississippi Memories.
The shop offers original art, fine crafts and antiques for sale. Items offered have a nostalgic and/or nature theme. The Mississippi River has supplied both materials and motivation. Driftwood was used to create distinctive frames for artworks.
"There are a million beautiful snapshots each time you take a trip," Porwall said of the river. "It's never boring. Each trip is new."
She often takes photographs and uses them as a guideline for her paintings. Great blue herons and sunsets have been favorite subjects. The river flows near her home, down a steep bluff. A wooden staircase, with occasional lights to mark the path, drops down to a dock and Porwall's boat. From the dock nearby anglers can be seen trying their luck along the river as it bends and moves toward Rice Lake.
Lyle Niemeyer, owner of Niemeyer's resort along the Mississippi River, has been on the river since 1977. He said guests come to the area for its peace and quiet. Niemeyer said he appreciates the abundant wildlife, rice hens, beaver, eagles and fish. Niemeyer said he lives 10 miles from a major shopping area but can go out on the river and have a wilderness experience that rivals trips to Canada's remote areas. The Niemeyers use a houseboat like a camper and boat to quiet coves, park and cook a meal. They've watched deer swim across the river illuminated by the moonlight.
Niemeyer said people think of the river as a straight strip of water with a bank on either side. But he said the river is full of little islands, bends and corners.
"You can just go on and on," he said of exploring quiet spots along the river's course.
Porwall and her family use the river for ice skating and even have bonfires in the winter out on the ice. During the summer, the river is a cool spot used for fishing, swimming and boating.
Porwall said north of the Potlatch Dam, the river is largely pristine and the French Rapids area near Brainerd appears in a natural setting with its high banks and deep water. She has witnessed children using a rope swing to cool off in the river and water-skiing enthusiasts in wetsuits going by in the spring. Summers provide light boat and pontoon traffic.
When people come to the new art business, Porwall said she wants to offer them the opportunity to walk around the house and view the river. She said friends who come to their river home often think of the water as dirty or a place where snapping turtles lie in wait for the unsuspecting. Some have even declined to go down by the dock where the river is about five feet deep before it drops off past the dock's end.
For Porwall, the river remains a source of an artistic vision and a resource that has yet to be fully mined for its appeal from riverside eating establishments to T-shirts that display a river setting for the area.
"I think my artwork is emotional and makes connections with people and their past and nature now," Porwall said.
Cy Porwall said he wanted to live on the river since he was a little child. It may have been a combination of visions of Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. An outdoors enthusiast, Cy said he enjoys fishing and the river's general ambiance and its connection with history. He said the river has always seemed a little mysterious. And it has been unbeatable as a stress reducer.
He said: "I can leave work and get in my boat and within three minutes I have peace of mind."
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