The Vernal Sojourn

CAFNR faculty, staff and students explore the Baskett Wildlife Research and Education Center

Each spring, a small group laces up their hiking boots and sets forth into the mid-Missouri wilderness.

They’re not blazing a trail of exploration á la Lewis and Clark, but they are keen observers, and their hiking tradition has not only fulfilled their desire to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest, it’s also led to research projects, teaching ideas and forest management strategies.

“We’ve been hiking together for at least 10 years,” said Rose-Marie Muzika, department chair and professor of forestry. “Kevin (Hosman, her husband and a research specialist at Baskett) and I have been here for 14 years and it seems like we’ve always been hiking here.”

The group enjoyed their spring hike on a recent, pleasant April Sunday. “It’s timed to correspond with the flowering of the plants in the area, particularly the Brushy Creek Area, which is glorious in the spring time,” Muzika said. Spring songs of Carolina wrens, northern parulas and Louisiana waterthrushes filled the air as the hikers negotiated the terrain.

They also gather each winter for a heartier adventure — an annual New Year’s Day hike. “The beautiful thing about hiking in the middle of the winter is you really see a new character, especially in trees — seeing the starkness of the hardwoods when the leaves are gone you get a sense that they support so many braches; there’s so much biomass that’s obscured by leaves during the growing season,” Muzika said with reverence.

Regardless of the season, the hikes are family-friendly events. Rich Guyette, research professor of forestry, lives near Baskett. His family has been part of the tradition for years. Muzika said they can trace the growth of their families through their pictures. Her two daughters and Guyette’s daughter are close in age.

“They resisted coming even when they were young but knowing all three of them would be together they came and they just loved it and would go off exploring on their own,” Muzika said. “Now Rich’s daughter is a senior in high school and ours are in college; they don’t want to hike with their parents anymore.”

Forest of Inspiration

Despite visiting the area for several years, there’s always something new to discover.

“We’re observing, talking, wondering why things look the way they do,” Muzika said. “We discuss the potential of the property; how should we manage it, what can students learn here?”

Muzika brings her classes there to explore distinct forest communities. “The forestry students spend more time there than any other group in natural resources,” she said. “They might encounter sycamores hundreds of years old, chinkapin oak, white oak, and ask ‘what’s it doing here?’”

A recent chance encounter on the trail has provided the impetus for considering Brushy Creek Area as a state Natural Area. The group ran into to Mike Leahy, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Natural Areas Coordinator, and through a conversation that ensued, students, faculty and staff are now collaborating to provide the roots for the Natural Area designation.

This semester, natural resources students are using this area in their capstone project. “They’re writing an establishment report, which is necessary for a proposed natural area,” Muzika said. “The report contains findings of their data collection, synthesis of the data, management potential and a justification of why it should be considered a natural area.”

Jason Hubbart, assistant professor of forest hydrology and water quality, has joined the group since arriving in Columbia in 2007. “We do have intriguing conversations on the hikes, and lots of ideas float around,” Hubbart said. “One of those conversations led to my current study on Brushy Creek. There are plenty others that will probably come to fruition if enough time goes by,” he added. In the Baskett area, Hubbart works “to quantify hydroclimatic energy and mass flux, water quality and biogeochemical connectivity in a complex forested karst semi-wetland of mid-Missouri.”

Though scientific research has resulted from the hikes, a background in forestry isn’t a prerequisite for joining the hike. All you need is a bit of gumption and a fondness for the forest.

“Just the opportunity to get out is a good reason to get together, and we’re all interested in hiking and enjoying the outdoors and some of us have a scientific focus on it,” Muzika said. “We keep that in the backs of our minds. A few of us are always thinking about research and a few of us are always thinking about education.

“We always find a place with a dramatic scene that you can’t fully appreciate till you’re there.”