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Sam Cook column: Photos rekindle cool memories

Spending a night on the ice of a wilderness lake puts everything in perspective.

Three people pull gear as they cross-country ski across lake
Nancy Piragis, from left, Phyllis Cook and Steve Piragis ski across a lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness during a winter camping trip in 1983.
Sam Cook / File / Duluth News Tribune
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The photo is a classic image: an old black-and-white shot in the winter wilderness north of Ely in the early 1980s. Three winter campers on skis move through falling snow on a frozen backcountry lake.

Sam Cook
Sam Cook

A second photo shows someone crawling out of a snow house on Basswood Lake near Ely.

The photos were discovered recently by a woman who works at the Kathryn A. Martin Library at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She’s a friend of my wife, Phyllis, and thought we’d enjoy seeing them.

Well, yes. We did.

We made those photos on a New Year’s Eve winter camping trip. I would write a story about that winter trip for the Duluth News Tribune, early in my career as outdoors writer.

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The other skiers and campers in the photos were Steve and Nancy Piragis, of Ely, great friends through the years. They had moved to Ely from Massachusetts and still own the thriving canoe-outfitting business they started: Piragis Northwoods Co.

After an "economically devastating" two weeks, businesses are looking forward to campers and canoers returning to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The wilderness region closed Aug. 21 because of drought and fires in the Superior National Forest.

Looking at those photos now — nearly four decades down the trail — I can still sense the wonder we all felt about settling in Ely. We were young and free and eager to explore the canoe country in all its seasons. We paddled and camped and fished and hunted and picked blueberries and harvested wild rice. We relied to a great extent on the knowledge shared by local residents and others who arrived before us.

Sam Cook column_Steve Piragis snow house
Steve Piragis, of Ely, pokes his head out from a snow house on Basswood Lake near Ely in 1983.
Sam Cook / File / Duluth News Tribune

Someone must have told us how to build a snow house: how to pile up the snow, let it settle, then hollow it out from the inside. Or maybe we had read about it in a book. Or both.

The silence inside a snow house is complete. A blizzard could be raging outside, and, tucked in your cozy sleeping bag, you’d hardly know it.

That silence is broken only when the ice beneath you expands or contracts. You hear a deep groan somewhere off in the distance, and the sound races toward your little home, passing beneath you and then diminishing as it moves down the lake.

A bit unnerving, especially the first few times. And really cool.

Sometimes you can feel it, too. Big forces are at work out there. You feel quite insignificant cocooned in your sleeping bag in all of that wilderness.

And, truth be told, you are.

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Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249 .

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Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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