The yellow dog was up ahead, leading us along the snow-packed trail. She seemed to think it was her job to clear the trail of any mice, ruffed grouse or chickadees to allow us safe passage.

On one more gray December day, Phyllis and I were snowshoeing in the Knife River country northeast of Duluth. We would be out for at least a couple hours and see no other people. We like people. But it’s nice, occasionally, to shuffle around in the woods for a chunk of the day harboring the illusion that you may be the only humans for miles around.

We had no plan, other than to be out, moving along in the backcountry. A snowshoer or two had been on the trail a few days before, it appeared, so the going was easy.

We would see no wildlife, but we did come across a burrow in the snow where a ruffed grouse had spent the night. Grouse burrow into these roosts because the snow insulates them from lower temperatures out in the open.

Sometimes, you’ll see wingbeat marks alongside such a burrow, marking the bird’s morning departure. If your passing happens to flush the roosting grouse from its burrow in an explosion of wingbeats and a shower of snow crystals, you will find out how strong your heart is.

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We saw no wing impressions in the snow. This bird must have walked away.

When we reached the river, frozen beneath a blanket of snow, we stopped on a high bank for a snack. Our singular requirement for such a stop is a deadfall to sit on, and this spot measured up. We pulled a couple of foam-pad squares from the daypack and laid them on the deadfall for insulation.

Nearly always, I must build a fire. Not a bonfire. Just a little “friendship fire,” as a buddy of mine used to call them. We laid a couple logs on the snow for a base, then piled plenty of little sticks on top. I found a couple scrolls of birchbark for tinder. We had fire.

Little fires like that, though perhaps not essential, take you back to memories of other fires you’ve known. Maybe it was a midday in the deer woods, when you needed a fire to warm some toes you couldn’t feel. Or perhaps such a fire reminds you of cool, damp fishing openers when the gang gathered for shore lunch. Or maybe the flames take you back to the canoe country, when you reached camp late on a rainy day needing to lift the gang’s spirits.

Phyllis and I sat and watched our little flames and let our thoughts drift to other fires we had known.

When we were ready, we kicked snow on the fire and snowshoed back out the way we had come, the yellow dog leading the way.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at