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.