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SAM COOK COLUMN: On the watch for subtle signs of fall

Sam Cook


Can’t remember the last time I saw a number like that on the thermometer. I like that number.

The grass was cool and wet under my feet when I went out to feed the yellow dog. The air was thin and clean. The leaves had that raspy sound to them in the breeze.

I’m not saying I’m ready to send summer packing, like a kid headed for college. Most of us think summer in the North hasn’t been quite long enough this time around. But I’m not altogether opposed to what comes next, and 49 in the morning confirms that we’re headed that way.

All of the signs were there before. Acorns are plunking onto the garage roof. This year’s fawns have lost their spots. The bucks are sporting new headgear, though still in the velvet stage.

The mountain ash berries hang in clumps the color of pumpkins. The salmonberries are red and sweet. Joe-Pye weed is standing tall and mauve. Goldenrod nods.

The Canada geese are starting to come in to the little pond every evening, flip-flopping their big fuselages sideways to spill air on final approach. They’ll keep coming into September and beyond, building in number, until one cold night when the pond will no longer echo with their throaty gossip.

Teachers in the neighborhood are girding up. The school kids are playing night games in ever-earlier darkness, trying to forestall the inevitable.

Summer is good. And so is change.

I’m sure it’s quite possible to live in Costa Rica or St. John or the Yucatan, where the sun rises and sets at about the same time all year, where the vegetation is lush and rubbery 365, where the same birds call almost every day. People do it. I’ll admit I’ve thought of it.

I’m sure there are subtleties to the seasons in those always-summer places that I just don’t know about. Wetter months, drier months. Trees that shed their leaves out of sheer boredom, perhaps. An annual influx of migrating birds from places like Duluth or the high Arctic, I suppose.

One could learn to appreciate those not-so-obvious seasonal shifts. I guess I prefer to get hit over the head by mine.

Sixty-seven, 68, 64, 66. Then, on a late August morning when only a few of the maples have begun to blush — 49.

Now I’m thinking about camping in a farmer’s hay yard in Montana and walking through the coneflowers hunting sharp-tailed grouse. Now I’m thinking about a bull moose emerging from the mist of a canoe-country morning in September. Now I’m thinking about being led through a tangle of switchgrass and big bluestem by the nose of a yellow Lab who’s being led by the scent molecules of a rooster pheasant.

All from one 49.

I’ve even caught myself sling-shotting well beyond all of that to a set of fresh ski tracks waiting for me on a wooded trail. Or lumbering along a snowshoed path on a fatbike, my headlamp boring a hole in the night.

Crazy, I know, but it’s starting to sounds good.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Follow him on Twitter at or on his blog at