The land that time forgot

This is Long Point: a timeless tangle of swamp and exotic vegetation jutting into Lake Erie. Its inhabitants: animals, birds, reptiles, fishes and—periodically—multi-millionaires

Duncan McLeod October 11 1958

The land that time forgot

This is Long Point: a timeless tangle of swamp and exotic vegetation jutting into Lake Erie. Its inhabitants: animals, birds, reptiles, fishes and—periodically—multi-millionaires

Duncan McLeod October 11 1958

It’s far from a full gallery, but here are some of the Point’s birds, animals, fish and reptiles

Ninety miles southwest of Toronto there lies a land as wild as when time began. It has no permanent human inhabitants. Its brooding silence is broken only by the restless wash of the surf and the mournful cry of gulls. Pilot blacksnakes six feet long droop like pendants from cottonwood trees; bald eagles perch on butternut trees; below them dwarf deer three feet tall browse on orchids in tiny verdant valleys. Muskrats by the thousand paddle through marshes that reach to the horizon, and where the water deepens into pools, thirty-five-pound catfish and hundredpound carp bask lazily. Big black-and-gold wamper snakes slither through stands of waving grass; the soft sand of sweeping beaches is pocked with the tracks of leather-shelled turtles. Great flights of wild ducks feed on vast ponds ripe with a golden harvest of wild rice.

This land that time forgot is Long Point, a scimitar-shaped peninsula of sand and marsh that angles twenty-five miles into the eastern end of Lake Erie.

Long Point stayed wild when the surrounding country was tamed largely because nobody had any use for it. It was too desolate for fishermen, who built their villages on the friendlier mainland shore. Farmers avoided its valueless jumble of beach, desert, forest and marsh; hunters came, took their game, and returned to higher ground. In the mid-1800s, when game had been thinned on the mainland, Long Point's teeming wildlife was threatened by a rush of hunters, and for a few years following 1850 there was a carnival of slaughter on the point. This was halted in 1866 when the entire peninsula was sold as a private game preserve to a group of wealthy Canadian and American sportsmen, and the land they bought has survived the intervening ninety-odd years unchanged.

The peninsula draws a line almost due east from the mainland into Lake Erie; the southern shore is an unbroken stretch of white sand, most of the northern shore a 33,000-acre marsh. The mainland on this side is a continuation of the marsh; from the base of Long Point it hooks an irregular crescent to the north, then juts south again in a wedge-shaped promontory called Turkey Point. The basin enclosed by Turkey Point and a spur that runs toward it from Long Point is known locally as the Inner Bay. The bay is really a huge pond—an average of no more than seven feet deep—swarming with minute forms of plant and animal life that in turn provide food for a teeming population of fishes: catfish and carp, bowfin, sunfish, rock bass, white bass, suckers, bullheads and channel cats.

This surfeit of fish is the chief source of income for the only community near Long Point, Port Rowan, an unusual village of 750 people on the mainland curve of the Inner Bay. Most of Port Rowan’s able-bodied men are professional hunters who fish the bay, trap the marshes and guide duck-hunting parties for their living. Leon Schram, the chubby manager of the Port Rowan fisherman's co-operative, says the Inner Bay supports more fish per acre than any other body of water in North America, and their rich diet makes them outgrow fish of the same species in most other places.

To give every man a fair share of the catch the Inner Bay’s 36,140 acres is surveyed into twenty-three fishing lots; each is the preserve of two, three or four men, who fish their lot on shares. Much of their catch is sold alive. In a year tank trucks with aeration equipment haul about 300,000 pounds of live bullheads, channel cats and catfish to the southern states, and another 200.000-odd pounds of live carp to Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia, where they are in demand for Jewish New Year celebrations. About 25,000 pounds of rock bass and sunfish are sent in iced cartons to Chicago and Detroit for Chinese buyers, who claim they are the sweetest fish that swim. The total annual catch of all fish is around 650,000 pounds, an extraordinary yield of thirty-five pounds for each acre.

This harvest is netted during the spring and fall. Between May and August commercial fishermen are not allowed to set their seines, since the bay is filled with millions of small-mouth and large-mouth black bass that come from every part of Lake Erie to spawn and stay to dine. When the bass season opens July first thousands of sporting fishermen come to Point. Many of them don’t bring boats, and the Port Rowan fishermen take out parties of ten or twelve who often catch the limit of six bass each in a few hours.

Even in July, when bass fishermen crosshatch the surface of the Inner Bay, Point itself is left largely to its wildlife. The bay, to begin with, is treacherous. The shallow basin is roiled by any passing storm, and every year overconfident fishermen are drowned—fourteen in 1955—so that most are reluctant to float too far from safety. Then, too, Eong Point has its own defenses. The marshy shoreline blocks passage for large boats; a small boat can reach the peninsula by passing through an oozing bog swarming with snakes, mosquitoes and deer-flies, but even then it’s impossible to travel far, for the land here is criss-crossed by moatlike marshes and connecting ponds.

The base of the peninsula can he reached by road from the mainland along a tree-lined causeway that passes through a public park studded with six hundred summer cottages. But the causeway ends three miles up the peninsula at a muddy channel; on the other side is an immense bog with signs warning that from here on this is private property. From this point to the lighthouse at the lakeward tip. all Long Point — with the exception of a small strip near the eastern end known as the Anderson property—is owned by the millionaires’ duck - hunting club that bought the point ninety years ago. While

visitors in summer may receive permission to enter their domain, none are permitted during the duck-hunting season.

Even with permission, reaching Long Point’s bog-blocked inner lastnesses isn t easy. While the sandy beach offers a path for anyone with the endurance tor a long hike, it is no highway and it can be dangerous. Bill Ainsley. the lighthouse keeper, drives a jeep along the beach to get back and forth between his lonely post and the mainland, but he picks his times carefully: violent southwest gales often crash breakers across the entire width of Long Point.

Behind these natural barriers flourishes a fantastically numerous and variegated animal population. Trappers from Port Rowan take about twenty thousand muskrats every year, and every spring the Port Rowan I.ions Club and Canadian Legion branch combine to stage a dinner for hundreds of people from as far away as Toronto who feast on roasted muskrat hindquarters served under the euphemism “marsh hare.”

And mud puppies

So many turtles live in the marsh that a visiting naturalist once bubbled unscientifically that they were “dotted all over the place.” There are mud turtles and painted, or pond turtles; fifty-pound snapping turtles, whose shear-like jaws can easily amputate a man's finger at one bite; map (or geographic) turtles: pretty yellow-spotted turtles; and malodorous musk turtles.

Frogs, toads and salamanders flourish in the marsh, including the ugly giant salamander, or “mud-puppy,” which has a foot-long, dark brown, lizard-like body and bushy red gills behind its snout-like head. These amphibians feed cranes, herons, bitterns and a teeming snake population. Long Point is a happy hunting ground to herpetologists who come from every part of the continent to

gather bagfuls of snakes, but snakes are a constant curse to Mrs. Harvey Ferris, whose husband owns the colonial-style Old Cut Inn at the end of the road leading up to Long Point. Her two sons are avid collectors, and she invariably searches their pants' pockets for snakes before dousing them in the washing machine. Until last summer they kept their snakes in a big wooden box; then a storm washed it away. "I often wonder what happened.” mused chunky Harvey Ferris, "if someone found that box and looked in.”

Anyone who opened the lid probably would have been terrorized but unharmed. While there are some fearful snakes on Long Point, none is poisonous. The fox snake, or wamper as it is called in Port Rowan, grows as long as six feet and as big around as a man's forearm. It coils when approached, doubles its neck into an S-shaped loop, vibrates its tail so rapidly it buzzes, and strikes with a sharp, short hiss. The tree-climbing pilot

blacksnake, just as big but glossy back, will also coil when threatened and hiss fiercely. The brown-and-yellow puff-adder coils its tail, raises its head, spreads its neck flat like a hooded cobra and hisses menacingly when it's approached—then opens its mouth wide, goes into convulsions, rolls over ana plays dead. But like many ham actors it overplays its part —-if it's turned right side up, it will stubbornly roll over again.

Side by side with the reptiles, Long Point harbors a myriad of animals— raccoons, skunks, rabbits, woodchucks, weasels, minks, wolves and dwarf deer. Jack Allan, Fish and Wildlife Officer at Port Rowan, says he has seen full-grown deer "no bigger than jack-rabbits.” Biologists believe the deer have multiplied beyond the food supply adequate for normal growth.

The air teems as richly with life as the ground. The great horned owl, yellow-billed cuckoo, hairy woodpecker, ruby-throated hummingbird, king-bird,

crested fly-catcher, Baltimore oriole, bronzed grackle, red-eyed vireo, northern bald eagle, marsh hawk, spotted sandpiper, Florida gallinulc, wood duck and black duck—all thrive on the peninsula.

In the spring and fall Long Point is one of the most important half-way resting stations on the continent for migrating birds: the white-breasted nuthatch, thrush, plover, sand-piper, knot dowitcher, horned grebe, snowy owl, black-billed cuckoo, towhee, indigo bunting, purple martin and almost every type of wild duck in central North America. Birdwatchers travel hundred of miles to spy on them. The high point of the birdwatching calendar is in March when thousands of whistling swans sweep down on Long Point, followed by as many as two thousand birdwatchers.

The whistling swans bypass Long Point in the autumn, frightened off by the blasts of shotguns fired by hundreds of duck hunters. Traveled hunters say Long Point is one of the best duck-hunting

grounds in the world, and to Port Rowan ducks are big business. Nearly all the village men are hired as guides by the private clubs during the duck-shooting season; they also rent boats, decoys and blinds along the Bay outside the clubs’ properties to sportsmen out for a day’s shooting.

Any duck hunter with a glance to spare for the vegetation can eye one of the few flower sanctuaries left in North America. Monroe Landon, a big-boned farmer-naturalist in the nearby city of Simcoc, who has spent much of the past forty-odd years studying Long Point's llora and fauna, says "there are literally acres and acres of pink orchids as well as masses of lady slippers, Indian paint plants and bladderwort.” Landon has identified nearly 1,400 species of vascular plants growing wiki on the Point, and remarks sadly that all these once grew in equal abundance throughout southern Ontario.

Except for brief bouts of exploitation, Long Point has lain largely untouched since the first United Empire Loyalists arrived in 1794. An early settler, Samuel Ryerson, wrote in later years that “he would go to the woods for his deer like the farmer would go to the fold for his sheep.” By 1X30 most game had been shot off on the mainland, and scows filled with American “sports" began to come across the lake to Long Point for a lost weekend and easy hunting. By 1850 there was a carnival of wholesale slaughter on the Point. American cities offered an insatiable market for game and professional hunters shot animals throughout the year. Soon only the ducks were left.

Start of a comic-opera war

The government of Canada West—as Ontario was then known — was understandably annoyed at having Long Point’s animals massacred by Americans, and tried to sell the peninsula at public auction in 1857 and again in I860: there were no bids. In 1866 it was put up for sale again; this time it was sold for nineteen thousand dollars to a group of duckshooting sportsmen who formed the Long Point Company. They received a charter from the Legislative Council and Assembly of Canada West to make Long Point a private hunting preserve.

This outraged the professional hunters, who had built shacks on Long Point and claimed squatters’ rights, and a long comic-opera war between free-booting hunters and Long Point's owners began, stained by the blood of thousands of birds and one man. This is the story as it’s told in Port Rowan: to secure a clear deed from the squatting hunters the Company persuaded most of them to sell, but had to give them life rights to shoot on Long Point. The Company built a lodge, each member had a cottage built, a ferry was purchased to reach the camp, and punt channels were dredged into some of Long Point’s ponds. By the time the club members finally gol around to hunting, they found that the professional hunters shot most of the ducks; they knew the marsh and were skilled in placing decoys. Fighting back, the businessmen arranged free transportation to the duck-rich prairies, and free grants of land there, for the hunters. With their competitors removed, the businessmen hired non - professional hunters from Port Rowan as guides.

But their troubles weren't over yet. They had to permit the Port Rowan guides to shoot too, and the new guides in their turn shot most of the ducks. This time the club members tried bribing the

“The private detective was found with a shotgun wound in his forehead”

guides not to shoot by adding a quart of whisky to their day’s wages; the guides became drunk as lords before going into the marsh, with disastrous results to the members’ sport. They withheld the whisky until noon. This saved the morning’s shooting, and to rescue the afternoon’s sport they began to cut down the whisky ration.

The first guide to have his ration cut was named Shootly Franklin. When noon came Franklin brought out the lunch pail, pulled out a soda-water bottle, took out the cork, smelled it, and cried: “My God, has it come to this?”

Fearing the guides might quit in disgust, the members decided to indoctrinate them with more respect for temperance and their employers. They outlawed Sunday shooting, laid up the ferry to the mainland on Saturday night, and invited the guides to sumptuous dinners at the lodge. After dinner an honorary member, Rev. Egerton Ryerson, preached on the advantages of a temperate Christian life. His eloquence and the members’ goodfellowship converted the guides into repentant sinners and faithful employees.

The company needed them. As ducks became scarcer in the mainland’s marshes new professional hunters from Port Rowan began to poach the company’s land. The sportsmen made game wardens of their guides, but the poachers placed pillow slips with eyelets over their heads to prevent being identified. Feelings rose so high that several times members were fired at by the “whitecaps,” as the poachers came to be known. When the poachers began to shoot the deer the company had imported to re-stock Long Point, the members hired John Allan, a private detective from London, Ont., who promised to make examples of the culprits. Two days later a warden stumbled across Allan’s body, a shotgun blast in his forehead, a dead deer and a discharged gun lying beside him.

Alian obviously had been murdered, in spite of the clumsy attempts to indicate he had shot himself accidentally— there were no powder burns on his face —biU the murderer was never brought to trial. With the threat of the gallows hanging over their heads, the poachers stayed off the company’s property.

But between their poaching and members' shooting, ducks had become wary of Long Point. The older club members determined to protect their investment from newer members like J. T. Lord, an Englishman who boasted of having shot 3,300 ducks in one season. They ruled shooting would be from nine to four, no more than fourteen guns would be allowed in the marsh at one time, and each member could bag only five hundred ducks a season—at a time when Canada’s game laws placed no restrictions on shooting ducks. Lord then bought another share in the company, believing he now had the right to shoot a thousand ducks. The members told him the number of shares he owned had nothing to do with the limit, and Lord had to abide by the by-laws.

The company planted wild rice in the ponds and rarely shot in them. Each year more ducks returned; by 1910 the company’s marshes were again filled with birds. Today each potential member has to agree to obey the by-laws—which are stricter than present Canadian game laws —be personally acceptable to other members, pay about five thousand dollars for a share and about fifteen hundred dollars a year toward the club’s maintenances and operating expenses.

For these reasons the members are usually multimillionaires. The nine current American members are Junius S. Morgan and Henry S. Morgan, New York City, directors, J. P. Morgan and Co.; John Hay Whitney, NYC, financier; Robert Winthrop (and his brother Frederic), director, The National City Bank of New York; F. Trubee Davison, NYC, trustee of the Mutual Life Insurance Co.; George T. Bowdoin, NYC, banker: Paul C. Cabot, Boston, director, J. P. Morgan and Co.; John T. Pratt. Jr., NYC, broker. The Canadians are R. S. McLaughlin, Oshawa, chairman of the board of General Motors of Canada; Arthur L. Bishop, Toronto, president. Consumers’ Gas Co.; Major-General Harry F. G. Lctson, Ottawa, director, Powell River Co.; W. C. Harris, Toronto, president, Harris and Partners and R. A. Laidlaw, director of the R. Laidlaw Lumber Co.

In spite of its multitudes of ducks the company is no longer bothered by poachers from Port Rowan. Without Long Point’s marshes to attract ducks, and a few hunters in it to chase some out to neighboring marshes and the bay, the villagers wouldn’t have jobs as guides with other clubs or as suppliers to visiting sportsmen.

An aura of tragedy

Yet to many people in Port Rowan, Long Point is a place of mystery. Few ever go there and strange stories and legends are told of the Point. One of the strangest concerns a chest of gold sovereigns which the captain of an English pay-ship, HMS Mohawk, is said to have buried beneath a beech tree on Long Point in the War of 1812 to prevent its capture by an American fleet. The only object numerous searchers have dug up is an old cast-iron kettle, and by now it is difficult to know where to dig—someone dug up the only beech tree on Long Point.

Long Point also has an aura of haunting tragedy. Ever since ships sailed the upper lakes the treacherous shoals off the south shoreline have been claiming ships. Many of their crews perished in the pounding surf and were buried by the drifting sand. Beachcombers have often stumbled on eerie sights. In December, 1880, six seamen were found huddled behind a dune, frozen stiff. Above them,

in an eerie vigil of death, a youth sat on the dune under a tree, staring out over the lake. In December, 1909, nine frozen sailors were found sitting upright in a steel lifeboat grounded on a shoal, their hands gripping motionless oars.

There are brighter tales of Long Point, too. One of the best revolves around a wamper snake, a species with an occasional inclination to sleep with people, particularly in the fall when the nights become chilly. This has led to many disquieting nights among duck hunters. Mrs. Pearl Wrighton, for one, will never forget the night she slept with a wamper. She, her husband and two children were sleeping in separate bunks in a Long Point shooting cabin; a strange ticking noise kept her awake all night while her family slept. In the morning her husband got up and said: “Come on, Pearl, let’s have some breakfast.”

“Oh Will,” she moaned, "I couldn’t sleep all night. You make your own breakfast and let me sleep."

Glancing curiously at her, he said in a low voice: “Come on. Pearl, get up."

"No,” she said firmly.

“For God's sake Pearl,” he shouted, “get out of that bed.”

There was terror in his voice. She leaped. Turning around she saw a sixfoot wamper contentedly coiled above her pillow.

Fishermen later told her the peculiar ticking she heard was the snake's scales rhythmically moving as it breathed. They also said it was easy to tell when a wamper was around; it smelled like a cucumber.

Twenty years ago wampers were common near Port Rowan, but now they’re scarce. Many have been killed and the survivors have taken refuge on Long Point. Even here their days—and the days of many more animals on Long Point—may be numbered. Wallace B. Nesbitt, MP for Oxford, Ontario, is advocating that the Long Point peninsula be developed as a public park project.

To Monroe Landon, the naturalist who has tramped the point for forty years, this is a desecration. "If a road were built up this peninsula to enable people to see Long Point,” Landon says, “it would end forever the isolation which has made it such a wonderful sanctuary for animals. It should be left the way it is, a land that time and man have passed by.” Jç