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Sam Cook column: Living the good life, wave to wave

Sam Cook

Not long after we ventured onto the main body of the lake, we saw the whitecaps. The wind had shifted and seemed to be freshening. But we had only a couple of miles to cross at one end of the sprawling lake, so we forged on.

The two of us were among six paddlers in our group. This would be our last day in the bush after more than a week in the Ontario wilderness of Quetico Provincial Park. Two others were ahead of us, having already made the crossing. Our two other partners had decided to hug a windward shoreline, figuring the swim would be shorter if they capsized.

My partner and I were headed for an island that would give us some protection for the remainder of our crossing. We were committed.

A wilderness trip is rarely without such moments — odds to be weighed, skills assessed, a decision to make. Go or no-go. Plunge in or come up with Plan B.

To be honest, I think this is part of what we value in wilderness adventures. It is not a macho thing, not a matter of having a chance to conquer something. But sometimes out there, you are presented the rare opportunity in today's world to operate just on the edge of your comfort zone, or even a bit beyond it. To be in one of those scenarios is to discover what it is like to be completely and intensely alive.

Climbers find it on difficult pitches. Kayakers, in foamy descents. Mountain bikers, on dicey runs.

The farther we ventured onto the open water, the more the wind picked up. Gusts whipped the tops off the waves. We were mostly broadside to the rollers coming our way, which added another measure of challenge. The canoe bucked and heaved. We seemed to be bobbing like a sliver of driftwood.

I have paddled many miles with my partner in the stern. His skills are solid. He knows big water. He nosed the bow into the biggest sets of waves to increase the seaworthiness of our 17-foot canoe.

"The canoe knows what to do," he shouted over the wind and waves.

It did, and so did we. We took a bit of splash at times, but nothing of consequence. Foot by foot, stroke by stroke, we carved away at the crossing, taking what each set of waves would give us. We were completely in the moment, living life one wave at a time. The only question was how much the waves would build before we completed our crossing.

I remember thinking, even while we were out there, totally exposed — yes, this is part of what I value on these trips. It was as exhilarating as it was edgy.

Now the island was nearly within reach. We could see we were likely to make it. And then we were there, in the protective windshadow of the ancient rocks and pines. Gone, the crash and slap of waves. Gone, the lift and plummet of the bow. Gone, the wild buffeting of the wind.

We felt relief, but also the immense satisfaction that accrues when you have hung yourself out there on the edge and persevered. It's a heady and sweet place to find yourself.

We made the turn and paddled down the windshadow to rejoin the rest of our gang.

SAM COOK is a freelance columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at