Sam Cook column: A man on a mission for light and warmth
Heading north, into the woods, for solace and silence.
Editor's note: The experience described in this column occurred before Minnesota's stay-at-home order was issued.
A few days ago, I drove north to a piece of country I know. I needed to be away from all my town trails and get into the woods. And I wanted something else. I wanted to build a fire.
The yellow dog and I headed into the forest near a small creek. The remnant trail was snow-packed but a bit punchy along the edges.
I didn't need to go far. We followed the trail through some mature spruce interspersed with a few old birches. We must have gone a half-mile or so before I found the right spot. It was on a rise overlooking a little swamp — the kind of place where a moose might amble through at any time.
I found plenty of birchbark. Found a rotten deadfall suspended off the snow. Broke off some chunks of that to lay as a base for my fire. They were damp, so I knew they wouldn't burn and would prevent the fire from descending into the snow.
The dog plowed through deep snow prospecting for the scent of grouse or snowshoe hares or red squirrels. I broke a bunch of dry branches off a leaning dead spruce. They snapped when I broke them — good wood, and an infinite supply of it. I placed the curls of birchbark on the base I’d laid. On top of the bark, I criss-crossed some little spruce sticks and eventually the bigger ones. When the pile was a foot or so high, I knew I had it.
One match, and the birchbark took it from there. The first wisps of wood smoke began to twist up through the stacked sticks. The flames licked the pile of branches. That spruce really wanted to burn.
In no time, I had a real fire. It snapped like a fire. It smelled like a fire.
From my pack, I retrieved a single Polish sausage I’d brought along for the occasion. I had sacrificed a small sapling for the cause, and now I threaded the sausage onto it. I jammed the base of the sapling into the snow, letting the Polish dangle over the flames.
The dog sat nearby, probably thinking the Polish was for her. She usually drools in such situations, but I was too busy adding more wood to notice.
This is what I had come for. Don’t ask me why. Either you understand these things or you don’t, but I’m guessing you do. It was an excellent little fire. Plenty of energy, but nothing over the top. A one-man, one-Polish fire.
I dug out some carrots and grapes I'd brought along. Man cannot live by Polish alone.
I rotated the Polish a couple times. It was turning a nice shade of black on the outside, juices dripping into the fire. Now I was worried that I might be the one drooling.
When the time seemed right, I pulled the sapling out of the snow and gave the Polish a good look. Just right. I ate it right off the stick, one deliberate bite at a time. The yellow dog looked on with what seemed to be envy. I felt bad for her. I should have brought another Polish.
I sat there for a good while, just looking at the fire and the snow and the woods. And listening to the silence. I kept feeding the little fire, partly for the heat, partly because I wasn’t ready to leave.
How many fires does a person get in life? How many dogs? How many simple lunches on the trail? Never enough.
I sat for a while longer, until the fire settled down to cherry-red coals. I pushed a few unburned ends into the embers. It felt good sitting there with a warm dog leaning against me.
A person almost could have forgotten that an evil pandemic was sweeping across the land, putting fear in our hearts, segregating friends and family, stealing our loved ones.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249 .