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Sam Cook column: Alone, in a fix, on a wilderness errand

Sam Cook

ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL — After we returned from the lake and parked the snow machines, we ambled toward Mike Berg's garage. Someone toted the big plastic trash bag bulging with lake trout. The bag must have weighed 25 or 30 pounds. It had been a decent day on the lake for five of us.

Berg, who owns Seagull Creek Fishing Camp near the tip of the Gunflint Trail, awaited us. There is no running water in the garage this time of year, but he had set out several plastic pails of water for us near the fish-cleaning table.

He was eager to hear about our day — where we fished, how deep, how many fish, what we used to catch them. He would catalog our report along with his three-and-a-half decades of fishing intelligence. We were happy to share it. When we had arrived the evening before, Berg had shared the fishing report he had received from the parties who were here just before us.

Berg is primarily a walleye guide, a quiet legend among Minnesota's elite guides, laboring as he does so far from Minnesota's more easily reached iconic walleye waters — Mille Lacs, Winnibigoshish, Leech, Rainy. He is off the beaten path, nearly 60 miles "up the trail" from the burg of Grand Marais. People who live this far up the Gunflint must possess a kind of self-reliance rarely required in our country today. They live and work and fish on big water — lakes like Saganaga, straddling the Canadian border, and nearby Northern Light Lake. Things can happen out there.

So, we listened up when we asked Berg how his day had gone and he said it had been "interesting."

Berg is not given to hyperbole. He delivers what he has to say in matter-of-fact manner, whether he's describing how he caught a 32-inch walleye or — in this case — how he was checking some ponds just north of Saganaga on the Canadian side by snow machine. He holds a permit to trap leeches on some of the ponds. Things were going well, he said, until at some point his snow machine rolled off an embankment, breaking its windshield and pinning one of his legs beneath the machine. Fortunately, the machine rested on the pant leg of his snowmobile suit, not his leg itself. Still, he was effectively trapped beneath the machine.

He was alone, of course.

We kept cleaning lake trout as Berg told us his story. Clearly, he was in a jam. He was many miles by frozen lake and portage trails from home. Nobody was likely to be coming by his remote location. It was unclear whether anyone knew exactly where he was going that day.

He was pinned beneath the snow machine on an incline, and he was on the lower side of the snowmobile. Somehow he had to free himself, and he had little leverage from where he was lying.

"It got to be sort of survival mode," Berg said.

We all waited for the story to unfold. Two fillet knives continued to carve lake trout flesh.

Berg wasn't sure how he managed to budge the snowmobile off his pant leg. He simply had no other choice. Mustering all of his strength, little by little he managed after several minutes to move the machine enough to wriggle out from under it.

He checked his ponds. He came home.

"At least there weren't a bunch of wolves standing around me," Berg would say later.

It's possible that one day the experience will rank somewhere on his list of close calls during his years at Seagull Creek Fishing Camp. It likely won't rival the day in 2007 that the Ham Lake fire came within about a slip-bobber cast of his property.

But on this March evening, Berg was just glad to be home from another day in remote country, listening to some guys from Duluth talk about lake trout fishing.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer at the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at (219) 723-5332 or Find his Facebook page at or his blog at