Shuffling down from my tent in the morning, I see a wisp of wood smoke rising from the fire. Of course. My longtime paddling buddy is up, already sipping his first cup of coffee.

This is no surprise. He appreciates the quiet moments at the beginning of a new day in the canoe country. He has a strong relationship with coffee.

I can see only the silhouette of his form the loose-fitting wool shirt, the old ball cap. I almost hate to disturb his sunrise solace, but I, too, am seeking heat on this early spring morning. I ease into his scene.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” I say.

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Our conversations often run this deep. When you’ve traveled as many miles together as we have, the rest is understood. Nice morning. Beautiful canoe-country lake. A single loon sawing through the air on quick wingbeats.

I put on some water, dig a tea bag out of my pocket. I pull up my camp chair. The heat from the fire feels good.

“Sleep OK?”

“Yeah, you?”

Our two paddling partners are still in their solo tents, probably stirring but not yet out and about. We are apparently the only party camped on this wilderness lake north of Ely. We hear no voices from down the lake, no clinking of pots at a distant camp.

We like it that way. It isn't that we don’t like people. On the mile-long portage to this lake, we had met a man just out for a walk. He had boated over from his cabin on the next lake. I had stood and talked to him for three or four minutes, a canoe resting on my shoulders.

But this is good. This silence. This fire. This 30-year friendship.

Phyllis and I had encountered the same kind of silence on a recent raft trip down the Green and Colorado rivers in Utah. Fourteen paying customers. Five guides. And yet, in the chill of Utah mornings, long before the sun had cleared the 2,000-foot canyon walls, a sense of hush prevailed on our sandbar camps.

The guides were down the shore, putting out the coffee and hot water, barely audible from where our tents were pitched. Our fellow rafters moved about in silence, emerging from their tents, checking out the river, gazing up at the canyon walls, wondering if another layer of clothing might feel better. Wild places — whether a river headed for the Gulf of California or a glacial lake near the Canadian border — seem to inspire this early morning reverence.

It is easy, in these places, to ponder the long throw of years, the people who have lived here or passed through this country before. One’s own lifetime comes into distinct focus when it is seen against the backdrop of the glacial age or the eons required for a river to chew a path through solid rock. Our worldly human accomplishments seem almost trivial, our frailties less significant.

We are but the latest to pass this way, to have our morning coffee, to ponder the possibilities in our lives.

My paddling partner sips his coffee. I sip my tea. Our friends are stirring up on the hill now.

Better dig out the oatmeal and bagels.

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