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Sam Cook column: The unexpected pleasures of running in the rain

Sam Cook

I wasn't sure I wanted to go. A steady rain tapped on the porch roof. The temperature was 37 degrees on this early May morning.

But I had told the yellow dog we would get up and go for a run in the 660-acre woods. And, as Robert Service wrote, "A promise made is a debt unpaid."

So we went, and the woods took us in. This is nearly always the case. Conditions that look cold or foreboding or daunting from inside a warm shelter never seem quite so bad once you're out there and immersed. We know, living in the North, how to dress for the elements. You layer up. You get out the door. Once your heart rate rises and hot blood is coursing to your extremities, all is well.

Or, maybe it's just that a cold and rainy May morning seems trifling compared to those January nights when we were fat-biking at 10 below zero.

The takeaway is this: Just go. It's almost always better than you think it will be.

At 6 a.m. on a weekday morning, these woods were lightly traveled. In an hour, I'd see three other souls.

Up ahead, on an old road through a wetland, I came upon a familiar couple. I had seen them a few days before. He always looks dapper, even flashy. She prefers more understated fashion — buffs and browns. They were strolling along slowly, side by side on the gravel path — a pair of mallards bent on nesting somewhere in the wetlands.

The pair launched into flight as we approached, the hen yapping with indignation at our intrusion. They flew low over the old road, the yellow dog in full-on pursuit. She gave up when the mallards peeled off into the safety of the swamp.

When we had flushed them from the wetland a few days earlier, they had risen backlit by the rising sun, sparkling drops of water falling from their feathers. The hen was barking that time, too. The sound of wingbeats filled the air. That spectacle — both the video and the audio — lasted only a few seconds but made my entire morning.

One of these days, the hen will decide it's time to nest, and we'll likely see only the male, patrolling his perimeter.

Three or four times a morning on these outings, walking or running, something small and unexpected occurs. Or something big. It might be the dew-dappled web of an orb spider. Or a gaggle of waxwings fattening up on mountain ash berries. Or the first marsh marigolds of the spring.

Some of these events are just cool moments, little surprises to tell someone about later — or to never tell anyone about. But many, like the mallards and the marigolds or the feeding frenzy in the mountain ash, offer tangible evidence of a specific season. They become sentinel events marking the passages of our year.

I recall, many years ago, talking with an elderly man who lived on a farm near Wisconsin's Brule River. He would plant rye that would come up in the fall so migrating geese would be attracted to his land. He knew, almost to the day, when they would arrive in mid-September.

"The geese come, you know you've made it through another year," he said.

Occasionally, like the man awaiting the arrival of geese, we go out half-hoping that we'll see that first loon of spring, or the fireflies on a July night, or hear the calling of peepers in April. But mostly, I think, we go just to be out there one more day, to take in the small glories of whatever events present themselves.

That, I suppose, is why the yellow dog and I went running in the rain.

SAM COOK is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com, or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCook.

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