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Sam Cook column: Moments of clarity while catching young walleyes

Sam Cook

ELY — The two of us were sitting in a canoe the other day, catching small walleyes. They were too small to keep, so we kept tossing them back hoping the next one would be bigger. The only variety to the pattern was when one of us landed a lowly rock bass or a pesky perch.

But we kept at it because we had driven for a couple of hours, then paddled and portaged into this known "hotspot" where decent walleyes had been caught before. We may not be smart anglers, but we are stubborn.

We were also virtually alone. In the course of the day, we would see only a few other paddlers, one group of old-timers at a portage and a couple of other anglers at a distance. So we sat and jigged and talked.

As often happens between longtime friends, the conversation drifted among many topics — travel, kids, relationships, past adventures and more. At one point, my partner was talking about a canoe trip he and three others had made down the Gods River to Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. This was in the mid-1970s. They were young and green but tough and resourceful. They made the trip, as we all did in our early years, with rudimentary gear and untested methods, figuring it out as they went along. As any of us would tell you, we wouldn't trade those early explorations for anything.

It was during his recollection of that trip, while not catching another juvenile walleye, that my friend said something I wasn't expecting.

"I've only had one sort of 'out-of-body' experience in my life," he said, "and it was one morning on that trip. I can't really explain it. But I woke up early and was lying in my sleeping bag and I just knew that I was meant to be there."

He kind of left the comment hanging in the cool June air. He is perhaps the least likely, of all my friends, from whom I would have expected the words "out-of-body experience" to come bubbling to the surface.

I told him I didn't know that I had ever experienced the same thing, but I thought I knew what he was talking about. And I suspect the feeling — the sense that in some brief flash of awareness, we understand why we have been put on earth — is more universal than I had realized.

Long ago, I would get a similar feeling, a complete sense of peace and confidence, playing third base on a baseball diamond in Kansas. Don't know why. It just felt — completely right. Like my friend, I can't really explain it.

The feeling goes far beyond the satisfaction one feels looking out over a pleasant scene — or even catching a mess of decent-size walleyes. It seems to require a deeper awareness that you have been put in a certain place or situation for a reason, perhaps that some greater force has placed you there for reasons that aren't entirely clear to you yet.

I suspect maybe grown daughters or sons have had such an awareness caring for an aging parent. Perhaps astronauts have felt it. Or paramedics. Or almost any of us.

I have a friend who for many years built beautiful log homes in the woods. He told me once that he felt he had been put here to do just that.

Part of the feeling is a sense that you are up to something you're pretty good at doing. That always feels satisfying. But a greater part of the experience — which may occur only in a moment of unexpected insight — is that you have been put in that situation for reasons you don't yet completely understand. Such a moment is infused with a sense of humility.

That's the kind of thing that can happen up in the north woods, where a stream enters a lake and a couple of old friends are having trouble catching decent walleyes.

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

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