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Sam Cook column: Chance meetings among fellow travelers

Sam Cook

ELY — He was standing calf-deep in the waters of Basswood Lake, and I knew right away he was a man of the canoe country.

He had that look. An old-timey brown hat with a floppy brim. Shirt buttoned to the top button to ward off mosquitoes. Baggy woodsman pants that disappeared into the water down by his boots.

His attire gave him the look of an old-timer, but I realized he was probably about my age. Maybe younger. That happens more often these days.

His wife stood at the other end of their canoe, which floated between them on the clear water of Bayley Bay. They had just finished the portage from Burke Lake. They were on their way out of the woods. My wife and I were on our way in.

We had paused long enough to say hello and ask the common question of backcountry travelers this summer: How were the bugs?

I’m not sure how that evolved into a half-hour visit.

Mosquitoes, not so bad. But the biting flies, she said — bad. You know. The ankle-biters that always go for the thin skin.

Then the conversation just rolled along naturally over portages and across lakes and into camps. The man had been coming to the canoe country for decades. All over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Up in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park just across the border.

It became obvious that we had traveled a lot of the same country. We talked about routes we had taken, portages we had made, specific campsites where we both had camped. He talked about taking his kids up into that country. About fantastic fishing. About a moose they once saw up a creek.

He said he was from Tennessee and his drawl matched up. There was no hurry in him. He stood in the water for the entire conversation.

It was the kind of encounter that fellow travelers might have anywhere — at an airport in the Caribbean, at an overlook on the Appalachian Trail, in a camp on the Serengeti. Most of these chats start just as this one had, with a casual comment, a tentative reaching out to a fellow citizen of the planet. You figure, if you’re both occupying the same piece of real estate a long way from home, you must have something in common.

Most of these chance encounters end after a couple of exchanges, and you go your separate ways. Down the trail. Back to your book. Onto the smartphone.

But sometimes, both of you realize you’re kindred souls whose paths just never happened to cross until this moment. When that happens, you’re willing to share more of yourself, and it works both ways.

Somewhere near the end of this canoe-country conversation, I introduced myself to the man and his wife. They were from Knoxville, Tenn.

“Jim Smith,” he said.

I waded into the lake to shake his hand.

As we parted, Phyllis and I sat down on the beach to have some lunch. We were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when Jim came over and handed us a small container with liquid inside.

“Here’s some Amaretto I carry,” he said. “You can put a little in your coffee or hot chocolate.”

And we did.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or