Sam Cook has known Bob Cary since Cook was just a budding author himself. Bob Cary was the Ely Echo's managing editor when Cook took his first reporter's job at the small weekly. Cook says Cary was a larger than life character, who'd just dominate a room when ever he walked in. Cary loved an audience. Sam Cook remembers the way Bob Cary came up with his weekly column.
"You never had to read Bob's column when it came out because you'd heard it about 30 times during the week," Cook says. "Every time somebody new would walk into the Echo that day, he'd just launch into whatever was on his mind, and that turned out to be the column for that week. So, we'd heard his columns many times. I think maybe that was his way of editing. He'd kind of see what kind of reaction he got."
Since then, Cook has moved on to an outdoors column for the Duluth News Tribune. But he remained a close friend of Jackpine Bob Cary, a self-created character whose wisdom has graced the Ely paper's front page for decades.
Cary was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois. By the 1960s, Cary was outdoor writer for the Chicago Daily News. Cary, his wife Lilian, and two daughters, left the big city behind in 1966. Cook says Bob Cary stepped away from newspaper work to run an Ely canoe-outfitting business.
"I'm sure he came up here first on a trip, for work," Cook says. "And as he told me one time, 'If I'd a known this was here, I'd have gotten here a lot sooner.'"
He loved telling stories. He was one of the funniest guys I've ever known.Sam Cook
Eventually Cary sold the outfitting business, and found himself back in a newspaper, with the Ely Echo.
Cary was right at home in Ely, the little town at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness. He loved to hunt, fish, camp, and canoe. He was an avid cross country skier, and raced competitively for many years. Cook recalls Cary as a character, both at work and in the woods.
"He's tall and skinny, and he almost always wore a big wide-brimmed hat, which just kind of gave him his Jackpine Bob character, and I don't know why he wore those hats, but he always did," Cook says. "And he was, you know, skinny as heck. He could go all day on the portages or whatever, and carry stuff. He was always in good physical shape. But, yeah, he was a remarkable guy. He was a good writer. He was an excellent illustrator."
Cary was a trained and talented artist, with his own gallery on the Fernberg Road east of Ely. His illustrations fill his own books and those of other regional writers. He illustrated three books for Sam Cook.
"When you looked at a white pine snag, or a cedar snag, at the edge of some lake or something, when Bob drew it, that was just exactly how it looked, and I always appreciated that," Cook says.
And yet there's more to Bob Cary. He was a musician, playing drums in an Ely area dance bands for years. In 1988 he went back to school to learn the Ojibwe language. He became a fluent speaker. Cary served on state and local boards and committees, always out to protect the outdoors he loved and to teach others how to share in it.
For two years Cary hosted an outdoor program on the Ely radio station. He was an occasional guest on Minnesota Public Radio, like on a September morning in 1990, when Jackpine Bob was describing autumn in Ely.
"September and the first two weeks of October, we get these warm sunshiny days," Cary said "It's usually dry. And cool nights. Even some nights where she'll frost some. But, just incredible days. Bugs are gone and the fish go crazy. The grouse are out stalking on the trails, and, oh boy, it's just a great time of the year."
Locals will probably best remember Cary for his storytelling. Sam Cook recalls Cary as terrific company around a campfire.
"He loved having an audience," says Cook. "He loved telling stories. He was one of the funniest guys I've ever known. I mean, he just had this way of cutting through everything with the funniest lines."
Cary was a prolific writer. He wrote his weekly column for the Ely Echo until the end. His short quips were posted on the front page, as "Views from the North Country." He wrote another column in the Duluth-based Senior Reporter. He was a contributing columnist for the Mesabi Daily News in Virginia.
Cary's articles have been published nationwide in works from Outdoor Life magazine to the Wall Street Journal. He's published 16 books. His book on bush pilots just won recognition from the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. Sam Cook says Cary was always at work on the next book.
"I'd walk in and see him, you know, pecking away at the keyboard, and say, 'Now what are you working on?'" says Cook. And he'd tell me what he was working on. He'd say, 'You know, I've never worked for an outfit with a pension plan.' So he just had to keep cranking stuff out."
Most of all, Cook recalls, Bob Cary just loved life. In World War II, Cary was a U.S. Marine, on an island-hopping campaign across the South Pacific. He experienced horrific combat in battles with names that roll off the pages of history books: Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tinian, and Tarawa.
"And, he told me, he said, 'It was just nuts, it was chaos. It was crazy,' as any war is, I'm sure," says Cook. "Then he said, 'I realized that everything from there on was bonus time. That, you know, when you see people die next to you, then you just know how lucky you are.' And I think he fully realized that."
That experience gave Cary both a reason to live, and the insight in how to live.
"He had a unique ability, I think, to know how to fight for something he believed in, and also know when to step back and not let it get to him too much," says Cook. "And I think that was part of that perspective that he brought back from the war."
Cary's wife, Lil, was a long-time hunting and fishing partner. She was half his canoe team, his campmate, and his friend. After 43 years of marriage, Lil died in 1993. Her final story is a moving essay that closes Cary's 1994 book, "Tales from Jackpine Bob."
A few years later Cary married neighbor Eide Sommer, another person with an unbridled passion for the outdoors.
Cary's daughter, Barbara Hall, of Duluth, says, even to her, her dad was larger than life.
"The thing that I love about him the most, and the thing that I think is going to take him straight to heaven, is the fact that in his lifetime, he has put in, over thousands of kids' hands, a fishing pole," Hall says. "He has taught so many children the joy of catching fish. And that alone is the most wonderful thing about him."
Cary wrote his own obituary, and prepaid his funeral. He left his final columns for publication after his death. And Cary recorded a 10- minute message to Ely, his adopted town, to air on the Ely radio station after he died.
Cary's next book, his 17th, is due for release July 1. It's a book on hunting and fishing from a canoe.