Sam Cook paddles into retirement: After 38 years as the News Tribune’s outdoors writer, he hangs up his notebook
"I don't know that I made it my goal to make storytelling the focus of it. I just thought you should tell stories; that's what people like."
After 38 years as the Duluth News Tribune's outdoors writer, Sam Cook is retiring Friday to pursue, well, pretty much what he's always pursued.
He'll spend more time sleeping on the ground in tents. More time paddling with his wife, Phyllis. More time following his yellow dog around chasing pheasants. Maybe more trips out west.
Only now, he won't have to rush back to the newsroom and write about it.
That's our loss, his gain.
Cook announces his retirement in a column in today's Outdoors section. But before he departs the newsroom for the last time, I sat down with him and asked him to talk about how he ended up at the Duluth News Tribune, writing stories that brought the outdoors into our Sunday mornings - even on Sunday mornings when we couldn't be outdoors.
Q: You've told the story of your first Boy Scout troop trip to the Boundary Waters in 1964. Was that the defining moment in how a small-town Kansas boy came to spend a career writing about the north woods and its people?
Sam: That's too direct a connection. But what that trip did for me was at least let me know that this area was here. And by this area, I mean the northwoods. The Canadian shield. Canoe country. All that water. All those lakes. I mean, I came from wheat country in northeastern Kansas, and I'd never known something like that even existed. It took me several more years. Phyllis and I moved to Ely in 1976, so we went some other places in between. ... But that trip must have stuck in my head because in '76, we just quit our jobs and moved north. We didn't have any place to go. We both had good jobs, doing what we were supposed to do after college, and we just said "why don't we just move north?'' We were going to go back to Kansas after one year and have kids and settle down. I was working in an ad agency in Kansas, and my boss said he'd hold my job one year. But I had to call him and say we weren't coming back. We stayed in Ely ... and then we went to Longmont, Colorado, and then it was here to Duluth and the News Tribune.
Q: You were selling advertising part time for the Ely Echo in the late 1970s when you started writing newspaper stories. What inspired you to make that change? Did you always see yourself as a writer/reporter?
Sam: That was probably 1977 or '78. ... I'd been selling ads, and Doug Smith, the (Echo's) reporter, left. And I thought it looked like more fun to write than to sell ads. And it was. So the publisher there let me do it. That was the start.
Q: You made storytelling the focus of your career at the News Tribune. What's your secret to being a good storyteller?
Sam: I don't know that I made it my goal to make storytelling the focus of it. I just thought you should tell stories; that's what people like. And the way to do that, what's worked for me, is to go there, to find people to do outdoor activities with - whether it's hunting, fishing or kayaking - and try to ... take the reader there. To do that you just have to put a whole bunch of stuff in your notebook about what's going on. When you're ready to drop over the lip on a set of rapids or what a pheasant looks like as it rises over a hunter or what the dog looks like when it's on a scent. We rely on photography a great deal. But I think you can do a lot of that with words. That's what I take joy in doing and I think readers appreciate it. I've had so many people tell me over the years "when I read your stuff, I felt like I was there." And I said, OK, that's the goal. To me that's a great compliment for a writer, to take somebody there.
Q. I don't think most people understand how important your note-taking and your reporting skills are in the storytelling process. Maybe they think the stories just magically come out of your fingers?
Sam: Especially if you're in a situation and you think, this may be the lead of my story, the opening of my story, or a very critical point of my story. When those things happen, I try to put everything that's happening - what things look like, what they smell like, what they feel like - into my notebook. So that when I'm back home a day later or two weeks later, I look at my notes and say, yes, that was it. If you don't write it down at the time, all those details, you cannot recreate it in your writing nearly as well. You won't have enough details to paint the picture. ... I remember a woman called me once and told me her husband was an avid duck hunter, and she said she didn't realize until she read my story that Sunday why he loved duck hunting so much. And I thought, wow, I scored that time. That to me is what writing can do.
Q: Do you have any writing heroes? Are there authors who have inspired you?
Sam: John McPhee has been a tremendous influence to me. He teaches a course called the Literature of Fact at Princeton University, and he's written for the New Yorker for many years. Barry Lopez. Richard K. Nelson from Alaska. Jim Harrison. Dave Olesen, former Ely dogsledder who lives on Great Slave Lake, wonderful writer. Kenny Moore who used to write for Sports Illustrated. ... Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, that's just kind of gospel to me. It humbles me every time I read it. When you read good writing like that, it's inspiring and humbling and sometimes almost depressing. I remember reading John McPhee's description of a loon calling thinking I'll never be that good. But it's made me try harder to be like that. Sig Olson, too ... Gordon MacQuarrie of the Milwaukee Journal.
Can I add something? If someone wants to become a good writer, just read. Read as good of stuff as you can. I don't care if it's novels or nonfiction or what. That's where you get ideas on how to construct stories sentences, phrases, everything. Just read.
Q: You write often about people, telling stories about places or events - like fishing openers or deer season - through the eyes of one or more subjects. Was that a conscious decision on your part or an evolution in your reporting/writing?
Sam: People stories are always better than generic stories about an event. Because people are quite fascinating. How they approach the deer opener, their customs, their ritual, their place. That's just good stuff. We all have our niches, our groups, our best hunting friends and our best fishing friends, our cabin, our lake. But when you tell these stories of these people and how they feel about their place, their brook trout stream or whatever, other readers go, "yeah, that's how it is for me, too." Or they may learn something they could do at their place from that person. ... It's about people's love for a place or a species of fish or a season. It's about the losses they have suffered. My dad isn't here with me any more. It's about loss of physical ability. I can't paddle that river any more. Those are the human emotions we all have, not just about the outdoors but about everything.
Q: A lot has changed in the past 38 years in how the public enjoys the outdoors - from fishing regulations and technology advances to wildlife populations and entirely new sports on the scene like turkey hunting, wakeboards and fat biking. How did those changes impact your job?
Sam: ATVs weren't a thing when I started my job here, and now look at them. Neither was sea kayaking. ... It's given me more things to write about people doing in the outdoors. I have tried to embrace all the ways people enjoy the outdoors up here, whether it's ATV riding or blueberry picking or sea kayaking. We wrote a story two summers ago about a guy from Duluth who rides a stand-up paddle board all the way around Lake Superior. There are a lot of ways to enjoy the outdoors other than shooting a bird or a deer or catching a fish. I think if people in our area are doing those things, we should pay some attention to it. Hunting and fishing still make up the bulk of our outdoors coverage, but a lot of people are doing those other things. I remember interviewing a UMD student a few years ago about why there are fewer young people hunting and he said, "you know when I go hunting with my dad all day we might not get anything. But every time I go mountain biking, I have a good time." How can you deny that's a good outdoor thing?
Q. You're going to keep writing a weekly general column for the News Tribune. But you are leaving the deadline life of daily outdoor journalism. What will you miss most about the newspaper? What will you miss least?
Sam: I think what I'll miss most are the people. I look at all the friends I made by calling someone I didn't know and getting together to do a story on them and maybe getting together subsequently. I've made a lot of friends talking to fisheries and wildlife biologists ... I really enjoy talking to biologists. Every time we're learning we're happy, I think, and I've learned so much from these people who know more about fish or birds or deer, or whatever, than I do. I will miss those conversations a lot. ... What I will miss least, and I'm not griping or complaining at all, but there is a treadmill aspect to doing the job the way I've tried to do it, which is finding people you don't know to go do things that are fun outdoors. I just didn't want to write about the same people all the time, and I don't think readers want that ... I also won't miss that constant pressure of what I'm going to do next week or the week after that and then hoping the weather doesn't prevent you from doing it."
Q. What was the most difficult story you wrote for the News Tribune?
Sam: The only ones that are kind of hard are the ones where you think you have an idea going in where the story will be but it doesn't quite turn out that way ... but that is so rare. I've had very few trips or outings over the years that I didn't write about ... you can't do that very often because you have that hole to fill ... I have three pages that have to have stuff on them every Sunday.
Q: What's your first big outdoor trip planned as an officially retired person?
Sam: Well the first one got taken out by the late ice. We were going to go lake trout fishing (in canoe country) on April 29, but that's not going to happen. I'm going to Teddy Roosevelt (National Park) in May and then Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park in June for a week ... and there are a few others in the works. My goal is to spend as many nights sleeping on the ground I can. I think I hit 32 nights one year when I was working and that's not easy to do. You have to go some in winter to hit that.
Q: Do you have a favorite place in the Northland?
Sam: My heart is in the canoe country. Not just for fishing, but to be in a few million acres of very lightly traveled country that's spectacularly beautiful, and full of fish, I just feel so lucky. The other place is, every fall, I go to a friend's farm out in western Minnesota and we follow the dogs around and see if we can shoot a few pheasants once in a while. Those are my two great loves.
Q: Did you have a favorite story, or favorite character?
Sam: The deer hunting story I did on the Clark brothers in like, the early 2000s, I think. I realized soon after I wrote it that it was probably going to be the best deer hunting story I ever wrote. These were three brothers, from 55 to 65, who paddled down the Vermilion River up by Cook. Their camp was a bunch of sticks that they tied together and hung tarps over. ... They started a stew on the first night of camp and put in rabbits or deer or whatever they happened to shoot and they kept the same stew going all during deer camp, the whole time. Their father had taught them how to do this. They didn't sit in stands. They all took off walking in different directions still hunting, and hunted with .30-30s, on their own. ... Their dad told them on his deathbed, don't ever get modern, keep hunting this way. Every morning before they went out to hunt they'd meet in a circle and put their rifles up in the air in a salute, they didn't fire them and they'd say "to dad." And then they would take off to go hunt. ... They had a 10-point buck down when we got there. They paddled it down the river in a canoe. The photographer was there with me, she got great pictures. It was perfect.
A retirement party for Cook will be held from 5-8 p.m. May 10 in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's Harbor Side room. The public is invited.
READ MORE: Longtime readers, story subjects, cohorts reflect on Sam Cook’s career