The trail underfoot feels familiar, but the landscape I once knew so well is changed.
For as long as I can remember, I've been coming to this place of forest, water, and open sky. A narrow winding trail in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest just south of Chequamegon Bay, it leads first to the tumbling Morgan Falls, and then upwards to the worn-smooth vantage point known as St. Peter's Dome. From there, the blue sprawl of Lake Superior can be seen beyond fields dotted with hay bales and silos, beyond forests of maple, birch, and ash.
Years and many mountains later, this view is what I credit for giving me a taste for summits and seeing an entire world laid out below. The hundreds of times I've been here from childhood into adulthood have blurred together until this place is simply a part of me.
Memories have grown with the trees, caught in the shallow pools that swirl below Morgan Falls.
Back in 2015, I wrote that perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this place is that, in a world where change is constant, it felt untouched by time.
It seemed that lease from change expired. The spring of 2016 brought floods that swept the entirety of this part of the state, tearing away bridges, roads, and railroad tracks. The clay-reddened waters uprooted trees by the hundreds, tumbling them to splinters that rinsed out into Lake Superior that entire summer. Lives were lost in those flood waters.
For a few years, the trail to Morgan Falls and Peter's Dome was closed due to the damage. More than once over the years, I wondered what I would find when the trail finally reopened.
This past weekend, I returned for the first time since that last hike in November 2015.
The trail to the falls is no longer a narrow path winding through old growth forest and along the banks of a quiet, pristine stream.
The flooding engulfed that gentle stream that once ran through an avenue of maples, dragged trees from the soil, and washed away the embankments. In places, the water is choked with branches, roots, and whole trees tangled in the boulders, and the delicate shoreline vegetation was rinsed away and is only beginning to return. Now the banks are held in place with landscape fabric and new bridges have been built to span far wider waterways.
In some places, I catch glimpses of segments that remain unchanged and it is jarring to see the familiar alongside the deeply changed.
When I arrive at the falls, I find a small sanctuary in a changed place, the narrow tumbling falls still running down the cliff side.
I continue, climbing the winding trail to the top of the dome, relieved to find the high land unaffected by the flooding. From the vantage point, the distant blue of Lake Superior gleams familiarly, speckled with the jagged shapes of islands.
Although this view looks familiar to me, it too has changed over the years. What was once unpopulated forestland has been cleared and farm fields stretch for miles. Towns hug the curve of the lake, and Highway 13 weaves northward.
Change is part of the natural world, and a certain level is normal and to be expected. At other times, the change strips away not only physical landmarks but also the memories that were once attached to them. One has to wonder if certain forms of destructive change are preventable by different human actions.
Standing here on the highest point of the Chequamegon-Nicolet, I find myself torn between a sense of the familiar and the loss of what I knew once existed.
Yet even as I walk away, heading back down the trail I’ve traversed so many times, I know I will return.