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Unexpected encounter in the winter woods

Sam Cook

I had never noticed the tree before, I'm somewhat ashamed to say. Maybe it was the way the half moon was illuminating its white bark on this dark November night.

I stopped in my tracks to take in the scene — the alabaster sheen of the moon, the old birch, the crusty snow on the ground. The birch was a good 2 feet thick at the base. Its bare and gnarled branches reminded me of an old woman's hands that had been tortured by arthritis.

The birch stood alone, somehow spared by a recent logging operation in my favorite city park. Why the old birch was left, I cannot figure. I stood there looking up at it and at the moon cradled among its branches. The scene was stark, and the northwest wind buffeting me only added to the coldness of the scene.

This is what happens when we leave behind the warmth and comfort of our winter lairs and get out there. We discover things. Sometimes the things we discover are right in front of us, like the birch and the moonglow. Sometimes, they're inside of us — something we had forgotten or meant to do, or something that had never occurred to us before.

I thought I knew why I'd been going out there all these years. I thought it was for the exercise. I thought it would be good to raise my heart rate for a while in order to lower it for the other 23 hours of the day. That has been reason enough to get out the door, to say nothing of being accompanied by a yellow dog on many of these jaunts.

But what I have come to lea rn over all these years is that on virtually all of these outings, I find something else that ranges from fascinating to marvelous. Nearly all of these serendipitous discoveries involve some intimate aspect of the natural world. And nearly always, like the old woman's fingers clawing at the night sky this week, they come as a total surprise.

The completely natural yet always unexpected events I have stumbled upon include:

• A whitetail buck, a big ol' boy, crossing a cattail swamp at dawn, his huge set of antlers backlit by the sun, his exhalations appearing as clouds of condensation.

• The deep, resonant calls of a great horned owl in the night.

• A gaggle of robins voraciously feeding on the orange berries of a mountain ash tree at daybreak.

• A pine marten scurrying up a red pine.

• Canada geese on final approach to a small pond, doing their crazy side-slipping flight to spill air from their wings before landing.

• An early spring hillside lush with leeks against the winter brown.

• A black bear, Pooh-like, munching grass.

• Wind-sculpted snow hardened into intricate patterns atop lake ice. The Inuit call it "sastrugi."

One night, walking a trail by headlamp on a high ridge, I had to stop and shut off my light. I wanted to look down on the scene below — a wooded neighborhood, the occasional streetlight, the slap of hockey sticks on a puck at an unseen rink below. A friend of mine says the spot reminds him of a visit to Oslo. It reminds me of why, once my wife and I found this place, we never left.

It is not the only such place, I know. There are many good places.

Sometimes, when I leave home to raise my heart rate, I am tired, crabby, overwhelmed, sad or hurried. By the time I get home, I am mostly whole again.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Find his Facebook page at or his blog at