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Sam Cook: Come for the trout, leave with memories

If you saw them at the portage, you would think: Old guys.

Look at the way they get out of their canoes, unfolding their bodies in stages, seeking good footing, arriving finally at equilibrium. The three-day stubble on their faces is the same hue as the ashes of their last campfire.

But they are there, by gosh. They are there.

They throw on their packs and disappear into the tunnel among the trees, bound for blue on the other end. They have this down. Fifty years, 40 years, some of them have been doing this. These last many years, the four of them head for the canoe country beyond Ely, up into the Canadian side, every spring when the water is so cold that nobody should fall into it. That happened one year. That’s how they know.

That’s how they know a lot of what they know now. Because they’ve tried the alternatives and finally figured it out. They know how to paddle and carry, how to make fire, how to stay dry, how to find fish.

Because they have a lifetime of experiences, they also have stories. The stories are as important to them as the food they carry in their packs. When they were young, they didn’t have many stories. They thought they all were different from one another. But now, after hearing so many of each other’s stories, they realize they are more alike than they are different.

They come to the canoe country in spring to catch lake trout. That’s what they say. And they do catch lake trout. They catch the marvelous cold creatures and paddle to a rocky point and fillet them. Back at camp, they fry the fillets and serve them alongside potatoes or wild rice.

At night, when the Big Dipper is cradled in the arms of the jack pines, they talk about the time left.

“What have been your best trips?” someone asks, poking the fire to settle a log. “Where would you go back to again? What’s still on your list?”

Nobody speaks for a time. Four minds reel in the years, summon up memories. Finally, someone breaks the silence, and the conversation lasts for several more pieces of wood.

They know, on the one hand, how fortunate they have been. Kauai. Hudson Bay. The Brooks Range. Russia. Italy. The Arctic. And these — caribou, polar bears, grayling, grizzlies, beluga.

Still, they want more, and the seeds of potential trips are sown in the flicker of the fire. They all sense the clock is ticking. They have had their brushes — a hip, a knee, an ankle, a heart or two. Enough to know that anyone’s number could come up, and that would be it.

The fire snaps. The smoke rises to mingle with the Dipper. No one speaks for a while.

“Not yet,” their silence seems to say. “Please, not yet.”

Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Follow him on Twitter at or on Facebook at “Sam Cook Outdoors.”