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Lake Erie’s “dead zone”

Photo: Parks Canada, Point Pelee National Park
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Erie’s tarnished jewel
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.


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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 space.

Point Pelee National Park staff set about removing more than 300 buildings from the park and restoring native species to the environment.
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)
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 the environment.

“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.”

Point Pelee National Park's vegetation is mainly Carolinian.
Point Pelee National Park’s vegetation is mainly Carolinian. (Photo: Parks Canada, Point Pelee National 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 development.

“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.

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