Articles

THE HOTTEST SPOT IN CANADA

Point Pelee National Park, unknown to Canadians, draws thousands of Americans every summer with its Riviera climate, its two hundred bird songs and its lively old-timers who like to point out the spot where the unruly Ojibways took forty French scalps

RAY SILVER October 1 1952
Articles

THE HOTTEST SPOT IN CANADA

Point Pelee National Park, unknown to Canadians, draws thousands of Americans every summer with its Riviera climate, its two hundred bird songs and its lively old-timers who like to point out the spot where the unruly Ojibways took forty French scalps

RAY SILVER October 1 1952

THE HOTTEST SPOT IN CANADA

Point Pelee National Park, unknown to Canadians, draws thousands of Americans every summer with its Riviera climate, its two hundred bird songs and its lively old-timers who like to point out the spot where the unruly Ojibways took forty French scalps

RAY SILVER

THE BALMIEST spot in Canada this summer, as every summer, was a slender finger of thicket and sandy shingle which juts for nine miles into western Lake Erie. A nature paradise and paradox, it is Point Pelee National Park—paradise because here the most southern tip of Canadian mainland reaches the latitude of the Riviera with a summer mean temperature of seventy-two degrees, one degree warmer than Los Angeles: paradox because it is the only spot in North America where cactus and northern trees like tamarack thrive side by side, and the birds confound the experts by flying south in spring.

Here vou can raise pecans, oranges and cotton: you can hear more than two hundred species of birds trom .Arctic siskins to Carolina wrens singing, and the whole lush show can be yours for the price of a rent and a doliar-aweek camping fee.

The park, which surprisingly few Canadians know much about, is only about six square miles, yet it draws more visitors mainly Americans than any other Canadian piavçround except Banff and Riding Mountain Parks.

And there have heen years when Pelee outdid every national park in the country.

.lust fortv miles southeast of Windsor, Ont., where the Canadian mainland stretches deep into the Great Lakes, it is south of a dozen U. S. states and within a day’s travel for forty million people. Because of its climate and its geographical position it has become “a veritable outdoor laboratory of natural history research,” in the words of Dr. William Brodie, an Ontario provincial biologist who first tramped its wilds back in 1879.

The Point, as the natives call it, is probably the most chronicled, best studied and scientifically observed blob of land in the country. A scientist from the Royal Ontario Museum found it the best place on the continent to study spiders. A newspaper wildlife columnist is fascinated by its snakes. One government expert was dispatched to Pelee to track down coyote. Another spent half a season studying the conflict between mink and muskrat in the Pelee marsh.

There is only one instance on record of the National Association of Audubon Societies ever leaving New York City for an annual meeting. One year they chose to go to Pelee--four hundred and fifty strong. The National Film Board has put Pelee and its birds on celluloid. When the National Research Council wanted to test a new kind of erosion control it picked Pelee. When the national parks branch of the Department of Resources and Development and the universities teamed up to do an ambitious study of Canada's plant and wildlife a couple of years ago they picked Pelee as the place to start

Dr. William Gunn, University of Toronto graduate in business and com-

merce who climbed from private to lieutenant-colonel as an authority in army accounting, then became a military expert on the Canadian Arctic, wound up finally with his sleeping bag on the beaches of Pelee where his research on Pelee’s puzzling bird migration won him a Ph.D. in ornithology.

Pelee’s mystery of birds flying south by thousands in spring is a mystery still, but Gunn’s research threw new light on the puzzle. He thought that mayl>e birds overshoot while migrating north at night and, with daylight, become aware they are farther north than they intended. They l>egin moving back southward. Pelee, shaped like a funnel, tends to concentrate the birds in vast numbers at the point’s narrow tip. Here, where there is no shoreline to follow farther, hummingbirds and eagles alike strike otf boldly for the unseen southern shore beyond Lake Erie’s horizon. Another theory: Pelee is such a popular resting and feeding station for migrating birds that they literally crowd themselves off the tip of the point until it Incomes a choice of fly or swim.

Gunn, as executive director of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, has now launched a new Pelee project. He is making tape recordings of Pelee bird songs and playing them back to the startled creatures for a study of bird emotional reaction.

Point Pelee is a camper’s, as well as a bird watcher s, paradise. Its dozen miles of sandy beaches, sunny days, cool nights, mild lake water, good fishing, fresh-water wells, dutch ovens stacked with stove wood, and picnic tables are available to all comers. Last year Fred Broadbeck, a Detroiter who is a Pelee addict, summered there from April to September in a tent and trailer for less than thirty dollars a week.

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Hottest Spot in Canada

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Most of the Pelee campers are Americans like Broadbeck. “The pop-stand operators do a rushing business on American holidays,” explains Mrs. Helen Wolfe, "but on Canadian holidays they nearly starve to death.” Mrs. Wolfe runs the Aviation Inn which, along with Pelee Lodge, provides the top hotel accommodation in the park.

Except for small acreages still privately held at Banff and Jasper. Pelee is the only national park in Canada with private properties within its borders. Summer cottages rent from twenty-five to sixty dollars a week. The cottages and the private farms back onto the Big Marsh, which swarms with muskrat and wild ducks. This cottage-marsh area is separated from the rest of the park by a paved road. Between this road and the west beach is a band of red cedar and hardwood forest and in this lush growth camping and picnic facilities have been discreetly dispersed.

In this heavy screen of cedar, oak, elm. maple, pine, sycamore, sassafras, hackberry. ash. basswood, ironwood, poplar, and shag-bark hickory trees, tens of thousands of campers are absorbed each year. At one point in Pelee’s history a more sinister crop was hidden—Indian hemp, the source of marijuana, which was planted innocently by sportsmen as pheasant cover and thrived in the warm climate. Dope peddlers are believed to have harvested millions of dollars’ worth of this drug weed for years, unknown to Pelee residents. Then a Detroit detective on vacation discovered the crop. It took the Mounties ten days to uproot and bum it. The operation was so well screened by Pelee’s thick undergrowth that campers didn't know what was g mg on until they read about it in tne papers.

Pelee has some of the finest freshwater beaches in the country. Swimmers are offered the choice of mild or milder water, wading shallows or quick drop-offs, calm water or breakers.

"I've seen it off the Point when you could walk out of water at seventy degrees on the west side and into water fifty-four degrees on the other side,” says Captain Jim Grubb, a lifelong Pointer and former skipper of the now disused lifesaving station. "And I've seen some mighty high waves on the east beach when it was smooth as glass on the west side.”

The one swimming hazard is a dangerous rip current near the tip of the Point where the east and west currents meet. Several swimmers who have disregarded the large warning sign have been drowned there.

An RCMP constable now lives in the old lifesaving station from which, in the heyday of the lake schooners, the twentv-five-foot Erie Edna was often launched into the teeth of a gale to rescue survivors from ships aground on the reefs and shoals of Pelee Passage, known then as the “boneyard of the Great Lakes." Schooner hulks still lie rotting in the silt just offshore.

But Pelee waters have been as productive as they were treacherous, for they make up pan of the greatest freshwater fishing on the continent. In thirty years the fish steamer Louise took eighty-six million pounds of fish off the peninsula. Gill netting and pollution have reduced the catches but the fishing is still commercially productive, and still a big lure for summer visitors.

Long before the tourists, the naturalists and the commercial fishermen,

the first Point Pelee settlers of nearly three centuries ago were sure they had found a new Eden.

Wood duck, canvasback. ruddy duck, mallard and Canada goose grew fat on the Indian rice, wild celery and sunflower of the marsh. Greenbrier and dogwood thickets sheltered grouse, pigeons and wild turkeys. There were fish offshore, muskrat in the marsh, nuts on the trees, berries on the bush. And on their lands the settlers could grow all that the country's longest warmest season would support.

Ed Delaurier, whose father and grandfather were bom in a log cabin that still stands, heard from them about the parties that once ran the whole week between Christmas and New Year, then for a further week called King Days. Ducks from the late fall shooting, wild turkeys and grouse, venison brought from a short distance north were cooked for the feast. Whisky was brought in by the barrel from Sandusky. Ohio, in Grandfather Delaurier’s schooner.

Descendants of the first settlers still live amicably amid the tourists. Delaurier grows hibiscus and Florida holly in the bay window of his century-old house, as well as oranges and cotton. The original Girardin fishery on the Point is now operated by Leita Girardin. The oldest and lake-wisest of the native Pointers is seventy-nine-yearold Jim Grubb. Both his grandfather and his father William were in charge of the old Dummy Light, placed on the Point by the Admiralty to guide ships through the passage. The stone cottage where Jim was bom is now under water, two hundred and fifty feet off the end of the peninsula.

The Point was noted and named by the first voyageurs (inappropriately. pelée means bald or barren . Father Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, describing a voyage to Canada undertaken for the King of France in 1720. reported that four hundred bears had been killed on Pelee the previous winter.

The voyageurs soon learned to avoid the off-point currents by portaging across the narrow waist of the peninsula where Lake Pond—the largest of the marsh ponds—reaches within half a mile of the west beach. Ojibway Indians. who had roamed the Point for a thousand years, ambushed one French party and collected forty scalps.

Blood was also shed on the Point in 1763 in the uprising against the British by Algonquin and Iroquois tribes led by Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas. The Indians wiped out fifty-eight Queen's Rangers and Royal Americans.

Again, in 1838, the 32nd Regiment and the St. Thomas Cavalry repelled a minor American invasion timed to support William Lyon Mackenzie's rebellion. The British casualties were five killed and twenty-seven wounded.

By 1S6-5 settlers had moved in with grist and saw mills, stage-coach routes and a dock at Leamington, on the northwest. The last of the Ojibways were pushed out. A dozen farmers and fishermen won title to about six hundred fertile acres on the Point, then still a naval reserve, at the price of one

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dollar and seventy cents an acre. Fifty years later the federal government bought back a third of this land for forty-five thousand dollars.

From childhood the Pointers learned to understand and conserve the wildlife around them. The first yellow-breasted chat ever recorded in Canada was shown to Dr. Brodie by Pelee children in 1S79. It had flown through an open schoolroom window, been killed when it hit the window glass on the other side of the room. This had happened a month before Brodie's visit. Because the bird was unknown the children had saved it for identification.

Brodie's enthusiastic report on Pelee brought another famous Canadian naturalist. William E. Saunders, to the Point. Saunders soon realized that the islands which harassed navigation between Pelee and Sandusky were stepping stones for migratory birds.

Here hummingbird, swallow, warblers. thrush and half p hundred small species cross Lake Erie. Strong flying sharp-shinned hawk, red-winged blackbirds. grackles. jays, robins and bluebirds ignore the islands and cross Lake Erie nonstop, but they still follow the Point to its very tip.

The marsh reeds and grasses fatten duck, night heron, coot, snipe, and other waders for them seasonal flights. More than a stopover, however. Pelee is the lure that made several southern species native to Canada. Ornithologists believe that the yellow-breasted chat, cerulean warbler. Carolina wren, mockingbird and cardinal all came to Canada via Point Pelee. This is the northern limit of the bobwhite. gnatcatcher. orchard oriole and prothonotary warbler.

C. K. Dodge, a member of the Geological Survey, found the Point in 1910 “less disturbed by man and retaining more of its primitive vegetation than any other equal area on the lake and river shores anywhere in the country.”

A move to keep Point Pelee that way was soon in progress, and government action was probably hastened by an attempt during World War I by a syndicate of Detroit and Chicago promoters to turn the natural parkland into hundred-foot cottage lots. They actually got options on the bottom third of Point Pelee.

Forest Conover, a Leamington farmer and president of the local gun club, circulated a petition asking for the establishment of a national park. Government action followed so quicklv that Pointers did not know they were living in a national park until signs were posted declaring Pelee a game preserve. Conover became the first superinten-

Only the northwest comer of the marsh was made a bird sanctuary. Duck shooting is still permitted on a few open days each year and Point residents can take an annual quota of muskrat.

M nen Point Pelee Park was established much of the property was privately owned, explains James Smart. Director of National Parks. “We intend to gradually recapture private property within the boundaries of national parks."

Park residents face this prospect philosophically, but they are less philosophic about the deer trouble. A few years ago some white-tailed deer wandered onto the Point — presumable from Ronceau Provincial Park, forty miles east. The herd grew to about thirty head and foraged park and private lands alike. They fed on Ed Delaurier's peppers and asparagus beds, on prize trees in Pelee apple orchards, and forced Don Tilden to quit growing squash and melon. Ottawa provided the farmers with deer repel-

lent, but this left a rubbery taste on fruit and %-egetable crop«.

Finally Smart promised that the deer population would not be allowed to increase. His department planned to live-trap surplus deer at Pelee, transfer them to remoter parts of Ontario.

There's another hot controversy about the Point—whether the park is to be kept strictly as a nature preserve or developed as a tourist attraction.

Jim Grubb puts the issue succinctly: “I think they ought to decide either one way or the other. It should be either birds or Yankees."

Camping and picnicking have not yet denuded Pelee but they have left their mark. Wind and water, vacationists and sandsuckers (American dredges that draw sand and gravel from the lake bed t have all contributed to erosion. Forty years ago scientists warned that Pelee “will be washed bodily away not very far in the future unless conditions change or man devises a way to stay them.”

More recently Dr. C. H. D. Clarke, an Ontario Government biologist, warned against further clearing for camping grounds beyond absolute necessity. "It should never be forgotten that the Point is fundamentally unstable and has varied in size within historical times." he said. “It could conceivably blow back into the lake which produced it.”

Currents and rough water relentlessly wear away the east beach: calmer waters on the other side of the peninsula consistently build up the west beach. In 1SS9 the tip was pointing ten degrees east of south: on today’s maps it faces due south. A mile up the east side more than fifteen acres of orchard land behind the Tilden farm has been taken back by waters in recent years. Foster Jackson, chairman of the Pelee Advisory Council, says erosion has accelerated in the past fifteen years.

The Federal Government has been prodded into action. Parks director Smart indicates that there’ll be no more clearing and enlarging of camp sites, and recent experiments to combat erosion have included rows of oak piling driven along the east beach edge and the placing of giant concrete crosses. These crosses tend to collect sand thrown up by wave action and hold it fast on the ebb tide. Some crosses which were placed on top of the sand are now covered. The natives, bom sceptics, say the crosses have merely sunk.

Jim Grubb thinks interlocked sheet piling is the only answer. The Ottawa experts agree, but sheet piling is expensive. More piling and more crosses are planned this year.

Another major project, urged by residents and being considered by Ottawa, proposes a flume-way to let fresh water into the big marsh. “That.” says Grubb, “is a real good idea. A flow of fresh water would provide growth of aquatic plants to feed muskrat and birds. Besides, the fish have been in captivity in that stagnant water so long they taste like mud-’’^