If you start eavesdropping at the Mississippi River's headwaters during the summer, you can hear the surprise in visitors' voices as they reach the humble beginning of the world's fourth-greatest river system.

Many expect something dramatic. Instead they find a 20-foot-long line of rocks separating Lake Itasca and the start of the Mississippi. The scene is gentle and clear enough to lure toddlers into August-warmed waters.

Last January, after record-breaking temperatures froze Minnesota lakes and rivers — even Lake Superior was nearly frozen — the small-but-mighty Mississippi headwaters still burbled across rocks. Take that, polar vortex.

Animal tracks could be seen in clusters, crossing the banks of the open river. The chicka-dee-dee-dees of birds and the scolding kuk-kuk-kuk of red squirrels kept getting louder. But all in all, the park was quiet and peaceful on a winter weekday. Snow-globe snowflakes drifted down and landed delicately on black gloves.

The winter air blew crisply when I visited Itasca State Park last January, with nary a whiff of the park's signature pines. It was nonetheless enchanting. Spruce boughs umbrellaed above snow-packed snowshoe trails. Red and white pines towered upward, stoic and sturdy, graceful and grand. I paused to gaze upward at the soft-needled cathedral.

If it's quiet enough, said longtime Itasca naturalist Connie Cox, "You can actually hear the sound of the snowflakes falling through the pine needles."

Gone are summer's buzz of bugs, full chorus of birds and the chatter of crowds that can bring as many as 3,000 people into the park on a busy day. That's roughly equivalent to the winter population of Park Rapids, a resort town 23 miles south of Itasca State Park.

Trees and shrubs stripped of summer foliage give visitors their clearest view of Itasca's unusual landscape, a combination of rolling knob (or glacial mounds of debris) and kettle (glacial depressions) terrain. Bird and animal populations are lower during the coldest months, but they are easier to spot — or at least you can spot clues to where they've been.

As we crunched along a well-packed snowshoe trail along Lake Itasca, Cox pointed out hoof prints and bowl-shaped spots where deer have bedded down in the snow. She has seen otters sliding down the lakeshore in another area, but we weren't lucky enough (more likely, we weren't quiet enough) to catch the playful critters. The open water also draws mink and fishers to roam these winter woods.

At the headwaters, 60-degree spring-fed water burbles from underground — the key to keeping the headwaters flowing even when winter freezes most of Lake Itasca and much of the Mississippi as it heads downstream. Beyond the open headwaters, January and February freezes lure a colony of ice-fishing houses clustered along the lake's long arms and smaller bays.

Winter allows visitors to delve deeper into Itasca's sprawling 33,235 acres, including a 2,000-acre wilderness sanctuary. Snowmobiles zip around 31 miles of trail that rims the park's boundaries. Skiers can explore the interior, where they find additional lakes and 28 miles of trails. Snowshoers can follow designated trails or blaze their own path. "You can see parts of the park you don't see in the summer," said Cox.

Visitors also can take advantage of Itasca State Park's year-round lodging, lingering for the sunsets and moon rises, listening for the nocturnal hoots of owls and wolves, watching for glimmers of green northern lights.

Frozen in time

Henry Schoolcraft, one of Minnesota's early European explorers, portaged and bushwhacked his way to the source of the Mississippi River in 1832 with the help of Anishinabe guide Ozawindib. Schoolcraft and a missionary companion named the lake "Itasca" from a blend of Latin words (veritas and caput) meaning "true head."

Itasca was established as Minnesota's first state park in 1891, passing the Minnesota Legislature by a single vote. Conservationists wanted to protect the headwaters and the old-growth pines, but this was no easy task. The country's economy was booming. Eager entrepreneurs and lumberjacks were stripping northern Minnesota's forests, sending logs down the Mississippi River. At one point, logs covered the water shore to shore, taking four months to float their way to St. Paul.

Much of the forest hasn't changed since Schoolcraft first visited, added Cox. Some pines are now more than 350 years old, which puts them in Ben Franklin's era. It takes three people to wrap their arms around their expansive trunks.

"People come for the headwaters, they return for the pines," said Cox. A version of this mantra has been repeated by both modern visitors and those who left comments in park journals during the early 1900s.

'A youthful spirit'

Cox and I hiked out to scenic High Point, which overlooks Schoolcraft Island and a tamarack bog that blazes gold in the fall. A fenced area protects an Indian mound, evidence that people lived here nearly 3,000 years ago.

When we returned to the headwaters, it was easy to recall summer memories of people inhaling the fragrance of pines, pointing out loons and constantly hopping across the river, rock to rock to rock.

"There's something magical about that spot," Cox observed. "People get a youthful spirit again."

Lisa Meyers McClintick is the author of "Day Trips from the Twin Cities" and "The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path." Find her at www.10000Likes.com.