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Friendship Fires

Friendship Fires

Illustrations by Terry Maciej
Sam Cook
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Friendship Fires
    Book Description:

    In these fascinating tales, Sam Cook captures the remote and beautiful North Woods, examining how this dramatic and forbidding landscape shapes his life and the lives of other people who reside there. Like a skilled storyteller sitting near a campfire, he leaves his audience spellbound with tales of adventure.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9549-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [viii]-[ix])
  3. Rhythm of the Land

    • Crustwalking
      (pp. 5-7)

      The Ojibway have a name for it:Onabani-gisiss.

      Moon of the crust on the snow. It’s the full moon of March.

      What you want to do is get up early. Not duck-hunting early, but early enough that the sun hasn’t begun to work on the snow.

      Awaiting you, early in the morning in the middle of March, is some of the best traveling of the year.


      What has happened is that recent warm spells melted the top few inches of snow. Softened it. Settled it. And now, on below-freezing mornings, that snow is set up into a crust so...

    • Return to the Brule
      (pp. 8-12)

      I know I’m there when I see the bald eagle circling overhead.

      If the time is late March and you’re traveling a northwestern Wisconsin back road and there’s an eagle in the sky, chances are you’re near the Brule River.

      The truck rumbles along the road, headed for Stone’s Bridge, where I’ll put a canoe on the Brule on this March morning. One bend past the eagle, I’m there. I get out and stand in the parking lot for a few moments, smelling the air, letting the hurry go out of me.

      Coming back to the Brule in March is...

    • Skydance
      (pp. 13-15)

      The woodcock appeared out of the west, a twitter of wings against low-slung clouds. He was right on time.

      It was dusk on an evening in May. The light had faded to the point that when we saw the bird on the ground, we weren’t sure for a moment whether we were seeing the bird or a clod of dirt.

      The two of us had been there for at least half an hour, waiting for the light to get right. When you go out to watch the woodcock’s sky dance, you don’t want to miss the opening act.

      Nearly every...

    • Frogsong
      (pp. 16-18)

      The frogs began calling in the little pond behind our home on April 27. That’s the latest they’ve begun since we’ve lived there, but it was worth the wait.

      It always is.

      The wood frogs started first, muttering in their quacklike style. As usual, they had the pond to themselves for only a couple of days before the audacious peepers cut loose. Now, they both call every night, nearly all night, and even on some afternoons when the humidity is running high.

      I suppose if we lived on a lake, we would define spring by the wail of the first...

    • Going Solo
      (pp. 19-21)

      Sometimes, you know you are going to have to get away for a while, by yourself, and do almost nothing. You feel it coming on. The need builds for months or weeks or even days, and you know you must go.

      To the cabin.

      To the lake.

      Or just to someplace you know in the woods.

      Maybe you’ll take a fishing rod. Maybe you’ll take the dog. Maybe you’ll take a book.

      None of that matters much. Each person has his or her own idea of what’s essential for this kind of steal-away. The important thing is that you don’t...

    • The Sound of Rain
      (pp. 22-25)

      Stirring to consciousness in the middle of the night, I was aware that rain had begun to fall. Lying in my sleeping bag, snug in the tent, I stayed awake for a few moments listening.

      There are plenty of good sounds in the woods— wind in the pine boughs, small waves licking a spit of rock, loons riding the night sky. But the tapping of rain on a good tent is as therapeutic a sound as you can come by in the back country.

      A good tent. That’s an essential ingredient to the experience.

      If you can lie there, reasonably...

    • The Dawning of Autumn
      (pp. 26-28)

      The sun will be rising in fifteen minutes, and I am ready for it. I have come here alone, high on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior, to wait for the sun.

      The northeastern sky over the lake is brushed with clouds that resemble Nike swoosh stripes in fuchsia. Directly above the place where I think the sun will rise, a streak of low clouds is tinged peach and orange. For a moment on this October morning, the colors in the sky have subdued the fall colors on the hillside below.

      The woods and the weekends have been brilliant lately, but...

    • Being in the Woods
      (pp. 29-32)

      The spot would have to be right. It would have to be catching the sun’s afternoon rays, and it would have to be partway up a gentle rise. The ideal spot would offer a view of sorts—a clearing in the forest, maybe, or a small pothole.

      I walked along a trail I knew, past dried ferns the color of chocolate.

      I knew what I wanted to do when I found the spot. I wanted to sit, quietly, and become part of the woods.

      Grouse hunting has given me ample time to be in the woods, but when you are...

    • Mysteries on the Wing
      (pp. 33-35)

      The immediate danger in opening the truck doors was that they might be peeled backward on their hinges by the wind.

      The wind was screaming out of the northwest on a late October afternoon in western Minnesota. Rain had been falling since midday, and now, an hour before dusk, every wet projectile stabbed our camouflage parkas.

      Four of us, and two Labrador retrievers, hustled from the trucks down a trail to the marsh.

      It was a raw, nasty, horrible, beautiful evening to hunt ducks.

      The weather service had called it. Winds building to 40 m.p.h. by evening. Temperatures plummeting overnight....

    • Superior Storm
      (pp. 36-39)

      For thirty-six hours, the east wind had been howling across Lake Superior. Now, at midday, it showed no signs of abating.

      At Duluth’s Canal Park, metal signs shimmied in the wind. Sheets of spray ripped across the parking lot in horizontal streaks. Light posts quivered.

      But the hunched figures who scurried about hadn’t come to see what was happening on land. They had come to witness the fury and tumult of the world’s largest expanse of fresh water.

      It was a fine show.

      I left my car and forced myself into the wind, out to the lakeshore. I didn’t make...

    • Cutting Fat
      (pp. 40-42)

      A hardness falls upon the land.


      The big chill is upon us, tightening the land the way a cold wind tightens an exposed cheek. All of the softness is gone now. The suppleness of leaves. The vitality of grass. The spirit of songbirds.

      A friend of mine went paddling a couple of weekends ago. He was struck by the silence in the woods. The nearly total silence.

      Water was still liquid then, but now that, too, is changing. As the land tightens, constricts, so does the water. The last shred of elasticity in the country, sapped by November.


    • Black Ice
      (pp. 43-45)

      Early in the week, the word came down.

      Black ice.

      Black ice on the St. Louis River. Great skating. Smooth, black ice. Miles of it.

      You don’t take black ice for granted. You take it today, because tomorrow it might be gone. An inch of snow, and the game is over. For the year. Maybe for two, three years.

      I heard about it Monday morning. Black ice on the river. Just before sundown, we were there. Two of us.

      We put in on one of those deep Wisconsin bays that reaches into the city of Superior like so many fingers....

  4. Family Ties

    • Slim Chance
      (pp. 49-52)

      We stood there on the shore of Slim Lake, watching the canoe out on the water. Our canoe. With no one aboard.

      Clearly, this was about to become the most memorable event of a weekend outing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for my son, Grant, 5, and me.

      It had happened without so much as a sound. We had just returned from fishing and had edged the canoe to shore.

      Grant needed to make a quick trip to the woods, and we wrestled with his too-tight life jacket, trying to spring him free. Finally, I got the life...

    • Coming and Going
      (pp. 53-55)

      I am leaving home again.

      Another trip. Four days this time.

      My gear is mostly assembled and sits in duffels or heaps in the house. Lists have been checked and rechecked. My companion will pick me up at five in the morning.

      I am full of anticipation, excitement—and sadness.

      It did not used to be this way. I used to be focused totally on the adventure that lay ahead of me. But that was in B.C. time: Before Children.

      Now, on the eve of a trip, I feel this strange mix of emotions. Part of me wants to be...

    • Fourteen
      (pp. 56-59)

      The boys are paddling back to camp. Rain has been falling most of the day. Rain gear hangs loosely over their rangy 14-year-old bodies.

      But they’re happy.

      That’s David Chapman, up front. His good buddy Brad Bohlman is right behind him. Bringing up the stern is David’s dad, Chris. He’s somewhat beyond 14. All are from Duluth.

      They are smack in the middle of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Dusk is falling on the second day of their weeklong canoe trip.

      They’re returning with good news. They’ve been out fishing for a couple of hours. Chris Chapman, perhaps as excited as...

    • After the Storm
      (pp. 60-62)

      Night has fallen in the canoe country. The four of us have retreated to our tent beneath a cluster of white pines.

      Phyllis and I are in the middle, heads propped on stuff, sacks full of clothes. We are reading by the soft glow of our headlamps. The night is cool and damp. Our sleeping bags feel good.

      On each side of us, our two children sleep, nestled in their bags. A thunderstorm passed through as the kids got ready for bed, and now it has moved on down the lake.

      Lightning still whitens the night occasionally, bleaching for an...

    • Passing It On
      (pp. 63-65)

      Among the possessions my dad left behind when he died last year was a shotgun. It’s a Browning 20-gauge, a gun he bought himself for quail hunting about thirty years ago.

      When I was home recently, my mom asked my two brothers and me to decide who would take the gun. She isn’t planning to shoot any quail, I guess.

      I spoke with both of my brothers, and neither expressed an interest in the gun. I brought it home with me.

      Understand, this is not a fancy gun, not worth anything as a collector’s item. But it’s in good condition....

    • Snowhouse Snooze
      (pp. 66-69)

      It was a Friday night, and I was beat.

      Beat, tired, cold, whipped, done. All I wanted was to go home, eat a warm meal, curl up under a blanket, maybe take a hot bath and read.

      I sidled through the kitchen door into the warmth of the kitchen. Home. At last.

      Around the corner, on final approach from the dining room, came the flying form of a 4½-year-old. He taxied to a stop at my feet.

      “Dad,” Grant said, “Can we sleep in the snow house tonight?” Oh yes. The snow house. I had forgotten we had talked about...

  5. The Hunting Life

    • Plucking a Duck
      (pp. 73-75)

      I sat on a stool, plucking feathers from a teal I shot a day before, three hundred miles away.

      The bird was cold in my hand, but soft. The down beneath his breast feathers was thick and dense. It would have insulated the little blue-wing well as he bore south ahead of winter’s first serious blasts.

      The feathers came off easily in clumps between my thumb and index finger. I shook them into a paper bag at my feet, but not all of them made it. As I continued to pluck, particles of down drifted about in the air and...

    • Pheasant Camp
      (pp. 76-77)

      The three of us unfold slowly from the red Toyota pickup after six hours on the road. We’re stiff, but we’re home.

      Home, for six days each fall, is an old red farmhouse in Minnesota not far from the South Dakota line. We stand for a moment in the farmyard, letting the silence soak in, looking at all of the sky, smelling the aroma of black dirt and dry cornstalks.

      We have come to hunt pheasants and ducks, but mostly what we do is slow down.

      A week out here is unlike almost everything we have left behind. Hurry. Responsibility....

    • Behind the Harvest
      (pp. 78-80)

      I never have felt comfortable with the term “harvest” as it’s applied to deer hunting.

      Unfortunately, it has become part of the language of the hunt, at least in the voice of the state agencies that manage those hunts. Sometimes, it then becomes the language of the news media that follow the deer hunt.

      I try to avoid using it, but sometimes, for the sake of variation within a story, it comes crawling back.

      I grew up in country where the harvest was something that happened to wheat or corn or soybeans. It conjures up images of humpbacked green machines...

    • By the Book
      (pp. 81-84)

      As a single parent, Roxann Lathrop of Remer had a problem. Her 17-year-old son, Brad Holvey, wanted to hunt deer this fall.

      Roxann didn’t hunt. She knew nothing about deer hunting. Divorced for ten years, she had only last year moved back to Minnesota from California. She had some uncles in the area, but they had grown old and had decided not to hunt.

      Roxann, 45, told Brad that maybe someone from their church would be willing to take him hunting.

      Brad thought about that.

      “No, Mom,” he told her. “I want you to go with me. We’ll do this...

    • Close Call
      (pp. 85-87)

      The year had to be 1962. I was a spindly kid of 14, living in Grand Island, Nebraska.

      Two things remain etched in my memory from the years I lived in Grand Island. One is that the town is almost perfectly flat, which meant my brother and I could ride our bikes all the way to Riverside Country Club on the outskirts of town.

      The other is that I almost shot my dad.

      If you are 13 or 14 or 15, and you cannot wait for the day this fall when your parents let you carry a shotgun for the...

    • Suburban Lust
      (pp. 88-90)

      Each year about this time, I fall victim to a disease.

      Suburban envy.

      I want a Chevy Suburban. That’s right, a one-bedroom apartment on wheels. A gas-guzzling, four-wheeling, trailertoting, canoe-hauling, duck-decoy-stashing, multi-dog-hauling penthouse for the road.

      That’s what I need.

      The disease presents its symptoms most strongly this time of year, of course, because it’s hunting season. The rest of the year, my Plymouth minivan and my aging Camry wagon accommodate my needs just fine.

      But if you and a buddy need to load up a couple of dog kennels, four shotguns, two coolers, two sleeping bags, a hundred plastic...

    • Sunrise Grouse
      (pp. 91-94)

      It’s six o’clock Sunday morning. The alarm is shrieking at me from somewhere in another world. My arm and hand travel to that world, stifling the sound.

      I lie there. The bed is warm. So is my wife. It is only a grouse hunt, I think. I’m not meeting anybody else. I wouldn’t have to go.

      Once I flip the covers off, I’m able to think more rationally. I will go. The dog needs it.

      Dog, heck. I need it.

      One does not need to hunt grouse at the break of dawn. Unlike hunting ducks and deer, your odds of...

    • Full Circle
      (pp. 95-97)

      During November 1997, Aaron Kerola of Cloquet wounded a big buck near Cook and had almost tracked it down when another hunter killed it.

      This happened during the opening weekend of Minnesota’s firearms deer season. The eight-pointer was not only the first deer Aaron had ever shot at in three seasons of deer hunting. It was the first deer he had ever seen while hunting.

      Aaron and his friend Chris Stevens expected the worst when they encountered the man who dropped the buck. They thought he would claim it as his own. But the man, who Aaron described as being...

    • Deer Camp Characters
      (pp. 98-102)

      Take your average North Country deer camp. Minnesota.

      Wisconsin. Doesn’t matter.

      What you’ve got here, near as I can tell, is a collection of characters. If you’ve been there, you know the ones I’m talking about.

      One’s your Uncle Milt. One’s your brother Gene. One’s his kid, Pete. And, yes, one is you.

      Over the years, as they come up through the ranks and take their places in the camp, each cultivates his own hunting personality and must bear the weight of his own reputation.

      Here they are, then. See if these folks seem like hunters you recognize. I’ve chosen...

    • The Hidden Hunt
      (pp. 103-105)

      All they see are the deer, southbound, legs hanging stiffly from the backs of the trailers. Or our orange forms behind the wheels of pickups. Or clusters of us back at the truck, exchanging reports from the morning hunt.

      They see us trudging about in our heavy boots, wearing our layers of orange, lugging our rifles. When they see us, we often look cold or tired. Because we are.

      You would like to tell them they are not seeing the real deer hunt. You would like to tell them about the kind of quiet that can make a gray jay’s...

  6. Dog Tales

    • Puppy Love
      (pp. 109-111)

      For years, Phyllis has been saying, “Sam, you need a hunting dog.”

      And I’d say, “Oh, honey, I can get along without a hunting dog. I don’t really want one. My friends have good hunting dogs. A dog is such a chore to take care of and all.”

      “No,” she would say. “You need a hunting dog. And don’t get a small one. Get a big one. One that will lie on the floor here in the kitchen and slobber a lot and track in mud.”

      Well, maybe that isn’t exactly the way the conversations went. The details escape me....

    • First Retrieve
      (pp. 112-115)

      So, we went out, the pup and I, to see if we could find the sole remaining ruffed grouse in northern Minnesota.

      I share this in the spirit of all those who have gone afield for the first time with a coming-of-age pup, whether yellow or black or spotted, whether retriever, setter, or spaniel. Nothing quite measures up to that first time you open the tailgate and introduce forty or fifty pounds of energy to a new world of smells.

      This is the hunt. The real thing.

      To be sure, there is plenty that has come before—the early socializing,...

    • HMOs and Lab Riders
      (pp. 116-118)

      There’s been a lot of talk coming out of Washington about health care lately. Single-payer plans. HMOs. Universal care.

      But near as I can tell, our nation’s leaders are skirting the real issue. We’re talking about dog health insurance.

      This was brought to my attention when I heard about a man whose yellow Labrador retriever had eaten a rope and a diaper. Or tried to. The payload never did clear the animal.

      Vet bill: $1,800.

      Clearly, we have a need for some kind of policy to cover our critters. Eighteen hundred bucks is a lot of money. You might be...

    • Just for Fun
      (pp. 119-121)

      When I saw the notice in the newspaper, I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

      You put on your cross-country skis, you hook yourself up to an overrested yellow Lab, and you try to cover two and a half miles as fast as you can. What could go wrong?

      The notice that caught my eye was an announcement of a series of ski-joring “fun races” in Duluth. Ski-joring is a Norwegian word that, loosely translated, means “broken skis likely, poles too, yah, sure.”

      The Sunday afternoon races are sponsored by the Duluth Pack Store, which happens to sell real...

    • Yellow-Dog Years
      (pp. 122-127)

      My dog is dog-tired. This is the fourth day of a six-day pheasant hunt, and she is wearing down.

      Late afternoon now. We hunted hard in the morning, flushing only hens, which are off-limits to hunters. I knew if I let her hunt right after our lunch, she would expend herself completely, so we both rested—something rare on this week in western Minnesota.

      My two partners, whose dogs flushed roosters this morning, have shot their two-bird limits today. Now it is our turn. We leave the little farmhouse about 4:30 P.M., with a couple of hours of daylight to...

  7. Voices from the Land

    • Without Jim
      (pp. 131-134)

      We can still see Jim Keuten there, rocked back in the old gray swivel chair in the back room at Jim’s Bait. Several of the regulars would be gathered around, holding cups of coffee on their knees. Elsie would be sitting across from Jim at the little countertop, working on one of her projects, her hands always busy.

      Occasionally, the bell on the front door would jingle, and someone would come through. Jim would get out of his chair and sidle toward the front room to see if someone needed help. Likely as not, the new arrival would be someone...

    • Margaret’s River
      (pp. 135-140)

      She is up ahead, plowing through elbow-high jewelweed. The jewelweed is glistening with the precious night’s dew, and it dampens the sleeves of her old blue windbreaker.

      Margaret Appleby, 78, has made this hip-boot trudge before.

      “There’s a big hole up here I usually fall into,” she says.

      She shuffles on, wicker creel slung over one shoulder, a satchel of fishing tackle bouncing against a hip. With a battered yellow fishing rod, she knocks the alder branches and the undergrowth out of her way.

      Margaret is making for a spot where she believes we’ll be able to find some brook...

    • The Frugal Fly Fisher
      (pp. 141-148)

      On a drippy Monday morning in May, Rueben Swenson sits astride his homemade fly-tying bench beneath a rain tarp and puts the finishing touches on a black Woolly Bugger.

      Occasionally, he snips a piece of thread from the fishing fly with a small pair of scissors. Like most of Rueben’s equipment, the scissors didn’t come from a store.

      “These came from my surgery, too,” says Rueben, 50.

      He’s talking about his second heart-bypass surgery, the one in 1990 in which doctors replaced five arteries in his heart with strips of veins from his stocky legs.

      “Before they put me under,...

    • Shared Passions
      (pp. 149-154)

      There they go. The two newlyweds are skiing up Moose Lake on this March morning to a little brook trout lake.

      That’s Bob Gary, 76. He’s the one carrying the frame pack with his fishing rods, his tackle, and his mukluks inside. He’s on a pair of old skis, wearing a corduroy cap with a bill and earflaps, a Norwegian-print sweater, and ski-racing tights.

      Out ahead, where she likes to be, is his new bride, Edie Sommer, 64. It’s easy to pick her out. She’s the one skiing without poles. She broke a few ribs earlier this winter—falling on...

    • Travels with Charlie
      (pp. 155-161)

      This is not just another small walleye. That much is clear by the way the tip of Charlie Banks’s fishing rod keeps plunging into the water of this border-country lake.

      Something stout is on the other end of that line.

      Charlie, 73, is laughing his high-pitched laugh again, throwing back his head and holding his rod against the fish’s determined charges.

      “And I got a knot in my line,” he laments from the middle of the canoe.

      The big northern pike fights from the depths for a couple of minutes, trying to throw the hook. Charlie’s rod nearly doubles beneath...

  8. The Longest Season

    • Winter and Water
      (pp. 165-167)

      Dropping onto the frozen river is like being delivered to another world. The one above hisses with cars and southbound snow machines swaddled on their trailers.

      This one—the river world—is white and narrow and nearly silent. It’s the Sucker River on a five-below-zero morning in early February. Descending into it, on skis, one is immediately welcomed into a valley of quiet. The river is a ribbon of white bordered by spruce and fir, a few pines, and, in places, walls of sheer rock.

      What the river will give you on a morning like this is solitude, a few...

    • The Old Boys on the Bay
      (pp. 168-170)

      The old boys were at it again over on Chequamegon Bay the other day. Some young boys, too, but this was a weekday, and mostly it was the old-timers.

      They were sitting there, monklike, in their canvas icefishing shelters, communing with the trout. They were trying to get the trout to commune back on the business ends of some Jiggin’ Raps and Swedish Pimples and other assorted limitations of baitfish.

      As was my custom, I moseyed from tent to teepee to those commercial pop-up jobs, communing with the anglers. The fishing was slow. That’s what the old boys said. Slow....

    • Deep Trouble
      (pp. 171-173)


      That’s what we are.

      Rats, crawling around in a white maze. This last blizzard did it to us. Finally consigned us to this life of scurrying about in labyrinthine corridors of snow.

      On foot, we shuffle down alabaster hallways that once were mere sidewalks. Our grocery bags ricochet off snowblown cliffs. Our toddlers, trundling along behind us, swipe mittenfuls of sedimentary snow harboring impurities three snowstorms old.

      In cars, the going is even worse. We scuttle around town, nosing out from intersections like small rats afraid the alpha male will whip past and mash us into oblivion. We are...

    • Webbed Feet
      (pp. 174-176)

      The first hill leads straight to the moon. The trail rises precipitously, and at its crest the quarter-moon reclines in the night sky like a shard of porcelain. I huff along in silence on my snowshoes, using a pair of ski poles for both balance and propulsion. The dog is ahead of me somewhere, and now she comes bounding back to check in, sliding up to the tips of my snowshoes like an otter out of control. Assured that I’m all right, she reverses direction in a silent explosion of snow and is gone again into the night.

      It feels...

    • Friendship Fires
      (pp. 177-182)

      I went to the woods because I needed to be alone and to see some white snow.

      Most of the snow I had seen lately was brown. City snow.

      Greasy stuff, mixed with sand and salt and grunge.

      So I loaded up the snowshoes and the mukluks, and I took off. I didn’t know where I was going to go, and it didn’t much matter. All I wanted to do was walk or shuffle along, let the northwest wind pepper my face, and let my legs get tired.

      Sometimes that kind of an outing is just what we need.


    • Back Matter
      (pp. 183-183)