Sam Cook Shares His Life As a Storyteller and Adventurer


Sam Cook is a storyteller writer, best known for his outdoors columns in the Duluth News Tribune.  Photo submitted.

“I think all of us want to be told stories, whether they’re about a 4-year-old catching a walleye with a Snoopy rod or the deep ties among hunters gathering at a deer shack in November.” Sam Cook

Sam Cook has been telling his captivating and enchanting stories for over four decades, most of us reading them in his columns or in one of his book collections.

But in reading them, one can almost hear his voice, talking around a distant, crackling campfire about a close encounter with trumpeter swans or a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the North Pole, about taking risks and making choices, and about what it means to be truly alive and living in the moment.

Two bull caribou run across a high pass in Alaska's Brooks Range. Photo by Sam Cook

Writing about Arctic wolves, wild stormy nights, simple camp suppers, starry skies, and the majesty of Lake Superior, he lyrically shared his magical tales.

Cook acknowledges that he did indeed find his true calling. “We all have our skill sets. Some of us teach. Some of us build. Some of us sell. I write . . .”

Path to Being a Beloved Columnist

Born in the small town of Sabetha, Kansas, his family later moved to Topeka Kansas; Grand Island and Omaha, Nebraska; and then back to Sabetha where he graduated from high school.

Sam Cook (center) making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a canoe trip in 1964 with the Sommers High Adventure Scout Base in Ely. Photo submitted.

Cook started writing for publication in 1970 when he was in basic training for the Kansas National Guard and began sending unsolicited pieces about his training experiences back to the Sabetha Herald, his hometown newspaper.

He said, “I thought they were sort of funny, sometimes poignant. I didn’t ask to be paid. It was my first experience being published, and I found it rewarding.” Sam went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas in 1970.

In 1976, Sam and his wife Phyllis decided to quit their jobs in Kansas and move to Ely. Minnesota, where he started writing for the Ely Echo and as a canoe outfitter on Moose Lake near Ely. He recalled, “We planned to be gone from Kansas for a year. We never moved back . . .”

Sam and Phyllis Cook in 1976, while working at Canadian Border Outfitters in Ely. Photo by Mike Zika

After a brief stint in Longmont, Colorado, with the Daily Times-Call, he began sports writing for the Duluth News Tribune in 1980. He became an outdoors writer at the News Tribune later that year and soon a general columnist as well, writing a weekly column. Hundreds of columns later, he retired in 2018 after 38 years.

“What a wonderful ride,” he noted. “I met so many wonderful outdoors folks and enjoyed telling their stories. Our region is rich in fascinating folks living interesting lives. Fishing guides. Hunters. People living on the edge of the wilderness. Characters like Benny Ambrose up on the border in the canoe country; Dorothy Molter, who lived alone up on Knife Lake near Ely; my friend ‘Jackpine’ Bob Cary of Ely; Joe Seliga, the Ely canoe builder, and so many more.”

Cook holds a lake trout from a winter day trip in the Ely area a few years ago. Photo by Kelly Murphy

He added, “It’s great to write about people who are doing something they love. and going with them to one of their favorite places to do it.” His experiences and meeting fascinating people, however, sometimes went well beyond the Northland.

“Covering the expeditions of people like Will Steger and Paul Schurke of Ely, whose team traveled by dogsled to the North Pole in 1986, enriched and broadened my career. Certainly, standing atop the frozen ocean at the North Pole when we flew in to pick up the team was a highlight of my career. I wrote my stories longhand on the return trip from a jump seat in a Twin Otter bush plane with several sled dogs tied out along the walls,” he said.

Sam Cook paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with Nellie on board. Photo by Phyllis Cook

“I didn't think of my work at the News Tribune as writing,” he added. “I thought of it as a way to tell stories. I would come back from interviews or trips and couldn't wait to begin writing a story. I wanted to share with readers what I had seen or learned or done with fascinating people in our region.”

Many of his stories have been collected and published in the books “Up North,” “Quiet Magic,” “Camp Sights,” “Friendship Fires,” “Moving Waters,” and “If this is mid-life. . . where’s the crisis?”

Photography and Teaching

Along the way, he also became interested in photography. He had a News Tribune photographer accompany him on stories many times, and from them learned some tricks of the trade.

“I would bring back my average photos to the photo department at the News Tribune and edit my shots with Bob King, Jack Rendulich, and other staff photographers. They were very helpful – and tactful – in editing, and I became a better photographer as a result.”

Canoeing in Quitico Provincial Park, Ontario. Photo by Sam Cook

Sharing some of his own tricks of the writing trade, he has taught writing workshops, and spoken to writing and journalism classes. “I take the interviewing and writing process seriously, and I’m happy to share my process with those classes. I hope it has helped those students.”

Advice on Adventuring

Sam gives some tips on how to have adventures. “Start small and just go. Maybe get some friends together and hit the trail for a night or two. Or network a bit -- go join a group and see what kinds of trips it might offer. Or just show up for outdoor programs offered around town. Or go for a day trip -- to a lake near the edge of the Boundary Waters or do a simple overnight on the Superior Hiking Trail. Tell an outdoorsy friend you'd like to tag along on an upcoming outing. You will meet like-minded folks. Let the networking begin.”

Sam and Phyllis Cook taking a break while hiking the Oberg Mountain Hiking Trail near Tofte last fall. Photo submitted.

Of his retirement, Cook says, “We travel. We camp. We paddle. We cross-country ski. I hike almost daily with friends on Duluth’s wonderful trails. We go to France and Switzerland occasionally to see our kids. We try to collect experiences rather than things.”

Whether writing of exciting far-off adventures or about quiet rambles with his “yellow dog” in the woods, Cook’s stories have always evoked tears, laughter, and contemplation with his eloquent prose and “Hemingwayesque” style.


Sam Cook and yellow Lab Nellie on Mountain Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo by Phyllis Cook

“Up North”
by Sam Cook

Up North is a certain way the wind feels on your face and the way an old wool shirt feels on your back. It’s the peace that comes over you when you sit down to read one of your old trip journals, or the anticipation that bubbles inside when you start sorting through your tackle box early in the spring.

Up North is the smell of the Duluth Pack hanging in your basement and the sound of pots clinking across the lake. It’s a raindrop clinging to a pine needle and the dancing light of a campfire on the faces of friends.

Up North is a lone set of cross-country ski tracks across a wilderness lake and wood smoke rising from a cabin chimney. It’s bunchberries in June, blueberries in July and wild rice in September.

Each of us has an Up North. It’s a time and place far from the here and now. It’s a map on the wall, a dream in the making, a tugging at one’s soul. For those who feel the tug, who make the dream happen, who put the map in the packsack and go, the world is never quite the same again.

We have been Up North. And part of us always will be.

Up North” is reprinted with permission from Up North by Sam Cook. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Copyright 1986 by Sam Cook. All rights reserved.










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