Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Reflections on 30 years in Cook County

In 1987, I didn’t buy a deer license. We were living in Georgia, outside Atlanta, in a situation that was a poor fit job-wise and geographically. Instead of coming back to Minnesota to hunt, my energy was devoted to moving back here, hopefully to the North Shore. I took a cut in pay and a risk by accepting a job as the editor of the weekly Cook County News-Herald in Grand Marais.

We got to town right around Thanksgiving; myself, Vikki and a six-month-old, Georgia-born yellow Lab named Rebel. Moving from an urban area to a remote village was a big change. It was three months before I realized how much not contending with intense traffic on a daily basis had de-stressed my life. More importantly, our surroundings, though new, felt familiar and comfortable. Our families lived in Duluth, just two hours away. It felt good to be home.

At my first county board meeting as a news reporter, I noticed the commissioners (all older men) were wearing wool shirts and rubber-bottomed pac boots. My thought was, ‘Looks like I’ve come to the right place.’ This was a decade after the Boundary Waters battles. Cook County had already started a successful pivot to new forms of tourism following the government buyout of several Gunflint Trail resorts. Forward-thinking local leaders didn’t waste their energy bemoaning the new restrictions in the Boundary Waters. But they were still fighting battles with downstate environmental groups over wolves and roads, logging, and other issues. This reporter always had stories to tell.

As a small-town newspaper editor, you learn a lot about what makes the world turn, because you are involved in all aspects of the community. At the time, Cook County was on the threshold of being “discovered,” which meant the community was still linked by the interdependence that is necessary for anyone to survive in a remote, wild place. I was struck that there were few class divisions, because everyone knew and respected their neighbors.

I moved north for the fishing and hunting, as well as the opportunity to launch a freelance career writing about it. Back then, folks had more enthusiasm for such things. The opening day of the winter trout fishing season was a big deal. In the spring, guys got up ridiculously early day after day to go steelhead fishing before work. In the fall, anglers hustled down to North Shore rivers in pre-dawn darkness to get the best spots for Chinook salmon fishing. On the backroads in September, grouse hunters were everywhere.

I did all of that and then some. Summer evenings were spent chasing walleyes or brook trout. Many days were devoted to trolling for lake trout and salmon on Lake Superior. I fondly remember a couple of afternoon runs across 20 miles of open lake in a 16-foot Lund with a 25-horse Johnson to jig for lakers along Isle Royale reefs. November was devoted to roaming rugged North Shore ridges in search of a buck.

Some things were different then. In 1989, I killed a large bull moose up in the Greenwood country. That fall, I saw four other bulls with antler spreads greater than 50 inches within a mile or two of where I killed it. Back then, timber harvesting created extensive areas of new disturbance within North Shore forests, providing prime moose habitat. It was so common to see moose that a friend of mine predicted his luck for a day’s fishing on how many moose he saw on the drive to the lake. In his mind, not seeing a moose was bad luck. He was a very lucky fisherman.

Woodcock were more common, too. I used to see all sorts of them just after dark when driving backroads in the fall. Even though none of my Labs has ever considered woodcock worthy of their attention, I’d frequently flush them while grouse hunting. I only occasionally encounter them these days.

While you can still catch 3- to 5-pound Chinook salmon trolling on Lake Superior, the days when you could hook a half-dozen 15- to 20-pounders in one September morning on the Cascade River are long gone. Spring steelhead runs reached a low point during the 1990s, but have been revived with no-kill rules. Native Lake Superior coaster brook trout show promise for population recovery, which is also a result of no-kill regulations. Some of my once-favorite walleye lakes have “flipped” to smallmouth bass, a trend which is occurring in many Minnesota and Wisconsin waters.

While some hunting and fishing isn’t what it used to be, for better or worse, the biggest changes I’ve seen occur in Cook County over the last 30 years have to do with people. It used to be that if you went to a Grand Marais gas station at 6 a.m., it was crowded with guys getting ready for a day in the woods, whether that entailed working at a logging site or just going fishing. Remember those county commissioners dressed in wool shirts and pac boots? They were the real deal. When you see guys dressed like that these days, most likely they are making a fashion statement. The “look” is called lumbersexual.

Change occurred quickly during the real estate boom in the years preceding the Great Recession. McMansions sprung up like mushrooms sprouting after a summer rain and a wave of urban retirees arrived to reside in them. Some of those folks integrated into the community better than others. Class distinctions now exist.

Lots of folks still go hunting and fishing in Cook County, but outdoor recreation tourism is largely driven by activities like hiking and biking. Sometimes it seems as if the outdoors is treated more like an open-air gymnasium than a place where you engage with nature. The county now has more people per capita who call themselves “artists” than just about anywhere, although just a few earn a living from their creative endeavors.

Sometimes I look around and see a community that has become dominated by people of urban origin, with whom I have little in common. But they haven’t soured my attitude about this place. I appreciate that Cook County has done a far better job than some northern communities of embracing change and moving forward with the times. I also see young people moving in and trying to make a go of living here, just as we did 30 years ago. I like that. And I can still wander off with a fly rod or a shotgun, and see no one at all. I like that, too.

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