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Sam Cook column: People of the northern night

Sam Cook

The people of the night are about. I see one coming now, through the woods. A fat-biker, no doubt. All I can see is the beam of a headlamp bouncing through the trees.

It is a weeknight in Duluth. Fifteen degrees. Light snow falling. Wind with an attitude whipping down from the northwest.

It would have been easy to remain at home, let the heat come from underground deposits far away, kick back, maybe sip a beer or a glass of wine.

That is one way to survive a northern winter. The other way is to join the people of the night, to get out in the deep darkness that envelops us when the planet leans back in its big rocking chair. They know — something inside tells them — they must embrace this absence of light and move about as the animals do.

The night rider approaches me now on the trail. I can see in the spill of LED light beneath her helmet that she’s a woman. I pull off the trail to let her pass. We exchange quick greetings. Like me, she’s on a fat bike, the Sherman tanks of bicycles, with the comically plump tires that nearly always evoke comments from people on foot.

“I suppose you drink Fat Tire beer, too,” one hollered at me once.

My fellow rider and I are each off again in our own directions, our headlights flooding the woods ahead, tires squeaking on the snow. It’s a perfect night to ride.

We have the city of Duluth, the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores and many volunteers to thank for an experience nobody had imagined even a few years ago.

Elsewhere, other people of the night are about. Dog walkers with lighted leashes. Hockey parents flooding rinks. Cross-country skiers hissing over the snow. Soon, when the trails open, snowmobilers will join the rest of us, whining through the night, blowing off pent-up steam from the day. When the ice gets right, ice anglers will sit alone in their shelters, lanterns glowing, minnow parts lying near the hole, as they jig up crappie dinners.

At some point in these night ramblings, all of us stop for a moment. The biker pauses at a trail junction. The rink-flooder takes a break. The snowmobilers pull over for a chat. The skier rests at the top of a climb, catching her breath. The ice angler steps outside the door of the shelter to — well, he just steps out for a minute.

All of them pause to listen. To the ricocheting of ice. To snowflakes pecking at a sleeve. To a leaning tree groaning against another in the wind. Or to nothing at all — that rarest of commodities in our piston-driven world. Silence.

And they look. At the heavens. At the way snow collects on balsam boughs. At a pair of deer eyes in the beam of a headlamp. At how smooth the new ice looks on the rink.

We stop. We listen. We look. We get moving again.

We are the people of the night, getting our heads right in a northern winter.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-53323 or Follow his blog at or his Facebook page at “Sam Cook Outdoors.”