In this long-awaited paperback edition, Sam Cook invites you to look outward to discover the North Country, and look inward to discover yourself.
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It would be easy, in this country Up North, to let the little things slip by. When you live in a place that gives you bull moose and Northern Lights, it is possible to overlook the little moments and the small sightings that sweeten the passing of time between larger events.
I remember savoring a sunset from a campsite on Disappointment Lake in the canoe country out of Ely, Minnesota. It was one of those glorious celebrations of light, an explosion of sky and color and clouds set off against still water and a distant saw-toothed ridge.
Finally, I thought...
I walk through the door and say hello to the store owner. He knows me. He probably has a good idea what I’m up to.
It is a noon hour in spring. I have come to lust. He can see it in my eyes. He has seen my kind before: preoccupied, a little desperate. That is why we come to his sporting goods store in the spring.
A friend of mine is on his way out. He has just bought his wife a plane ticket to Florida, he says. Feeling somewhat magnanimous about that, he thought maybe he’d just look...
I saw my first mosquito of the year the other day. It was humming around my face. I was sitting with a dog sledding friend of mine in his cabin near Ely.
At first I didn’t even recognize the sound. I thought it was coming from a fly with engine problems. Then I caught the familiar blurred hovering, and reality set in. Next thing I knew, there were two of them.
“They’re tame,” my friend said. “But don’t turn your back on them. They’ll bite.”
I escaped unsmitten, but I’ll have to admit it was good to see those leggy...
His rods are strung. His reels are full. But Tobey Maki won’t be going fishing.
For most of his 84 years Tobey has spent opening day of fishing season on the water. But now Tobey is a sick man.
When Minnesota’s walleye season opens, Tobey will probably be right where he was one sunny afternoon this week — sitting in his easy chair in the living room of his home in Ely.
His wife of 47 years, Frances, will be in her chair across the room, next to the big piano. Maybe one of Tobey’s friends will stop by. They’ll talk....
Somewhere there’s a little girl. Four years old. Or five, maybe.
She’s like a lot of little girls. She likes Care Bears and Smurfs and Sesame Street. She jumps rope and steps in puddles and loves that out-of-control feeling of running down big hills.
Her shins almost always show a couple of bruises.Her elbows are apt to have thin scabs on them. Learning to ride a bike isn’t easy.
This little girl is lucky. Next Saturday she’s going fishing.
It’s The Opener, you know. She's going up north with Mom and Dad and her little brother. He’s only two.
We had spent the day fooling a bunch of walleyes. Now we were back at my friend’s Rainy Lake cabin, facing the day’s big decision: Do we take the boat to the resort across the bay for supper, or do we get in the car and take the road around the bay? The vote was unanimous. The boat.
The sun behind the pines looked like a Minnesota postcard. The spray from the boat had a peachy cast to it, and our skin took on that tawny glow usually reserved for catalog models. Even with the 25-horse peppering us along, a...
When you’re just even with the old cabin on Blueberry Island, you’re getting near the spot.
That’s when you want to start paying out your 45-pound-test copper line, letting the 2-ounce sinker carry the Rapala to the bottom of Burntside Lake. You have to be on the bottom.
“You gotta drag bottom to catch fish,” Gust Helback said. “No snags, no fish.”
It was Helback, 83, who was paying out his ancient copper line, 220 feet of it, so his silver jointed Rapala would drag the unforgiving bottom 70 feet below. The Rapala was affixed to a 2-foot leader of...
You’ve got your glamour fish of the North — your walleye, your northern, your smallmouth bass.
And then you’ve got your fish with the image problem — your sucker.
The sucker, like the rainbow trout, is an excellent swimmer. It has been seen jumping eight or nine feet at swift rapids.
Nutritionally, it ranks high because it’s low in fat and has only 27 calories an ounce.
The noble sucker may be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and may taste like pheasant under glass, but people aren’t going to break down freezer cases at the store to get...
The map lies there, spread across a desk top that is begging for attention.
But the man behind the desk has forgotten all about the clutter beneath the map. He is somewhere else and has been for some time now.
This happens to him often. He realizes that. It happens almost every time he digs out a map of the back country.
He had gotten the map out to locate a hiking trail. He had found it, all right. But that was quite a while ago.
Now he is looking at all that country spread across his desk. All the...
The tree stood tall and straight, just off the road.
The road was the Sawbill Trail, a gravel artery that noses into the woods north of Tofte, Minnesota. The tree was an aspen.
The aspen wasn’t any different from thousands of others that make the drive up the Sawbill so pleasant.
But its few remaining leaves, gold and dry, were shaking in the northwest wind. Every now and then a few would part from their branches and flutter to earth.
That’s what I was looking for. I had come to watch one leaf fall. I had found my tree.
It was going to be chilly. We could see our breath at supper. We knew it would be a cold paddle down the river that night.
There would be just the two of us: my friend the Brule River guide and myself. Two of us and a fly rod and several layers of clothing. Our pretense was to fish for the Brule’s brown trout, but both of us knew the fish were just a good excuse to be someplace we loved to be.
Wisconsin’s Brule River is a wonderful place to find yourself at sunrise. It is a good place...
It couldn’t be a better day up here.
I am standing at the lip of a sheer hillside in east Duluth, six hundred feet above Lake Superior.
The day is clear and unSeptemberly warm. The trees, of which I can see about a million, are showing their first blush of color. In the great blue beyond, anglers’ boats crawl about on the water like aquatic ants.
It would be a good day just for those reasons. But it is even better than that: The hawks are flying.
I have come to Hawk Ridge, as I do too few times each...
The little pickup cruised into the farmyard and coasted to a stop. The three of us up front unfolded ourselves and piled out. For a moment we stood there in the dark, listening to the quiet and smelling the pungence of the farm.
The silence was total, and the farm smelled of wet hay. It is a smell that, if you were raised in farm country, comes wrapping itself around you with memories of big midday meals, kittens at the back door and the clank of hog feeders out by the barn.
This Minnesota farm snug by the South Dakota...
The deer hunter has been sitting on the moss-covered log for almost an hour now/and he’s cold. His toes are cold. His fingers are cold. The small of his back, still damp with sweat from his quarter-mile trek to the deer stand, is cold, too.
Making matters worse, the sun refuses to rise from behind the ridge at the hunter’s back. The sun is teasing him, lighting up the tips of the popple branches he faces. The hunter is jealous of the branches basking in the warm light of the sun.
The amber glow inches slowly, slowly down the branches....
The night was crisp, and the moon looked good through the bare branches of a maple tree.
The dog and I were making our usual late-night trot around the block, so as to secure the territory until morning. I left that mostly to Dave, the shaggy setter-Lab who had me tethered to the other end of his rope leash.
I was wearing my hunting coat, as I often do on these nightly jaunts. Its heavy cotton duck felt good, and the coat had a convenient pocket for my non-leash hand. I like to think that’s why I was wearing the...
It was seven below zero. The wind was whistling out of the northwest at about 15 miles an hour. Seemed like a good night to sleep outside.
I grabbed my sleeping bag and a couple of foam pads, slipped into my parka and a pair of Polarguard booties, kissed my sweetie good night — and headed out.
The snowhouse was waiting, right where I’d left it. It was about 15 feet from the back porch, and about midway between the crabapple tree and the blue spruce.
It was a simple home. A one-bedroom model with the crawl-through entrance on the uphill...
I lifted the lid off the woodstove and poked at the coals of hard maple inside. They shot sparks the way they always do, and the warmth came billowing up at my face.
I stood there for a moment, stirring the coals, watching the orange glow. I like loading the woodstove. I like the mild scent of woodsmoke that comes wafting up from the big iron box.
The wood — maple and birch — is piled on skids just across from the stove in our basement. Sometimes the wood is stacked neatly, but more often it is in the same jumbled heap...
The hill beyond this checkpoint is steep. It begins at the highway and climbs for maybe a hundred yards.
Halfway up the snowpacked trail, John Patten’s 10 dogs had stopped. It was early afternoon about 40 hours and 230 miles into the 400-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Race on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. The race is run annually from Duluth to Grand Portage and back.
The day was warm. Cars and trucks hissing by on the highway below had turned the snow trail across the highway to mush. The sun was shining, glinting off Lake Superior’s ruffled surface....
Most scientists agree that the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 127 below zero near the Pole of Inaccessibility on the Antarctic ice cap.
But then most scientists have never stood and watched Duluth’s Christmas City of the North Parade.
It isn’t a matter of sheer temperature, you understand. The cold here is compounded by such factors as (a) lack of food, because the parade occurs at dinner hour; (b) the wind-tunnel effect of downtown buildings; and (c) knowing you really must find a public restroom soon but putting it off because your niece's drill team should be coming...
Dorothy. Almost everyone just called her Dorothy.
They’d say, “We’re takin’ a snowmobile ride Saturday. Up to Dorothy's. Maybe do some fishin’.”
Or, “It was almost dark by the time we got to Dorothy’s.”
Or, “This lady hopped out of a square-stern canoe and started wading up the rapids. It was Dorothy.”
Of course it was Dorothy.
Dorothy Molter. The woman who lived — mostly alone — on a couple of islands in Knife Lake on the Canadian border. Dorothy died in December 1986. Natural causes, said U.S. Forest Service officials who found her. I suppose so. That's about the only kind...
The wind had whipped Pickerel Lake into a froth.
The waves weren’t big yet, but some of them were breaking in modest whitecaps. We were quartering the chop in a 17-foot Old Town canoe. Every now and then a wave would send some splash over the gunwale and onto my legs. The water temperature seemed to be about 40 degrees.
Somewhere between an offshore island and the Canadian mainland, a fish seized Tom Klein’s Thin Doctor spoon and began tugging. Klein, who was in the stern, had been trailing the lure as we paddled. He quit paddling and tugged back....
I have this friend. He’s a fisherman.
He lives on the fringe of the canoe country, and he spends a lot of time on the lakes up there. He has lots of “secret lakes.” Like lots of anglers do.
A secret lake — to an angler — is a lake that he or she has never seen anybody else fishing. Secret lakes are on maps. Some of them even have names. But as long as you never see anyone else fishing on one of these lakes, it’s a secret lake.
My friend — we’ll call him Spinner Bait — had a rough day this...
A predawn wind stirs across the Wisconsin prairie. With the breeze,comes a distant honking.
“Geese,” someone whispers in the dark.
The sound is a good one. It conjures up the image of a pothole full of big Canadas — some swimming, some walking the shore on their big black feet, some preening. Getting ready for another spring morning.
But we haven’t come to see geese, and we hurry on.
Down the dirt path. Across the prairie stubble. Into the blind.
Through two slits in the canvas blind we are looking at a tiny patch of the 30,000-acre Crex Meadows Wildlife Area...
Old Dave is fading. I’m afraid he won’t be around much longer.
He can’t hear a lick. Climbing three stairs to the back porch takes about all the gumption he can muster. On our walks, his pace is getting slower every night. And he was slow before.
Dave is the non-hunting, good-loving black hound who came into our lives about 14 years ago. He looks mostly like an Irish setter that got dipped in used motor oil. But he never knew that, and he always carried himself with a certain jauntiness.
Dave was a bargain. We rescued him from doggie...
A halfhearted shower was falling when I pulled in at the Scandia Bakery. The bakery sits right on the highway at Schroeder, Minnesota, on the North Shore.
I have tried to drive past the bakery before, but the car always seems to know. It veers over anyway. I have no choice.
I needed some trail food, I figured. Something like a sugar doughnut and a caramel roll. Back in the car I drove on toward Canada, chewing to the beat of the windshield wipers.
I wasn’t sure where I was going. I had left Duluth about 8:30 in the morning....
No one is sure when the idea germinated. Like the boats themselves, the concept of the trip didn’t just occur. It was built in stages.
“To me, it’s kind of cloudy,” Jeff Larson said. “It really started when we first started making the main hulls.”
That had been the idea in the beginning. Larson, 37, and his friend Mark Hansen, 32, both of Grand Marais, each decided to build themselves a two-person kayak. The boats would be 80 pounds of Fiberglas and epoxy. Point to point, they’d stretch 17 feet, 10 inches.
But if you know anything about Larson or...
I don’t know what makes the Northern Lights. I remember reading the scientific explanation somewhere along the way. I just don’t remember what it said.
I’m not so sure I want to know anyway. I prefer to think of them as magic. Or part magic, part Robert Service and part Jack London.
I saw them again this week. What a show. Great misty-green shafts shooting out of the northern horizon, like a battery of search lights run by a madman. Or a Fourth of July fountain you thought was spent, but suddenly sends two or three more bursts of light...
We paddled slowly up to the island. We beached the canoe on a flat rock and stepped out on legs that had been folded too long.
“How’s it look?” I asked Phyllis.
“All right. Nothing great,” came her answer.
We were a pair of tired paddlers looking for a campsite on Antoine Lake in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. The afternoon was waning, and the sky hung over the lake country like a bad bruise. Rain hadn’t fallen all day, but it looked as if it might any minute.
“What do you think?” she asked.
I suspect I was thinking about...
The shot was long gone, and so was the bird. I looked down and caught the purple of the spent shell lying in the weeds. I picked it up. It was still warm, and I held its open end to my nose.
Few aromas are sweeter to this hunter’s nostrils than that of a just-fired shotgun shell. On the surface it is simply the smell of burned gunpowder. But ask any hunter, and you’ll find it is far more than that.
It is the crackling of an October morning, the purposeful weavings of a dog on strong scent and the...
Sometime in the October morning, they will begin moving.
They will move from warm beds to cold pickup seats, from warm sleeping bags to cold canoes, from dry pavement to soggy sloughs.
They will be duck hunters.
You won’t see the hunters, of course. They’ll be wearing camouflage. You might catch a glimpse of a face here and there, or a pair of hands moving mystically in midair. Your ears might pick up the subtle flumping of their waders or the clunk of a paddle against aluminum. But that will be it. Duck hunters are sly and crafty.
The campfire was burning low, the way it often does when dinner is over and the dishwater has already been warmed. Every few minutes one of us would toss on a piece of split spruce, and the fire would make flames again.
We wanted to keep it going. The evening chill was coming on, and we’d have a lot of fire-staring time before we went to the tent.
It was just the two of us, as it usually is on these fall trips. Phyllis and I were several portages into Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. The campsite was a granite fist...
We called him Fred.
He was about six hundred pounds of bull moose, and he was standing a hundred yards from our campsite on Marshall Lake, slurping long strands of aquatic grass.
It was midday, about eighteen hours before Minnesota moose season opened.
If Fred was worried about the coming season, he wasn’t letting on. He’d just stare at us in our canoes, then bury his muzzle in the 40-degree waters of the lake again. When he’d raise his head, another stringy piece of Marshall Lake salad would be dangling from his jaws.
We watched him for a long time,...
I have been out walking, looking at trees. Not out in the woods. Right here in town.
It’s no picnic, being a city tree. City trees tend to suffer more abuse then their rural relatives. The abuse isn’t malicious, of course, but it’s there just the same.
I was thinking, on my tree walk, about something that happened a few weeks ago. It was a fine fall day, and a friend and I were walking to lunch. We were in downtown Duluth, walking along one of our spiffy brick sidewalks next to a spiffy brick street. The sidewalk was lined...
The pheasant hunter slipped out of the car quietly. He squeezed the door shut behind him.
Pheasant hunters always squeeze their car doors shut. They know that too much clicking of metal makes rooster pheasants nervous. Nervous roosters rarely flush within gun range.
The hunter was heavy with anticipation. He wasn’t sure why. He’d hunted this little patch three times already this season without putting a bird up.
This time was different. The sun was setting.
Something happens to this hunter at sunset. Something he can’t exactly describe. Something he just feels inside.
He has talked to other hunters about...
It was the kind of day that made car exhaust pipes look like dragon nostrils. They weren’t exhaling so much as snorting. It was cold.
Just how cold depended on where your thermometer was being read. If you lived in the hinterlands, yours might have read 30 below zero.
With a northwest wind whistling at 15 miles per hour, the wind chill was somewhere between 60 and 70 below.
Just before sunrise I cruised through town. I knew I wanted to be out early on this first cool day of winter.
On street corners, school kids put their backs to...
We should be able to see the sun by now. But we don’t. Not on this February morning.
As night and day wrestle for control of the next ten hours, the three of us ski north — Dan and Jeff and me. We are skiing the lakes from Minnesota to Canada.
Our skis hiss. My bindings squeak with each stride. I can already feel my pack pulling on my shoulders.
This is a little crazy. We are, I think, defining the limits of a day fishing trip. We will ski about eight miles on four lakes, then shed our skis and...
Occasionally on winter fishing trips I get to thinking about an old idea of mine, a brilliant idea.
I’ll be thinking about how cold my lips are and how good it would be to build a fire, I would fish, of course, but boiling some tea water around that fire would be a significant part of the day. Maybe the most significant.
That’s when I get to thinking about my idea for a new Winter Olympics event — the pyropiscathon. Pyro, meaning fire. Pisca, meaning fish. Thon, meaning anything that takes a long time to do and involves sweat, lactic acid...
Jim Hawk’s breath hung in the night air like lazy thoughts. You could see them well in the beam of his headlamp, condensed vaporlets of words that congealed in paragraph-sized clouds before they finally drifted into the alders.
The 1988 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon had begun, but all was quiet at Hawk’s haunt here on the outskirts of Duluth. Hawk was staffing a tricky comer and bridge crossing about six miles into the race.
He was supported by his friends Mary and Sheila Hansen, a thermos of coffee and a supply of crackers and cheese.
It was just the...
The last time I had come to this beach, brown bodies slathered with suntan oil were lying everywhere.
Now, on this afternoon in midwinter, I was alone. Alone with the ice.
I had had a hunch it might be a good day to make an ice inspection. The day was even better than I had figured.
This beach is just a wide spot in the sandspit that is Minnesota Point, which extends six miles from the Duluth Ship Canal toward Wisconsin, The sliver of sand separates Lake Superior from the Duluth-Superior harbor, and along its eastern edge it catches anything...
I'll tell you why we came here. We came here, Phyllis and I, because we saw the pictures in the brochures. In the pictures, the lakes were blue. That might not sound like much, but when you’ve grown up where all the lakes are brown with cornfield runoff, you almost wonder if the photos from Up North have been retouched.
In the pictures, men were holding up toothy northern pike and bug-eyed walleyes and broad bass.
In the pictures, someone in a red shirt was tending a griddle full of fish fillets over a campfire.
That's what got us here....
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