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Up North

Up North

Sam Cook
Illustrations by Bob Cary
Copyright Date: 1986
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Up North
    Book Description:

    In this unforgettable collection of essays, Sam Cook portrays the enchanting North Country as a state of mind as much as a geographical area. Up North captures the mystic moods, seasonal subtleties, and colorful characters that fill the region from the Minnesota canoe country to the vast expanse of the Northwest Territories.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9550-8
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. viii-ix)
  3. Up North
    (pp. 1-1)

    Up North is a certain way the wind feels on your face and the way an old wool shirt feels on your back. It’s the peace that comes over you when you sit down to read one of your old trip journals‚ or the anticipation that bubbles inside when you start sorting through your tackle box early in the spring.

    Up North is the smell of the Duluth pack hanging in your basement and the sound of pots clinking across the lake. It’s a raindrop clinging to a pine needle and the dancing light of a campfire on the faces...

  4. Spring

    • Caterpillar Nap
      (pp. 5-7)

      I took my time looking for the spot. It had to be just right. This kind of day comes just once each spring in the North Country. I wanted to savor it. You know the kind of day—after a long winter, the first one when you can feel the sun on your back, the first day you smell the grass again, the first day you can really say it’s spring. Never mind that spring came officially three weeks ago. This is the day we were looking for.

      I hiked uphill, past aspen and an occasional red pine. I wanted...

    • Urban Relief
      (pp. 8-10)

      I’m getting itchy. What I’d like to be doing at this moment is driving down some backcountry road looking out from under the bow of my canoe. I want to park in some end-of-the-road public landing, get out, stretch, and feel the gritch of the gravel under my boots. Then I want to slip that canoe in the water, load in a couple of Duluth packs and a couple of fishing rods, and paddle off toward a cluster of islands.

      I get this way every year about this time. I’m sure I’m not alone. Perhaps, if you’re a steelhead angler...

    • Eve of the Opener
      (pp. 11-15)

      A man wearing a baseball cap leans over a tank full of chub minnows. “Walleyes eat these things?” he asks.

      The man who answers him wears his gray hair in a crew cut and appears to be in his mid-fifties. He leans on the other side of the chub tank, looks his customer right in the eye, and says, “The DNR has been trying to shut me down for years, these things are so deadly. You’ll fill your freezer by eight in the morning!”

      Welcome to Pinky’s Bait Shop, a memorable stop on one of Minnesota’s most memorable weekends—the...

    • Morning
      (pp. 16-17)

      Morning had broken on the small lake. Mist was hanging over the water in lazy ghosts. The ghosts thickened in the distance, obscuring the far shoreline. It was spring in the canoe country.

      We had come for rainbow trout, and we had already found a few. But as it almost always is in the wilderness, we had found more than we expected. This morning was such a find.

      I can still see it in my mind as if I were there. Bob Gary was coaxing the breakfast fire to life. The blackened coffee pot, filled with lake water, sat atop...

  5. Summer

    • The Big Circle
      (pp. 21-23)

      We met the two men on one of the portages leading to Knife Lake. We were on our way into the woods for a week. They were on their way home.

      What I remember best is the cooler those two men were carrying. They opened it and showed us the fish they’d caught in Knife, the biggest lake trout I’d ever seen.

      My wife and I were making our first trip together into the border country. We were green to the ways of the woods then and, to be honest, a little apprehensive.

      It was reassuring to meet a couple...

    • The Trout Fisherman
      (pp. 24-30)

      At first it had looked like a trail, not a worn path, but a meandering opening among the thimbleberries. The trail dissolved into the forest, but that didn’t bother Enok Olson. Now he was coursing randomly through the aspen and large-leafed aster, stepping over deadfalls, and batting branches away from his face.

      It didn’t seem that he was trying to find the stream so much as he was being drawn to it. Perhaps that’s the way it is when you’re almost 89, and brook trout streams have been drawing you to their banks for half a century.

      Olson pulled up...

    • Natural Wonders
      (pp. 31-33)

      Supper was cooking over a small fire when we heard the cry. We weren’t in the kind of place where you’d expect to hear such a scream. We were camped on Suzanette Lake in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park in early September. In five days we had seen only one other canoe party. The sounds we were accustomed to hearing were wind in the pines and waves on the rocks.

      The cry came again, quickly, a half-human, half-animal wail. We looked at one another, then ran to the water's edge to see what was happening. We might have guessed it would...

    • Fast and Dirty
      (pp. 34-35)

      One of the best things about picking blueberries is that it puts an ample supply of the succulent little berries into the freezer. That, subsequently, results in a lot of good eating for the next few weeks, months, or year, depending upon how productive you are as a picker.

      But having blueberries on hand is just one benefit of picking blueberries. There’s another by-product of the annual endeavor some folks are apt to overlook: you can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she goes about the task of picking.

      Send 10 people out to the...

    • The Dream Net
      (pp. 36-38)

      She is sleeping now. Morning light filters through the window and bathes the cradle where she lies. Over her head, suspended on fine thread, hangs the dream net. It’s a simple creation, a five-inch band of wood with a web of linen stretching across it. In the middle of the web, there’s a small hole. Through the hole, according to Chippewa folklore, good dreams pass through to the sleeping child. The bad dreams get tangled in the net, and when the light strikes them in the morning, they die.

      The net must have been working this summer morning. The infant...

    • Lucky
      (pp. 39-41)

      He knows he’s lucky, the fellow paddling stern, lucky because of the woman paddling bow. Lord knows, he’s had plenty of time to think about it, looking at her back all those miles they’ve paddled together. He’s looked at her so long he can see her with his eyes shut—the old, green plaid shirt she always wears camping, the green felt hat with the hole chewed out of it by a squirrel, her wiry little arms swinging the black plastic paddle as if it were part of her.

      “Switch”‚ he says.

      They swing their paddles to the opposite sides...

    • Sandwich Reflections
      (pp. 42-45)

      Lunch was a turkey sandwich and a Pepsi. I was sitting outside at one of those umbrella tables that blossom in downtown Duluth when summer arrives for real. Not 50 yards away, a massive John Deere track-mounted claw was plucking up huge chunks of Superior Street. The machine would curl its appendage, lift its load in uneven monster jerks, then open its maw and let the former street clunk into a waiting truck bed. Dust rose from the truck, and the claw’s diesel engine revved for another mouthful of asphalt.

      My mind wandered. I recalled some of the other places...

  6. Fall

    • Untold Stories
      (pp. 49-50)

      Sometimes, just for a minute, I wish I didn’t hunt, because I would like to see what this business of hunting looks like to a nonhunter.

      And sometime I’m going to take a nonhunter hunting for a day, so he or she can see what hunting looks like from my point of view. Not so the two of us can walk off into the sunset hand-in-hand, but simply so we can understand each other a little better. I think we have a lot more in common than we might realize.

      Part of the reason for the gap between us now...

    • They’d Rather Have Cash
      (pp. 51-57)

      Curtis Johnson laid his three fox pelts on the table without saying a word. He jammed his hands into his jeans pockets and waited.

      L.L. “Newt” Newton, an inch of ashes somehow clinging to the end of his cigar, stretched each skin to its full length. He picked up a brush and began stroking the hides. With the experience that has come from buying furs for most of his 80 years, Newton scrutinized the pelts before him.

      “Couldn’t get any males, eh?” Newton asked from behind his bobbing cigar.

      “Nope”‚ Johnson said.

      Newton ran a hand over one hide. Then...

    • Stocking Feet
      (pp. 58-60)

      The duck hunter rolls over in his bed. The radio he'd set to wake him at 3:45 a.m. is on now, and some monotone, all-night announcer is babbling some meaningless drivel the duck hunter doesn’t want to hear. He staggers to his dresser and silences the announcer.

      The hunter leans toward the clock dial and squints. The hands tell him it is 3:35. Why, he wonders, do alarm clocks always go off early on the nights when sleep is so precious?

      He stumbles into the bathroom and turns on the water in the shower. He almost always showers before hunting...

    • Buck Fever
      (pp. 61-63)

      Our wives didn’t understand. “You’re not going back to that same spot, are you?” they asked. They were talking about our deer camp, the one my Ely, Minnesota, friend Steve Piragis and I been been going to since we took up deer hunting two years ago.

      We don’t blame our wives for asking. We don’t blame them for shaking their heads at our reply. We don’t blame them because, deep down, we wonder a little bit ourselves. In the last two deer seasons, we had spent eight days at the camp hunting. We’d spent another four days scouring the area....

    • Death and Life
      (pp. 64-67)

      He was just a kid when it happened, maybe 13 or 14.

      The gun was probably the old single-shot .410-gauge, the one with the hammer that he was always afraid he might not pull back far enough, resulting in quick-fire. But this time he must have done everything right. When he touched off the little shotgun, the rabbit quit running.

      He remembers it all so clearly—standing in the ditch, shooting across the pasture, watching the cottontail run away.

      But he remembers best what followed. The rabbit didn’t die. The shot had caught it in the hindquarters, and its back...

  7. Winter

    • Dancing with a River
      (pp. 71-75)

      I’m not sure Dave wanted to go. On our way up the North Shore of Lake Superior, he kept looking out the back window of the station wagon. He seemed to be looking toward Duluth and home and the warmth we’d left behind.

      Dave is the part-black-Lab, part-Irish-setter rug that adorns our kitchen floor. Sometimes he gets up and takes one of us for a walk.

      On this January morning, I thought he might want to go for a ski up the Split Rock River, but he had a point with his longing look toward home. Depending on which radio...

    • The Last Run
      (pp. 76-81)

      It sounded so simple.

      “Would you like to run a team in the Beargrease Sled Dog Race?” they asked. “Not all 350 miles of it. Just up to Finland, 70 miles or so. Enough to get a feel for the race”.

      “Sure” I said.

      Next thing I knew it was a Tuesday afternoon in early December, and I was standing on a dogsled in Lloyd Gilbertson’s yard. This was my first training run.

      Five Alaskan huskies were leaping madly in their traces, trying to pull the sled free. But the snow hook, a grappling-style steel claw, was buried in packed...

    • Once is Enough
      (pp. 82-89)

      The snow fleas were everywhere. Little black flecks, like elongated pepper, littered the top of the snow on the portage. I stopped, bent over and nudged one of the fleas with the steel tip of my ski pole. The fleck disappeared. It had flexed the flipping appendage beneath its tiny black fuselage and—flit—it was gone. It reappeared somewhere within the sphere of my sight, but I couldn't tell where. Now it was just another snow flea.

      I would have told someone about the snow fleas, but nobody else was there. I was alone under the early March sun...

  8. Spring

    • Gearing Up
      (pp. 93-96)

      I pulled the tackle box out of the basement cabinet. Its familiar heft felt good in my hand. I took the box upstairs, set it on the table and opened its plastic lid.

      It was time to start dreaming about fishing season, time to forget the March snowstorm that was raging outside my window and transport myself to another time, another place, another world, which I did the moment I folded back that amber lid.

      There they were. Rapalas. Tiny Torpedoes. Flatfish. They were just where I'd left them after last summer, lying there, ready and resplendent in their fluorescent...

    • Back on the Brule
      (pp. 97-101)

      It wouldn’t be a long paddle—three, maybe four miles. But it would be enough. Enough to feel the pull of moving water again, to see some steelhead on their spawning beds, to rejuvenate a soul badly in need of spring.

      Not just any river can deliver those goods. All are moving this time of year, of course, but many are too rowdy in their swollen exuberance to let a canoeist tag along.

      Lots of them take a run of steelhead from Lake Superior, but many of those are too cloudy in their runoff roil to let you see the...

    • Pick of the Litter
      (pp. 102-104)

      The hunter smiles almost all the time he watches her. He can’t help it. Pups do that to a person, especially 12-week-old black Labrador pups.

      Dakota Slough, he calls her, after the South Dakota wetlands where she’ll spend some of the finest moments of her life. Kota, for short. A guy can't be reeling off four-syllable titles when he’s got a rooster pheasant down and he needs his dog in a hurry.

      She was pick of the litter on a western Minnesota farm. His best hunting buddy’s male Lab had sired the litter and given the hunter first choice. He...

    • Fishing Partners
      (pp. 105-109)

      Kristian Jankofsky, nine, opened his green plastic tackle box. He unfolded its three tiers of trays, plucked out an orange plug with black spots on it, and snapped it onto his line.

      “If there’s a northern in here, he should go after this‚” Kristian said.

      He gave the monster plug a fling with his Zebco rod and his old, black reel. The plug plunked down somewhere in the placid backwaters of Fish Lake, north of Duluth.

      Another fishing season was under way for one more of about a million Minnesota anglers.

      Kristian’s fishing partner didn’t take particular notice of the...

  9. Summer

    • 30 Days
      (pp. 113-115)

      The place is a mess. A tube of seam sealer is lying on the coffee table. Half-filled Duluth packs slump next to the dining room table. Maps with lots of blue on them carpet a corner of the livingroom floor.

      The couple who live here don’t apologize. They’re getting ready to paddle around Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park for a month. They will leave in a week.

      This is the kind of trip many of us dream about. Too many of our jaunts in the woods are carved out of too small chunks of summer. But these two—a writer and...

    • Wandering Fever
      (pp. 116-118)

      The train station at Gillam, Manitoba, looks as if it might have been there forever. It’s a wooden building, creamy yellow, as long and low as the bush country that surrounds it.

      On each end of the building, in black lettering on a white background, is the word GILLAM.

      Inside, the waiting room is a cheery red and blue, though even the walls can’t do much to brighten up the old wooden benches. When a train comes up from Thompson, 120 miles to the southwest, or down from Churchill, 200 miles to the north, the community’s Cree Indians come running...

    • Words Unspoken
      (pp. 119-121)

      He’s getting older now. The lines have deepened around his eyes, and his cheeks are a little gaunt where they didn’t used to be. Oh, he’s not old yet. Getting older, yes, but not old.

      It bottlers me just a little, and not just because he’s my dad. It’s that, for some time now, I’ve wanted to say some things to him and haven’t ever gotten around to it.

      I’ve wanted to thank him for that day at the lake when we caught all those bluegills, and for all those vintage fall mornings when I should have been in Sunday...

    • Your Fire, My Fire
      (pp. 122-126)

      The rain came out of the swollen clouds with a vengeance. It seemed as if the drops were being hurled down at us instead of just falling. It was the first day of a week-long canoe trip up north. It rained mat way all day, so hard I was wet to my underwear beneath my borrowed rain gear.

      We made camp that night on the point of an island in a jumble of blown-down spruce. I remember the camp, because somehow, with a good saw and a good ax and some persistence, we got a fire going.

      I’ll always recall...

    • Soul Country
      (pp. 127-132)

      The two stones are sitting on the stream bank. But then, they always are. They’ve come to be as much a part of this trip as the bratwursts at the A&W Drive-In in Iron River, Wisconsin, or the cigar pinched between Dave Zentner’s teeth. The rocks, each the size of a grapefruit, are always left on the bank by Zentner and his fishing partner, Mark Kilen.

      Zentner, fishing without Kilen today, sets each rock in his 17-foot canoe. They’ll be used as anchors while Zentner flycasts. But not just yet. He has half an hour of poling up the stream...

    • Campfire Girl
      (pp. 133-135)

      At 57 she decided it was time she went camping. Oh, she’d been a Campfire Girl growing up in Nebraska. She’d spent most of seven summers as a camper or counselor at good ol’ Camp Kiwanis on the Blue River. But that was mostly skits and songfests, cabins and cots. It was also 40 years ago.

      Now she was twice a grandmother, and here she was lugging a 35-pound Duluth pack across a quarter-mile portage into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

      She looked more like she belonged on a tennis court at some swank Sun Belt resort. The floppy-brimmed...

    • Coming Home
      (pp. 136-137)

      The penny lay in the gutter next to a broken Dairy Queen spoon, some faded lawn clippings and pieces of brown glass. Bent under the weight of his Duluth pack, the man paused a moment to ponder the unlikely collection. He was coming home from a week in the woods. A week of paddling and portaging and sun and mosquitoes, a week of pure water and clear air and the sweet smell of duff on the forest floor. Now there was this junk in the gutter.

      Welcome home.

      As renewing as a week in the bush can be, this matter...

  10. Fall

    • Marking the Seasons
      (pp. 141-143)

      I pulled my vest off a peg in the back hallway. The dog already knew where we were going. He was standing with his nose at the crack of the back door, waiting. We do this almost every night, he and I. The late evening walk.

      It was raining lightly on this September weeknight, so I threw a rainjacket over the vest. Then I clipped the rope to the dog’s collar, announced our departure, and we were off.

      I used to think we took this evening walk mostly for the dog’s benefit. Now I’ve come to believe differently. I think...

    • Forgotten Stand
      (pp. 144-146)

      It’s hard to say how long the deer stand has been there. Its wooden framework has been weathered to the color of a November sky. Its platform boards—the ones still remaining—are warped and loose. Even the aspens that support the stand are dead and Wobbly. One is half gone. Still, like a leaning tree that refuses to fall, the stand hangs on. It sits there, soaking up sunshine on this October morning as it has for countless Octobers.

      No hunter will sit upon the stand come deer season. The structure has long since lost its value as a...

    • Little Creatures
      (pp. 147-149)

      The juncos have been moving through lately. You’ve probably seen them—small, gray birds with bars of white along the outside of their tailfeathers.

      In the bird world, juncos are pretty much your average bird. They aren’t nearly as striking as, say, a pileated woodpecker. They aren’t as fun to watch as a kingfisher or an osprey. They don’t have the busybody personality of a chickadee.

      But each fall when they come through, I take note. I don’t know where they’re coming from, and I’m not sure where they’re going. But, to me, they’re as much a part of this...

    • Brule by Night
      (pp. 150-156)

      Steve Therrien's fly line laced the night air over Wisconsin’s Brule River.





      Somewhere in the blackness, below the silhouette of some cedars, the fly came to rest. It was an Angleton, an imitation designed to entice the Brule’s big brown trout.

      “It looks like somebody took a mouse, hit it with a hammer, and then put wings on it”‚ Therrien said. “It throws a nice wake, and it's small”.

      Therrien was throwing the Angleton from the bow of an 18-foot Grumman canoe. In the stern, David Spencer knelt on a boat cushion and held the canoe...

    • Cabin Time
      (pp. 157-159)

      It is evening, and the hunters have returned. They have spent all day shuffling through six inches of South Dakota snow trying to put up a few pheasants. They hunted all the familiar covers, whose names stir memories of bygone hunts: Jake the Drake, Mallard Point and Lost Limit Slough. Now they are back.

      Guns lean against cabin walls outside the bunk rooms. Feltlined pac boots sit just inside the cabin door, clumps of snow in their laces turning slowly to water. The hunters mill about aimlessly, shedding vests, reorganizing shells, and laying gloves out to dry.

      It is one...

    • Northern Lights
      (pp. 160-161)

      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, and 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 remember one summer night’s display in the North Woods. Lordy, 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...

  11. Winter

    • Birkie Blues
      (pp. 165-169)

      Number 262 shuffles his skis back and forth on the sugary snow. He isn’t nervous. Heck, this is his third American Birkebeiner. Excited yes. Nervous, no. He can’t help it. He always gets this way at the starting line. Something about the music playing and all those skinny people in their skin-tight suits.

      Quite a spectacle, this Birkebeiner, the 55-kilometer crosscountry ski race held annually in the woods of northern Wisconsin between Hayward and Cable.

      But it's so much more than a spectacle. It’s a 34-mile journey into one’s soul. This year, it’s only a 31-mile soul search. The course...

    • A Season to Endure
      (pp. 170-172)

      We were skiing down a backcountry creek when we saw a dark spot poking through the ice and snow. This was four or five years ago, but the day stands out among all others I have spent on skis.

      We stopped for a moment, waiting to see if the spot moved. It didn’t. We skied closer and took a look. It was an elongated hump, maybe five feet long and six or eight inches at its high point, lumpy here and there, covered with dark fur. It didn’t take us long to figure out that it was the top of...

    • In Stitches
      (pp. 173-176)

      The frumpy old booties sag against one another in a corner of the closet. Once their ripstop nylon shells were orange and bright. Now they are smudged and torn. Once their goose-down filling was full of puff and bounce. Now it's droopy and matted. They should have been chucked long ago, I suppose. But to understand why they haven't been, you have to go back to the Christmas of 1974.

      When the booties arrived in the cardboard box, they weren’t booties at all. They were a few pieces of ripstop nylon, some clumps of goose down sealed in plastic, a...

    • Find the Magic
      (pp. 177-180)

      We had been up before dawn, drinking tea and writing in our journals. Now it was almost sunset, and we had come perhaps 40 miles by dog-team and skis across the frozen sea that is Great Slave Lake.

      The weather was good. It had been up to zero or maybe ten above during the day. We had skied ahead of the dogs without our wind parkas on.

      Now, as the sun hung over the trees in the west, it seemed to be getting cold again. Our one-and-a-half-hour stints on the sled, behind the 11 dogs, were enough to make us...

    • Back Matter
      (pp. 181-181)