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I visited my friend Jeff Rennicke's writing studio in Bayfield years ago. It was a simple room, bare of most distractions, but on the wall above his computer was a piece of paper with four words on it. "Tell me a story." It was there as a reminder of his deal with his readers each time he sat down to write — simply to tell a story.
DULUTH—Here they came, down the snow-packed trail toward us on Wednesday night in Duluth. Two of them. Young boys, it appeared from a distance. Each wearing a pair of chest waders. Each carrying a fly rod. Nothing could have looked more out of context. Every lake in Duluth and beyond is still ice-covered, and a foot of snow had fallen just two days earlier. We were in a Duluth city park where there happens to be a good-sized pond. My first thought was, maybe they were just practicing their fly-casting over the ice. Nope.
DULUTH — Well, this is getting a little old, isn't it? This November in April, I mean. A buddy called the other day. "It was four below in International Falls this morning!" he complained. Yeah. I was out shoveling a fresh skiff of snow the same morning. I hadn't bothered to check the thermometer. I was out there scooping away, thinking, "Pretty nice morning. Crisp. Clear. Must be about 20." Back inside, I checked: Six degrees. You know you've become too acclimated to northern Minnesota winters when six degrees feels like a balmy day.
GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — Jon Libbey has always hunted grouse and ducks and deer. But last year the Grand Rapids resident he added another hunting season — in the spring. He'd been seeing wild turkeys not far from Grand Rapids on his game cameras for a few years. "I thought I'd give it a whirl," said Libbey, 29. "I bought an over-the-counter tag." Hunting near Grand Rapids, he shot a 21-pound tom that had a 10-inch beard.
GUNFLINT TRAIL, NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — On a bright March afternoon, a procession of winter travelers moved across the crusted snow atop Bearskin Lake like some human-powered freight train. Three dads, four daughters — and Gimli, the aging Labrador, out front. The girls, 16 to 18 years old, chatted and laughed as they marched along, leaning into the traces of sleds they pulled that were loaded with winter camping gear. Their dads — Bob Feyen, Jesse Schomberg and Kevin Skwira-Brown — were part of the procession, each towing his share of the gear.
DULUTH — They came filing in, led by their teachers, class by class. Fourth-graders. Three classes. About 90 students in all. They filed into the library at Lester Park Elementary School at midday on a Monday. The teachers had them sit on the carpeted floor, smaller students in front, bigger ones in back. They've been working on writing, one of their teachers had told me, especially writing about their personal experiences. "Talk to them about writing what you know," the teacher had said.
ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. — Something is wrong here. We are lake trout fishing on a wilderness lake 60 miles north and west of Grand Marais. It's mid-March. And we're hot.
INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. — Billy Dougherty remembers clearly his first day as a paid fishing guide on Rainy Lake. Opening day, 1965. He was working for his grandparents at the Kettle Falls Hotel on the lake. "This guy walked up and said, 'I want somebody to take me fishing,' " Dougherty recalled. It was early afternoon. All the fishing guides were on the water. But Mr. Wagner wanted to go fishing.
A friend of mine was watching his grandson play hockey the other night. His grandson is seven. He was playing outdoors at a Duluth rink. "It was a really cold night," my friend said. "I was all bundled up, and I was freezing. But the kids were having fun. The cold didn't bother them a bit."
On the way to work last week, two days after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., I listened to a newscast in which a sobbing father lamented the loss of his 14-year-old daughter. It was deeply emotional and heart-rending. It brought the horror of the tragedy to a personal level. It is one thing to talk in an abstract sense about such an event in terms of death toll and shooter profile and what went wrong. It's quite another to drive along imagining if that had happened to your own daughter or son.