September 2016

A Man of Many Hats

A Day in the Life of Director of
Horticulture Mike Hunter

As it does for the Superintendents of each Osprey Valley Golf courses, Director of Horticulture Mike Hunter’s day begins with a staff meeting. His, however, looks a little different than the others. Rather than the courses’ ten to twenty, his small crew (usually a staff or four to five) is even smaller this year with just Mike and two workers meeting quietly in the maintenance building.

With fewer large projects on the agenda this season, Mike has been able to get by with a smaller staff, his "dynamic duo" that can get a remarkable amount done under his guidance. Still, his planned fall planting will require more people and Mike is currently seeking two or three more to join his staff for the balance of the year.

While he agrees with his fellow Superintendent and Assistants that hiring is one of the more challenging aspects of the job - “we rarely see anybody with much experience,” he notes - Mike is the kind of person who embraces challenges. Training new team members and helping people develop new skills is one of his favourite parts of the job.

His task list is varied, as is the norm. After he has given out his assignments to the staff, today begins with a survey of the annuals in the clubhouse planters, where he does some pruning, making notes on which planters require fertilizer or water, and planning for next year - look for new canna lilies in 2017.

From his careful attention to each task at hand to a quick perusal of his Instagram account, the pride that Mike takes in his work and in Osprey Valley is self-evident. It is no wonder that he has been dubbed “Instamike” by some of his co-workers for his penchant to find moments in the day to capture a quick shot of his ongoing work and beautiful surroundings.

 

Instamike seizing the moment. And the result ...

 

On another day he just might be at the clubhouse for a different reason. When there is a plumbing or other maintenance problem, he is likely to get a call. A tour of Osprey Valley tends to be punctuated by past work projects that Mike has had a hand in: the rebuilding of the bridge between sixteenth green and seventeenth tee on Hoot or the pump house built to look like an old country schoolhouse.

“We are men of many hats,” Mike quips about Heathlands’ Superintendent Scott Brook, himself, and his brother, Dave Hunter, Superintendent of Hoot and Toot. Together, the trio sets the tone with a hands-on, do-it-yourself approach that unites the entire department. Their work ethic, pride and drive are embraced and embodied by the three Assistant Superintendents as well.

Reminded that not everybody can work with their brother, Mike laughs, “I don’t know if I want this recorded.” It’s all in fun. The close relationships among the Turf Department are at the heart of the great experience golfers find on our three courses. Despite long hours on the job, there is always time to get together outside of work, socially or otherwise. Mike is currently helping Dave build a deck at home.

The broad set of Mike’s responsibilities in Osprey Valley fits well with his history. He is one of the longest serving members of the team. His first season was 1994 … or 1995. “I’ve forgotten now,” he says. His first job was taking care of the carts, back when Heathlands was the only course and the current maintenance building served as the clubhouse.

The Hunter brothers have a bit of a friendly debate going over who started at Osprey Valley Golf first. “I don’t think I want to get into that. We’ve both been here for a long time,” Mike says diplomatically. “But I’m the younger brother, so I will outlast him,” he grins.

Working with the "dynamic duo"

In his second year, Mike joined the maintenance crew, working there for a few years before heading out west to study landscape design and construction at Olds College in Alberta. Working on a local course during the summer, he was reminded about what he loved about Osprey Valley and the golf course environment. He switched his area of study to turf management and upon completing his degree, returned to Osprey Valley and soon became the Assistant Superintendent of Heathlands. In the early 2000’s he became the Superintendent of Toot, “my old stomping grounds, it holds a special place in my heart.”

The story might have ended there, but Osprey Valley Golf is a little different than most. Our three golf courses are comprised of over 550 acres, and come with many unique responsibilities. When the owners put together a list of special projects to be done, they needed someone reliable to take them on and Mike got the call and a newly created position.

One of the larger projects he has overseen was the design and construction of the median that has become an iconic part of the main entrance to Osprey Valley. At this point, most people don’t remember the steep dirt road that once led golfers to the old clubhouse. The whole area had to be regraded and then paved.

The original idea was for a median with a planted garden lined with river rock on the outside. Mike choose to reverse it, using river rock and large boulders uncovered during the construction of Hoot and Toot to create a dry river bed effect with planting on both sides. This created a scenic bioswale that has become a central feature of the property. “That was a fun project. Really fun,” he says.

Mid-morning, Mike checks in with his team, who are hard at work along the median, weeding the beds and caring for the carefully selected plants. Each year, something new is added. Last year’s black eyed susans are in full bloom, the junipers are doing well and the decorative grasses are just beginning their shift to the lovely red and orange they will be in autumn.

The delicate beauty highlights the diversity of Mike’s responsibilities as detailed, hands-on attention is now required to maintain what was originally a large scale landscape construction project. Today’s duties hold the same range and variety.  A day that began with the tending of annuals in planters on the clubhouse terrace quickly shifts to one that requires a helmet and chainsaw.

A stand of jack pines on Toot requires intervention. Insects have attacked some of the trees between the first and ninth fairways. An abundance of woodpeckers arriving to eat the insects was the first sign of trouble, but the dry, brittle limbs and needles turning brown are evidence that the trees won’t survive. Mike will need to remove them before the insects spread to the neighbouring trees.

While he is more inclined to add plants than remove them, Mike is philosophical about cutting these down. For him, there is an element of natural selection at work. Insects tend to attack the weaker trees and it is often some prior condition that make specific ones susceptible. It may be that the affected trees were weakened by the drought or the late winter ice storm. Or it may just be that these trees, planted in the 1950’s, were not the ideal choice for the area as jack pines are typically found a little further north.

The original plan to remove three trees is quickly revised as Mike discovers two more that need to go. He swiftly removes them as well. His crew will be along later to cart away the wood, which will be burned this fall, then Mike will return with a backhoe to remove the stumps. The area will be replanted in the fall with scots pines, better suited to the local conditions, and a bit more shapely than the scraggly jack pines.

The plan combines sound forestry management practices with years of experience on site. As Mike says, “Some things I try work out, some don’t.” Lessons learned today are factored in tomorrow’s planning. Recently, Mike has adjusted the way his team plants chestnut trees, after discovering that the local deer find them irresistible. “They chewed a number of them right to the ground,” he says with a wry smile. Now the chestnuts are caged until they have a chance to get established.

It is wise to take such things in stride. For Mike, loving the work, the setting and the camaraderie of the turf team, makes the long hours a pleasure, though he admits to the occasional quick nap after a long day’s work. In his case, though, the nap isn’t really winding down at the end of the day, but rather recharging for the rest of it.

Mike’s “down time” tends to be pretty intensive. His current regimen involves participating in the Spartan Race series, obstacle courses from 7km to 25km, “usually up and down a ski hill.” He pauses to consider how that sounds. “Everyone thinks I’m nuts,” he admits. Nevertheless, his ultimate goal is to participate in a race dubbed the Ultra Beast, which involves two laps of a 20+km course. It kind of makes us wonder if “everyone” has a point.

As with his work in Osprey Valley, a big part of the appeal of Mike’s extracurricular activities is the teamwork and camaraderie inherent to the task. Fittingly, he has found the ideal companion. He and fiance Nadia usually participate in the Spartan races together, sometimes as a team, other times individually, with just their traditional kiss for good luck at the starting line before meeting up at the end.

Most notably, Mike’s motivation is never about the events themselves. For him, it is an approach to life, a way to find focus and motivation to push forward with whatever tasks lie ahead, whether on an obstacle course or the Osprey Valley golf courses. “I'm inspired every time I run these events, by the people I meet along the way and the boundaries I have been able to overcome. It’s about pushing myself to achieve things I once thought were not possible.”

It’s an outlook that would serve anyone well, which is good, because Mike and Nadia have an even bigger event planned for the upcoming off-season, a January wedding in Mexico. We wish them the very best - and recommend a kiss at the beginning for good luck, and teamwork to overcome the challenges that follow.