Q&A with Sam CookFor nearly 30 years Sam Cook has been covering the great outdoors for the Duluth News Tribune. He’s authored six books and accummulated an admirable list of awards. His stories range from the abundantly impressive – he covered the Steger International Polar Expedition in 1986 – to an ordinary tale of paddling the Brule. Those who know him well call him everything from “very funny” to “considerate and generous.” We asked him some questions, and in true form he answered them with humble honesty and yes, a bit of humor.
By: Holly Henry, Living North Magazine
Q: Tell the truth, have you ever written poetry?
A: I have “committed poetry,” as one former editor called it, about three times in print in my 29 years at the News Tribune. I probably shouldn’t have. I’ve always maintained there are two kinds of poetry – good poetry, and the kind I understand.
Q: Do people think your job is easy (i.e. “He just fishes all day”)?
Is it easy?
A: I hear quite often that I have the “ideal job,” by which most people mean I get paid to go hunting and fishing and camping and watching birds. It is a wonderful job. I’m usually with people who are doing something they love and want to share. Sometimes people forget about the writing part. Is it easy? No, it usually isn’t easy, but almost nothing worth doing well is easy.
Q: Whom do you admire?
A: I admire my wife and kids. They’re strong and honest and generous. I admire friends of mine who are good parents. I admire many of my fellow reporters and photographers at the News Tribune and some who are no longer here. I have several close friends who shall remain nameless, but I admire each of them a great deal and hope to keep learning from them. Among writers, I admire John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Gordon MacQuarrie, Barton Sutter, Louis Jenkins, Michael Furtman, Dave Olesen, Richard K. Nelson, Dave Barry, Thomas McGuane and many more. Garrison Keillor is a brilliant storyteller.
Q: If you could take a trip to anywhere, where would you go?
A: I’d go back to the Brooks Range of Alaska to paddle and hike in those lovely mountains. I’ve been there once, and it’s a vast, beautiful place, full of caribou and grizzlies and wolves.
Q: If you had to change careers, what would you be?
A: That's a tough one. I love to write. I think sports medicine is fascinating, not that I’m qualified, of course. Geologists seem to live interesting lives. And teaching at the college level holds appeal.
Q: What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
A: The canoe country was what drew Phyllis and me north from Kansas, and it remains a strong pull. I love hunting pheasants over my yellow Lab in rolling grasslands. Closer to home, running trails in Hartley Park or on the Superior Hiking Trail keeps me in touch with the woods when I can't get away for longer trips.
Q: What’s the most frightened you’ve ever been?
A: Hmmm. It was probably when I was 14 and nearly shot my dad while hunting. I wrote a column about it years ago. It still haunts me if I think too long about it.
Q: What makes you happy?
A: Many things make me happy. Having a simple meal with good friends and telling stories. Waking up in canoe country. Paddling to Hudson Bay. Writing a good story. Taking a decent photograph.
Q: What makes you angry?
A: Little things bug me, mostly in the category of people being inconsiderate of others. But on a larger scale, I’m frustrated that as a nation, we seem preoccupied with the superficial and less willing to explore our full potential. And I get angry at my own shortcomings on a fairly regular basis.
Q: What’s your favorite meal?
A: I don’t have a single favorite meal. Simple fare suits me well, especially if I’m on the trail, hungry and among family or friends.
Q: Did you really have a heart attack? (And if so what are you doing at the vending machine buying Snickers bars?) What did you learn from that experience?
A: I did have a tiny heart attack – the best kind – about 20 years ago. Medical folks didn't know why. I don’t have heart disease and continue to believe I’m doing fine, although my times in the half-marathon keep creeping upward. I suspect race officials are lengthening the course. But there is nothing like spending some quiet nights on the sixth floor at St. Mary’s to focus you on what’s important. Since that time, I think I’ve appreciated small things much more, and I take less for granted.
Q: I notice you have duct tape on your car. Fancy yourself a bit of a handyman, do you?
A: I’ll have you know we spent a significant sum of money to replace the spoiler on our Camry, so I currently have no duct tape on our cars. (Do not push a Camry out of a snowbank by leaning into the spoiler.) I fully admit, however, that the women find me neither handsome nor handy. I once went to buy a drill, thinking I should own one. The clerk asked me what I planned to use it for. I had no answer. “Holes, mostly,” I said.
Q: You and Phyllis have been married how long? What’s the secret to a successful marriage?
A: I could get wise and philosophical here, but Phyllis would see right through that. There are no secrets. It’s just dogged faith. Our minister, Rev. Kathy Nelson, once said, “Love is something you do, a conscious decision you make every day.” I think we all tend to think love is magical, something that “happens.” Only in the movies.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
A: That’s difficult. I hope always to write. I would like to travel a bit more, primarily to wild or semi-wild places. I don’t envision retirement in the conventional sense.
Sam Cook was born and raised in Kansas and received a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. He and his wife, Phyllis have two children, Emily and Grant.