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Sam Cook: Stopping in the woods on a crunchy morning [Duluth News Tribune :: BC-OTD-COOK-COLUMN:DU]

DULUTH, Minn. - The previous day's moderate thaw is history. I stride along a refrozen trail at dawn. My ice cleats, stretched over a pair of running shoes, make a satisfying crunch with each footfall. It sounds like I'm stomping potato chips.

The trail is alternately old snow and new ice, the ice irregular and rutted by those who passed on foot or fat bikes when the trail was mush.

We all travel these April days in a phenomenon a friend of mine calls "the seasons between the seasons." Conditions vary day to day, and from one part of the day to another. It's what happens when we move about the land with a new season trying to come on and the old one trying not to let go.

Some of the ice this morning is brittle and crinkly, and I take little-boy joy in crushing it as I pass. The sound of it breaking is excellent.

I'm surprised to spy the first furry nubbins of pussy willows in the brush. Winter may be giving up grudgingly, but the forces of nature do not always wait around.

From off to my west, I hear a woodpecker thumping a resonant tree with machine-gun-burst intensity.

"Hey, dudes," he tells other males of the 'pecker clan, "back off. This is my piece of the woods, and pretty soon, my fine mama and I are going to bring off another clutch of youngins to make sure the world has plenty of woodpeckers. I'd suggest you find your own territory."

I would hear him a half-dozen more times as I ran.

Then, over my rhythmic footsteps, I catch the high trumpeting of oncoming Canada geese - my first of the season. This requires a complete stop, bewildering the young yellow dog running ahead of me. The geese are coming our way, headed northwest, perhaps in hopes of finding some south-facing hillside with exposed grasses.

Here they come now over these woods, a half-dozen of them, still talking. I have never decided whether it's the sound of geese calling that touches something deep in my soul, or simply the elegance with which they cleave the morning sky. Or perhaps it's that I just want to rise up and go with them, fly in that formation, watch the country slip by beneath me - and see where it is they're going. They are the wild manifestation of flight, of discovery, of seeing what is around the bend or beyond the distant ridge.

Sign me up.

I suspect that in my last hours on Earth, if from the open window at my bedside I were to catch the far-off notes of passing geese, my eyelids would flicker briefly before I drifted away for the final time.

"I think he's gone," someone sitting nearby might say.

Oh, he will be gone, all right. Gone over the rivers and potholes, gone over the prairies that he and the yellow dog once trammeled, gone over the wild rice beds and the canoe country and the outstretched arms of the white pines.

Maybe that's why I stop to listen to Canada geese on an April morning. Maybe those are the calls of Mom or Dad or long-departed friends, just checking in.

Now the calling grows fainter and fainter, until I lose it altogether. The yellow dog looks up at me expectantly.

"OK," I tell her. "Let's go."

I begin crunching down the trail again, headed toward home and breakfast.


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