Gordon Who?

2014 Bean Lake

Leo and I above Bean and Bear Lakes in 2014 when we ran all 300 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail.

In 2006, I’d been publishing outdoor magazine articles for about five years. Maybe there’s something in the Lake Superior tap water, because that was how long we had lived in Duluth by that point. I subscribed to the Duluth News Tribune and this Sam Cook guy seemed pretty nice, so I wrote him an email. I asked if the paper was looking for any freelance articles about family outdoor adventures. He gently said that was his turf. Ahem. But he said his buddy Shawn Perich was starting a new magazine up in Grand Marais called Northern Wilds. Maybe Shawn could use some of my stuff.

I published my first article with Shawn and Amber Pratt in 2007. I just submitted a story to them last week. They’ve been putting up with my scribbling for over ten years. And they’ve made me into a better writer. Even getting rejected by Sam Cook is helpful.

He didn’t reject my offer to read a book I wrote called Outside Duluth. It’s a collection of forty magazine articles that I cobbled into an ebook in 2013 through self-publishing. (Many of those articles were first published in Northern Wilds.) This interaction with Sam was helpful and instructive in two ways. First, he told me that he’d only endorse the book if he liked it and thought it was good. In other words, he was honest and straightforward. Which is like finding a unicorn, nowadays. So, I gave him a draft and crossed my fingers. The second way he helped me was by writing a nice blurb for the front of the book. So, did Shawn Perich. Those two saying nice things felt like a true stamp of approval.

And as writers know, a paragraph of encouragement from somebody you respect is like rocket fuel. Ain’t nobody getting rich in this game unless you’re Stephen King or the like. So, it’s encouragement like that that keeps you going. In my case, I try to remember the quote by Richard Bach, who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” I read Sam Cook’s work and I aspire to write like he does. He sent me emails here and there over the years with a nugget of inspiration after he read my stuff. Priceless.

In 2014, I ran the whole Superior Hiking Trail with my dog Leo as a charity fundraiser. We ran (jogged?) 300 miles in 41 sections over a five-month period. Mr. Cook called to interview me about it. The fact I did something interesting enough to rise out of the noise into his crosscheck made me proud. Never mind the writing stuff, I keep thinking of outdoor trips that are as adventurous as that summer trail run. Because for a moment, Sam thought my run was interesting enough to call me and put it in the paper.

Once, during that trail run, my dog did something that put me in an ethical bind. I asked Sam about it. He told me what he would’ve done. The way he put it, he would be compelled to take a certain action. Like he’d have no choice but to take the highest road. You don’t meet many people with that kind of integrity. What did my dog do? I will only tell if you write the question to me on a shiny new bottle of Vikre gin.



In June of 2017, the Outdoor Writers Association of America had their annual conference in Duluth. It was great to be surrounded by people who write about the outdoors. I went to a seminar called “Lessons from the Masters” where Chris Madson, Keith Crowley, and Mark Neuzil were talking about a writer named Gordon MacQuarrie. They were lamenting the fact that writing like his doesn’t have many markets anymore. Maybe Gray’s Sporting Journal. Then Neuzil said that Sam Cook was a writer on par with MacQuarrie and was somehow making a go of it in today’s market. Neuzil said Sam was a “generalist” and succeeding as a newspaperman in a tough world for MacQuarrie like writing.

Now, I should know more outdoor writing, but I have work to do. I’ve never read anything by MacQuarrie. A quick Google search tells me he was the first full-time, professional outdoor writer in America when he became the outdoor editor of the Milwaukee Journal in 1936. I should read his work. I come at the comparison a little differently. I’ve been reading Sam Cook’s work for 17 years now. I read the time he described skiing through the “barcode shadows” thrown by the setting sun. I read about the time his dog quietly nuzzled his hand while silently sitting at heel, waiting to be noticed. He wrote about a grown man he just met telling him about taking his dog out on his last hunt. (It’s getting dusty right here in this room when I think about it.)

So, I don’t know who Gordon MacQuarrie is, but I know who wrote the Friday column and the Sunday outdoors section for the Duluth News Tribune. If this Gordon dude is half the writer that Sam Cook is, he’s probably okay. I think we all read Sam’s work and feel better. I think we can see the common decency and small things that he sees. The human potential. I feel like I could be a better writer afterwards. I read his columns and feel like I might even have the potential to be a better person. Maybe.

Thank you, Sam Cook. I’m glad you’re still writing the Friday thing, because I couldn’t go cold turkey.




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Crazy: A Review of Dien Cai Dau

Dien Cai Dau means “crazy” in Vietnamese. It’s also the title of a collection of poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa. It’s not often you read poetry by somebody who has both the Pulitzer Prize for his writing and the Bronze Star for his time in Vietnam. It made me feel like I was in a pleasant dream that slowly morphed into a bad one. Brief and powerful work. This volume was published in 1988. I was 21 and not even commissioned yet.

Lately, I’m obsessed with luck. In “Thanks,” Komunyakaa is grateful for avoiding a sniper’s bullet. Thankful that fate has let him pass. Thankful for other near misses. This part grabbed me:

Again, thanks for the dud

hand grenade tossed at my feet

outside Chu Lai. I’m still 

falling through its silence.

I’m also recently fascinated by literature that references maps. This reference occurs in “Short-timer’s Calendar” that warns to stay away from the new guys because they’re bad news. It’s an example of the dreamlike language:

…It was like playing

tic-tac-toe with God. Each x,

a stitch holding breath together,

a map that went nowhere–

like lies told to trees. 

I watched them grow into an ink blot,

an omen, a sign the dead could read.

I felt like I was reading an upbeat voice that was bringing terrible news. With the benefit of hindsight, things can be seen all at once, instead of in chronological order. That sometimes breaks your heart and Komunyakaa does that to me here in “A Break from the Bush.” Describing a unit getting some R + R from the fighting at a beach, he hits hard like he does throughout the collection:


who in three days will trip 

a fragmentation mine, 

runs after the ball 

into the whitecaps,


A friend recently told me right to my face that there hasn’t been any good war poetry since WWI. He was British, so maybe he’s biased. But I have no earthly idea what he’s talking about.

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My Bill Koch Poster

Tacked to my wall in high school. I still have it.

I have a poster of Bill Koch. It’s the same one that was tacked to my wall in my room in high school. An American who innovated racing by “marathon skating” and conquered the world. Imagine that. I tried to imagine that. It was hard. I knew him because he was World Cup overall champion and the guy who made me want to learn to skate instead of stride.

1981 Vasa near Traverse City, Michigan. Jeans, three pin bindings. Choppers. Fiberglass, though. Fancy.

I didn’t really know him as the 1976 silver medalist in Innsbruck. I did my first race on skis five years after that. I was about eight years old when Bill Koch won that medal. The same age as my Grandfather was when the Red Sox won the World Series in 1918. Then The Curse of the Bambino. Grampie grew up, got married, had three kids, and went off to World War II. He fought out of the Bulge and planned the assault on Kesternich. He crossed the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine.

When I was a kid, I once fiddled with the radio dial at Grampie’s camp. (Camp is what you call a cabin in Maine.) My grandfather told me to put it back. There was no baseball game on. I was just looking for some music. I didn’t realize that all radio dials remained welded to the station for the Red Sox game, whether or not the game was on. He also had a Red Sox bobblehead doll above the fireplace. If the Sox won, he faced the doll out. If they lost, he turned it to face the wall, in shame. He was a fan.

He died in 1989 three days before he was going to pin on my lieutenant bars when I got commissioned. Years later, in 2004, I watched the Red Sox win the World Series. I was happy. Intellectually, I tried to enjoy the experience for my grandfather. But I don’t think I really understood the joy he would’ve felt until yesterday. He rooted for the Red Sox for 70 years and they never, ever won the Series. I thought I would suffer the same fate with cross-country skiing.

Sam’s First Skis.

I’ve been on skis since I could walk. So have my kids. My kids race. They knew the names of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall already. In fact, when Kikkan didn’t make it into the finals in Sochi, Grace (only 10 at the time) drew her a picture of a medal so she’d feel better. I tweeted it to her. She tweeted back a classy, sportsmanlike response: “I got my medal after all.” I thought she was a great role model for my daughter.

Grace’s First Strides.

Now, my Duluth neighbor, Chad Salmela, channeled everybody who’s been in the wilderness for 42 years. He called the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in sports in my life. Until yesterday, seeing Lemond beat Fignon on the last stage time trial in the 1989 Tour de France was the greatest thing. Not anymore.

Gold Medal Finish Video.

I thought of my grandfather. I thought of all the years I’ve spent skiing through the woods. I thought of my kids and how damn fast they are. And want to be.

USA’s Jessica Diggins (L) and USA’s Kikkan Randall celebrate winning gold in the women’s cross country team sprint free final at the Alpensia cross country ski centre during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 21, 2018 in Pyeongchang. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

And I thought of the fact that my daughter already had posters of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall on her wall several years ago. And I’m so proud. Everybody needs posters. I’m glad I can retire mine.

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