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Sam Cook: The first gulp of bracing North air is an elixir

You wake up before dawn on a September morning and slip outside to feed the Labs. One of them is springing off all fours in the kennel, and the older one is trying. She lifts her front paws just an inch off the concrete slab, but you know she knows.

You wake up before dawn on a September morning and slip outside to feed the Labs. One of them is springing off all fours in the kennel, and the older one is trying. She lifts her front paws just an inch off the concrete slab, but you know she knows.

The morning air seems to have been born in Yellowknife. It is thin and sharp and clean. A glance at the car windshield tells you the forecasters were right about frost, and you wonder, now, about the tomatoes.

If you don't appreciate winter, I suppose this first inhalation of Arctic air might be a daunting thing. But for the rest of us, who remain here partly because of seasonal stimulation, this first gulp of the bracing North is an elixir.

For the dogs, it must kindle memories of cattails heavy with pheasant scent, the thrum of a flushing grouse, the chance to carry a limp bundle of feathers back to the waiting hand of He Who Feeds Me.

For a lot of us twoleggers, I submit that those chilled molecules fresh from Canada elicit an equally vivid response. Suddenly, overnight, your mind opens to possibilities it wouldn't have entertained in July. Such as hiking the Superior Hiking Trail all the way to Canada. Or wondering if the broadwings will be moving over Hawk Ridge today. Or thinking about a buck with polished antlers gliding silently through the popple.

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The idea of sitting inside on such a morning, staring into the glare of a flatscreen monitor, is mildly revolting. What you want to be doing, on this first-frost morning, is poking along some forest trail inhaling the telltale aroma of leaves in the first stage of decay. It's a faint scent now, but it will intensify as the leaves darken and curl. When it gets good and musky, all you need is one whiff to envision a woodcock suspended against a backdrop of bare aspen, blue sky and frosted raspberry leaves.

Then, on your morning run, you notice that the sarsaparilla has turned crimson and the ferns are a chocolate brown. Death is beautiful in the North Woods. The dog doesn't have to spend nearly so long in the creek to cool off. And for the first time in weeks, you feel as if you don't want to quit running.

You think about people who have lived close to the land, and how much stronger these feelings must have been for them. What must this kind of cool have meant to the hunter who carved the arrowhead we found on a ridge in Alaska's Brooks Range? How good would a morning like this have felt to the West Coast salmon spearer waiting for the run?

Maybe that's still within us. Maybe we're hard-wired to the harvest in ways we hardly recognize anymore.

Maybe that's what gets up inside of us when we awaken to first frost and step outside, ears cocked for the distant bark of geese on the move.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluth news.com.

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