I hike with family, friends, clients, or students almost every day of my life. Not so much the students these days, given the circumstances of current school closures. However, sharing the outdoors with so many people over the years has given me the opportunity to observe how others react to nature. More specifically, I’ve noticed how people look and feel more invigorated in some ecosystems more than others.
My biology brain is always whirling when I’m outdoors, and I find it’s due to my understanding of the environment. This is not to be confused with fascination, which is a sensation that can be achieved without any knowledge of the scenery at hand.
Even when I’m hiking around with a Kindergarten class behind me, my mind is always observing and analyzing all the biodiversity around me at a hundred miles an hour.
“Can I identify this tree in the middle of winter? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that nest before. Why are there fungi on this tree, but none on the same species next to it? Could I find salamanders here in the spring?”
Being taken aback by the beauty and captivation of the outdoors isn’t just for biologists, though. What’s even more awesome to me is to watch students of all ages pause, raise their eyebrows, or start pointing fingers at something along the trail. It happens at some spots more frequently than others. I notice the same theme when hiking with others, including my friends and family on a day off.
I was recently hiking through one of the forested patches in NOTL’s Lakeshore Road conservation area. In a particular stretch of woods, the trees are spaced very far apart, and many of them are over 30 metres tall. Some specimens are likely to be in the 250-year-old ballpark. By visually assessing the diversity of bark characteristics on all these trees, I could deduce that the forest was both biodiverse as well as old-growth. This combination usually leads to maximum ecosystem stability, which had me super enthused to be hiking there again.
Then, I passed a familiar face, a nice guy who I met in downtown NOTL during my bartending days. We approached each other in this forest of cathedral trees on the thrashing lakeshore, and we conversed for a bit.
He told me how he had noticed the stature and characteristics of the trees in this section of woods, and how he hadn’t seen anything like it in the area. He was animated and happy to share how much he was enjoying this particular spot of the forest, too.
The spell of biodiversity and ancient trees can be a pretty strong presence upon those who walk into it, I thought.
I have seen this often on my hiking tours. People tend to stop and gasp, take photos, or spark conversation at similar spots. I could map them with predictable accuracy, and it makes sense.
One of my favourite places that provides an unexpected visual treat is in the heart of the Wainfleet Bog. I call one section of trail ‘the tunnel,’ where an old peat mining track has been preserved as an open, squishy trail for adventurous hikers.
On one stretch, gorgeous European birch trees line the trail symmetrically on either side for about 300 metres. With the trail running directly east-west, the morning or evening sun shines boldly down the tunnel of invasive, but beautiful trees.
On my tours, and on a recent hike with my parents and my girlfriend to the bog, this is the spot where people stop and pause. Cameras come out. Some polite and laughable “can you get out of my photo?” moments unfold, as people are enamoured by the bog’s eerie but beautiful landscape.
It also happens to be one of the most biodiverse sites in all of Canada. Even if you only see birds and footprints in the winter, like we did, all you need to do is look at all of the ferns, club mosses, lichens, and rare bog plants which essentially carpet the landscape with their funky colours. It speaks to the richness this place beholds come spring and summer.
Something dawned on me as I stood out there last week. It’s Niagara’s quietest place, at the quietest time of year, and the quietest year we’ve experienced in decades. We passed not a soul in the bog or its tiny parking lot, as we hiked through bricky, black mud, which was semi frozen.
In the midsection of the Niagara Gorge, there is a trail where I’ve heard the term ‘Narnia’ come up a few times before. Before ascending among the enormous, shed-sized boulders, you are greeted with a postcard image of green mossy rocks, ferns gently draping over the path, and an inviting stone staircase.
People like to ask for their photo here, or wait for hikers to pass through just to grab an image of the fairy-like landscape in its glory. Funny, once again, how this little pocket in the gorge stops so many people in their tracks.
It’s connected to biodiversity, again. Due to the variety of surfaces and jumbled boulders down in the gorge, species of plants which can only thrive in shaded, protected sites can make themselves at home. The effect is a collection of mosses, ferns, bryophytes, and other ancient plant groups growing on just about every surface. It makes people stop and look, even if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking at.
When I venture into old swampy forests, near gnarly cliffs and into quiet patches of old woods with people, sometimes someone will say “you’d think you could see a dinosaur here.”
I’d say this familiar, but classic comment speaks more to our deepest primal instincts more than it does to movies like Jurassic Park. We weren’t alive when the dinosaurs were. So, why does a certain environment, often old-growth and biodiverse, seem to make us feel like we may see one of these extinct creatures? It’s something to think about.
I believe areas of high biodiversity are strongly correlated with being aesthetically beautiful. The pleasing parts of nature, such as huge trees, the different types, the immense boulders, and a pretty variety of colourful plants can sometimes speak to species richness, by means of our very own interpretation of the environment.