Wednesday, April 18, 2007

To the Point

My folks have lived on the boundary of Point Pelee, on the north shore of Lake Erie, for about twelve years now. But I spent most of my childhood in the area, which meant I had the good fortune to grow up playing on the Point's tranquil, sandy shores. Now, with winter finally easing its grip, Lake Erie has started to regain some of its sparkling, almost tropical, summer feel.

Point Pelee is the southernmost point of mainland Canada. Sixteen kilometres off its tip lies Pelee Island, and from there it's only a stone's throw to the American Bass Islands in Ohio. The Point has been known to First Nations for time immemorial, and Europeans, specifically the French, found their way here in the seventeenth century. Later, the British deemed the Point's delicate Carolinian forests to be perfect masts for the fleet they were building in preparation for possible war with the Americans (which came to pass in 1812).

The late 1800s saw the construction of a lifesaving station near the tip, which was permanently manned during the navigation season. When a ship ran into trouble, usually by running aground on one of the many local shoals, the men of the lifesaving station sprang into their wooden rowboat and took to the lake's churning waters to help. The legacy of the station lies in the dozens of wrecks that litter the bottom of this still-dangerous stretch of water.

In 1918, national park status was bequeathed on Point Pelee, but it didn't do much for its conservation, mainly because private landowners still held much of the new park. To make matters worse, by the 1960s a new threat, automobiles, arrived in large numbers, their occupants eager to enjoy the park's beautiful beaches. The result was that, from the air, the sandspit looked more like a giant parking lot than a nature reserve.

But by the 1970s all that began to change. The federal government banned cars, except for on the main road and in select parking areas, and constructed a small tram to take tourists out to the tip, dramatically reducing traffic congestion. Overnight camping was also done away with, which further eased the pressure on the park's fragile ecosystem. Finally, the last remaining cottagers were bought out, removing all permanent human habitation. Point Pelee was finally being given the chance to heal herself after nearly two centuries of intensive development.

The results are a testament to Mother Nature's ability to do just that. Today, little remains of the cottages, the lifesaving station, or any other structures for that matter. A rich diversity of wildlife has returned, particularly birds, which draw watchers from the farthest corners of the Earth. The newest human additions to the park have been kayakers and canoeists, who have recognized it as one of the Great Lakes' best-kept secrets. You can always find great paddling here, no matter the weather. In a strong wind, you can stick to the tranquil marshes -- or you can test your skills against Lake Erie's fury. It's a win-win.

Amy and I found ourselves here last weekend, enjoying one of my favourite times of year on Lake Erie. With spring only just coming on, the human tide has not yet washed in, and you can still find a bit of peace, say, on a lonely breakwall somewhere.

But the story will be different when the migration hits next month. If you end up in these parts then, I have some advice: either grab your binoculars -- or get out of the way.

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