The Beaked Hazel shrubs in this part of the world are truly remarkable.
It kind of makes you proud - there are few areas in the world that have an understory as thick and persistent as our hazel layer. However, this doesn’t prevent me from having a love/hate relationship with it.
I hate it when it prevents me from seeing anything more than a metre in any direction when I go hiking. It makes skiing off-trail almost impossible. I hate it when it scrapes the skin off my shins and knees whenever I forget that there is no such thing as a short cut when it comes to hazel.
I hate that if I want to sneak up on something, trying to creep through hazel is like walking on a carpet of Hawkins Cheezies.
On the other hand, I like that it grows so well, allowing so many animal species to live off its ample twigs and nuts. I like that it creates what Steve Cornelsen, one of the fire guys at the Park, likes to call an asbestos forest – one in which aspen with a thick hazel understory is almost impossible to burn, unless under extremely dry and windy conditions.
I hate it that the tiny little hairs on the outer covering of the nuts (the beaked part) irritate my skin – particularly the skin between my fingers. I like the nuts, though, which make up for all the irritation.
You get the idea. It's a yin and yang sort of thing. Admittedly it seems more yin than yang, with last week being a prime example.
I was doing my best to work my way up to the top of a hill so that I could get a good look at the surrounding country. Needless to say, the entire area was covered by hazel.
At one point I decided to try to fight my way through the shrubs, come hell or high water. Evidently hell arrived, because I had to turn back after wrestling my way for a mere 10 metres.
The whole episode reminded me of some valuable lessons I am required to learn every year:
- Go with the flow. Generations of elk, moose, and deer have created paths through the hazel. Even though you can't see your feet, trust that the path exists somewhere down below. And, amazingly, the trails will almost always lead to where you want to go, even if it takes a little longer.
- When given a choice, always go downhill when travelling through hazel. The hill I was climbing happened to be devoid of trees, and the snow had pushed all the hazel so that it pointed downhill. Walking up the hill, even on an animal path, meant walking against the grain. Walking downhill was a lot easier - once you got started, the hazel provided you with only one option – going straight down.
Its near imperviousness to fire also makes it interesting. Because it grows so thick, the moisture under the cover of its canopy of leaves takes a lot of time to dry after every rain. The leaves, when they drop off in the fall, create a moist layer that stops most fires dead in their tracks.
Topped off with an over story of aspen, which also don't like to burn, and you have a recipe for a near fire-proof forest. I find it rather reassuring that our house is surrounded by a forest of hazel and aspen, stopping any grass fire that threatens us - mostly my own.
Hazel's greatest asset, however, has less to do with humans. It is, rather, its value to wildlife.
I've mentioned before the role of nuts in the lives of squirrels, mice, blue jays, and, of course, bears. Yet its role as browse for ungulates such as moose, elk, and deer can't be over-estimated.
Moose and deer are well known browsers. It might come as a surprise to readers, however, at how important hazel is to elk, a species normally considered to be a grass eater. Having this browse available, I contend, has a very important role in the lives of our elk.
We took a family trip to Yellowstone at the end of August. This was my first visit, and I enjoyed the views – courtesy of the lack of hazel. In fact, the Park had very few shrubs of any kind.
One of the highlights was that we got to see elk up close and personal - Mammoth Springs, at the north end of the Park, is kind of like Banff and Jasper, with elk wandering through the town at will.
We noticed how small the elk were. The cow elk almost looked more like fat deer, and the bulls were only about the size of our cow elk.
Here in the Park, we have records of bull elk weighing over 1,000 lbs., and cow elk weighing over 600 lbs. What's the difference – why are “our” elk so much larger?
While there are several reasons, I think the availability of food all year round is the most important. Western ranges are hotter and drier than here and therefore there is less quality food available.
In this region, as the readers know, you can hardly turn around without bumping into a hazel shrub. I contend that this food source, available 24/7, lets elk grow larger.
Admittedly, while hazel doesn’t offer the best forage, elk can browse it, particularly in the winter, without expending too much energy. It would kind of be like us having hundreds of rice cakes spread all around the house during the winter months – you’d never go hungry, but you’d sure be looking forward to having something green and tasty by spring.
In the end, I guess my appreciation slightly outweighs my disgust of it. But one more scrape or stick in the eye could put me over the edge. Are you listening hazel???
Ken Kingdon lives and works in the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve. If you have stories to share, give him a call at 204.848.7240.