Lake Erie’s “dead zone”
|Photo: Parks Canada, Point Pelee National Park ||
Take a walk through Point Pelee National Park and see how 40 years
has taught staff and visitors lessons on conservation
By Jodi Di Menna
Point Pelee hasn’t always been how one might imagine. Forty years ago,
this national park was part of the cruising circuit in Leamington, Ont. Its
beaches were a summertime gathering spot for teenagers and its roadways were
tracks for the popular pastime of laying rubber in the hot tar.
My dad was one of those teenagers, piloting his 1963 black Pontiac Parisienne
white-topped convertible along the strip. Eight-track player blasting Iron
Butterfly, he and his leather-jacketed pals would fly past Stewart’s
drive-through window, down to the dock, past the Seacliffe Hotel, and finally
down Robson Road out to “the Point.” It was 25 cents admission
and the sons and daughters of tomato farmers and Heinz factory workers parked
up and down the sandy shores of the park — swimming, listening to tunes
and visiting with friends.
They came and went freely, camping if they chose, wandering in the forests
and playing on the beaches. Heavy doses of DDT applied by the park kept the
visitors free from pesky black flies and mosquitoes, and the sand was raked
regularly to clean up their litter. The beaches were wide and always open.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s. Trade my Dad’s black convertible for
a tan-coloured Oldsmobile, the rowdy teenagers for a family of four and the
eight-track player for a potato-sack full of beach toys. Every hazy summer
Saturday of my childhood found my family making our way down Robson Road, on
our way to spend the day wave-jumping and building sand castles on the beaches
of Point Pelee.
When I was a kid, the “outdoors” meant either a cornfield, or
Point Pelee National Park. The 15-square-kilometre sliver of parkland was our
wilderness. It was the locale of a dozen school field trips, and in later years
the destination for high school dates and the setting for friends’ engagements
and wedding photos. Its value to me has always been as a backdrop for significant
memories, and its role in the community has been important for several generations.
The Windsor convention and visitors bureau ranks the park as the number one
tourism draw for Essex County.
But Pelee has national importance as well. It is one of the last large remnants
of the Carolinian forest, and contains more than 1,000 hectares of significant
marsh wetlands. The long sand spit jutting into Lake Erie is a critical stopover
point for monarch butterflies and more than 370 species of migrating birds,
several of which are endangered. But, like most parts of the country, it is
only in recent decades that the ecological value of the park has been recognized.
Through my generation, and the one before me, area residents have witnessed
a slow transformation of Point Pelee from town hang-out to treasured natural
Ross Thomson, Pelee’s superintendent in the 1990s, recently recalled some
of the history of the park. In the 1950s and ’60s, outdoor recreation was
the focus of park staff, and there were some 250 cottages, as well as several
other public facilities, including a hotel and a school within the park. By the
1970s and ’80s the focus was shifting to preservation, and staff set about
removing more than 300 buildings from the park and restoring native species to
|Point Pelee National Park staff set about removing
more than 300 buildings from the park and restoring native species to the
environment. (Photo: Parks Canada, Point Pelee National Park)
“We were learning,” says Thomson. “It was part of a movement
to remove unnecessary infrastructure, to limit our footprint.” Today
just one private property — an American owned cottage near the marshlands — remains
in the park.
“People were loving the park to death,” says Marian Stranak, the
current superintendent “We were losing species, and all kinds of things
were happening to the ecosystem. That crisis sparked a philosophical change
in how the park was managed.”
The park’s heyday of my father’s youth was gone. Park staff started
ushering folks through it, designating some areas off limits, controlling beach
access and promoting an overall respect for the delicate ecosystem.
In the 1980s, the Great Lakes Water Quality agreement triggered a clean-up
Lake Erie’s phosphate problems of the 1970s. Although the water was still
murky with fine sediment, it didn’t deter local beach goers. After all,
murky water was normal to us. I remember being shocked to see my feet under
two feet of water the first time I swam in Lake Huron.
However, by the 1990s increased testing meant frequent beach closures and
the crowds began to thin. In the summer of 2002, E. coli levels from faulty
septic systems reached unsafe levels in 9 out of 11 weeks, and 17 percent fewer
people visited the park in the month of July as a result. The sewer systems
have since been upgraded and the beaches were considered unsafe for only 3
out of 10 weeks this summer.
Although Pelee staff have made enormous strides in changing their management
practices, the Canadian Nature Federation still ranks Point Pelee as number
three on their Most Endangered National Parks List. Pelee has the record among
all Canadian national parks for highest number of endangered and extirpated
species (77 in total) and the highest number of exotic flora and fauna, with
247 at last count. Despite this, Marc Johnson, manager of CNF’s Wildlands
Program says the park earned the ranking because of intensive urban and agricultural
pressures surrounding it. “It’s Canada’s most southerly land-locked
point and it’s surrounded by agriculture. You see significant habitat
fragmentation because there’s very little Carolinian forest habitat other
than within the park.”
Along one side of the road leading into the park, there are tracts of vulnerable
marshland that have been drained for onion fields, and on the other side is a
strip of largely American-owned cottages perched along the beach. From the park,
Essex County blossoms to the north in a busy stretch of agricultural land and
|Point Pelee National Park’s vegetation is
mainly Carolinian. (Photo: Parks Canada, Point Pelee National Park)
“We’re on CNF’s list because the park is located in the
most populated, most people-altered part of this country,” says Stranak. “When
you start layering stuff on top of that, you soon realize why we’re threatened.”
Despite this, both CNF and Pelee staff remain positive. “I think the
future of Pelee is looking brighter today than it did five years ago,” says
Johnson. “Pelee really showcases the perseverance and dedication of park
staff to tackle some of the issues they’re facing.” Johnson gives
the recent restoration of red cedar savanna as an example.
Pelee sits like an anchor in Essex County as both a community refuge and a
rare fragment of protected land. When I visit the Point nowadays, I imagine
my dad and his friends leaning on their cars in the parking lots and I recall
the many childhood days I spent toddling through the sand. I wonder how this
national park might look as the next generation embraces it, forming their
own memories around its beaches and forests.