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Exploring the Forest Ecosystem Excerpt from “Beyond the Trees: Stories of Wisconsin Forests” by Candice Guakel Andrews

When nature writer Candice Gaukel Andrews took on the challenge of exploring all of Wisconsin’s ten state forests and it’s vast, 1.5-million acre, national one — and writing a book about them — the task of distinguishing one stand of trees from another seemed daunting. But once she laced up her hiking boots, trod their trails, and talked with their people, the forests’ individual “personalities” revealed themselves.

Nina Leopold Bradley, the founder of the Aldo Leopold Foundation conservation organization and daughter of forester, philosopher, and conservationist Aldo Leopold, called Andrews’s recently published Beyond the Trees: Stories of Wisconsin Forests a “splendid book that allows each reader the chance to explore the intimate reaches of Wisconsin’s forest history with depth and excitement, mystery, and adventure.”

Below, the author shares an excerpt from the book on her journey through the massive Chequamengon-Nicolet National Forest, located in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

UP to old baldy

I’m a traipser of trees. You might think that one woods looks pretty much like another. But I’ve explored all of Wisconsin’s state and national forests, and they all have their special spots. Today, I’ve chosen to go to one of them: St. Peter’s Dome in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Known locally as “Old Baldy,” it’s the forest’s highest point.

It’s about a four-mile trek there and back. And on this western end of the Penokee-Gogebic Range, off Forest Road 199, I’ll have the chance to pass by the seventy-foot-tall Morgan Falls.

The part of the trail that leads to the falls is flat and pretty, bordered by full, leafy ferns and woodland flowers. I walk across the very shallow and emerald Morgan Creek, strewn with mossy rocks that give the water a soft, bubbling sound as it separates gently to get around them. The old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) campground I pass by is quiet now, marked by a stone fireplace that I imagine being stoked up in the 1930s by men whose faces are as hard as iron ore and whose bellies hunger from a day of hard work and walking in the woods.

Just a little more than a half a mile in, I enter a high-walled, rock glen. Skinny Morgan Falls slides down slick rocks in a series of steps from someplace up high; more rocks obscure its top. But down here, on the slab canyon floor, the falls’ fresh droplets cool my arms and face in a light misting.

One of the five highest waterfalls in the state (at times, the second highest after the 165-foot Big Manitou Falls, located thirteen miles south of Superior in Pattison State Park), Morgan Falls culminates in a small splash pool. Those rich, warm tones that artist Greg Alexander — a resident of the forest — talked about are all around me in this invigorating brown canyon, with its orange butterflies drying their wings on the stony floor.

Backtracking along the short spur into the canyon, I hit the main trail again, which leads to St. Peter’s Dome, or “Old Baldy” as some local people call it. It’s a 3.6-mile round trip to the dome, but after the respite at the waterfall glen, I feel game to give it a go on this sweltering, 100-degree summer day — even though I’ve left my water bottle in the car.

In Wisconsin’s wild Flambeau River State Forest, black bears and white-tailed deer walk through the understory looking for food, and coyotes and barred owls call in the night. Photo Credit: John T. Andrews

Twenty minutes later, I’m regretting my decision. As easy as the portion of the trail to Morgan Falls was, the continuing path to Old Baldy is three times as hard.

Not far beyond the spur, the main trail narrows and almost immediately begins its climb to 1,565 feet above sea level. Sea level makes me think all the more about the water I don’t have with me. But not wanting to waste energy going back, I forge ahead, trying to channel the determination that must have fueled that steely CCC crew.

A great deal of the way up is a jumble of roots and rocks, constantly grabbing at my hiking boots, almost as if they seem to enjoy tripping me up. The slopes continue to get steeper as I go, but now well into it, I feel it would be cowardice to turn back short of seeing the highest point in the Chequamegon.

I cross another rocky streambed and marvel at the giant, exposed roots of the trees here. While they seem to be roughly toying with me, they are gentle with the boulders at their bases, reaching tentacled arms around them as if holding them in a caring embrace. This dichotomy in a tree’s personality makes me smile.

I’m sure by the time I’m done, the 3.6 miles will feel more like 60.3. An hour and a half later, after passing a granite outcrop, the trail gets seriously steep. It makes two switchbacks, and finally takes me to the grassy opening on top.

The view — as was the trail to it — is breathtaking. I can see clear over to Chequamegon Bay and even to what I think are some of the Apostle Islands, twenty miles to the north. I sit on Old Baldy’s north face for a while, looking out at the incredible horizon; trying to avoid looking down to the sheer drop-off below me.

A few paces away from the ledge, there is a brass, U.S. Geological Survey marker embedded in the rock. I stand over it and take a photo, just to prove I made it up here. Thirsty, tired, and hot, yes; but if I haven’t spent the last few hours hiking right up to the Pearly Gates, at least I made it to St. Peter’s Dome.


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