BEAVER BAY — On a crisp December morning, two of us were treading carefully along the lip of a 400-foot escarpment. We were north of Beaver Bay on Minnesota’s North Shore, hiking a 6-mile piece of the snow-packed Superior Hiking Trail.

We would get squeamish watching our companion, the yellow dog, trotting right to the edge of this precipitous drop. But she would look back at us as if to say, “No problem, dudes.”

This day hike was another out-and-back walk for us on the 300-mile trail. The walk would occasionally deliver us to overlooks where 10% of the world’s fresh water lay shimmering far below.

Early in this walk, the air around us had exploded with a percussion of wingbeats. The dog’s nose had led her into a bevy of ruffed grouse, and now they were launching around us, whizzing through the cool December sunlight. Six, eight, 10 of them? One of the birds lasered right at us, so low that my partner and I both instinctively ducked.

We do these hikes — and a lot of other backcountry traveling — for many reasons. Aside from the physical satisfaction of simply walking through good country, we know we are apt to come upon some memorable event nearly every time out. We thought the profusion of grouse might be the signature moment of this little walk. We were wrong.

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We hiked on a few more miles to a campsite, where we kindled a modest lunch fire. It was more for effect than for warmth. We like a good fire. It always reminds us of countless others we have kindled on trips far to the north. We sat in the sun and ate our lunch, then headed back the way we had come.

On our return hike, we approached the valley that we had looked down on from above earlier. The day was perfectly still. We had stopped to take in the scene when both of us heard the sound. It was a brief, barely audible whine.

We looked at each other as if to say, “You heard that, right?”

We stood there, waiting for more confirmation. That’s when we heard another low moan, and soon a quavering, soulful howl. A wolf, certainly, so close we half-expected to see it sunning on some snowy outcrop. Neither of us spoke, not wanting to break the spell.

The moment reminded me of a passage by the late Barry Lopez in his book “Arctic Dreams.”

When out on the land, Lopez wrote, one should be “alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.”

We had a pretty strong sense that the wolf knew we were there.

We stood in the valley a few more minutes, listening hard. Finally, we began hiking again.

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