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Thunder Bay group has spent decades protecting special places along Canada’s North Shore of Lake Superior

Apr 20, 2023 10:59AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Josie Weiss 

By Writer and Author Greg Seitz for Boreal Community Media - April 20, 2023

Almost 30 years ago, a group of Thunder Bay conservationists bought their first nature preserve at the mouth of the Nipigon River on Lake Superior. Last December, the group acquired its twenty-first parcel. As of this writing, the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists have preserved nearly 7,000 acres of land around the region. Alongside exploring and enjoying the region’s natural wonders, protecting sensitive lands is an important part of their mission.

First formed in 1933, the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists have a long history of enjoying and preserving nature. Their preserves represent a wide spectrum of unique and endangered natural resources along Lake Superior. 

The primary purpose of the acquisitions is to protect natural habitat essential for plants, birds, and other wildlife that call them home. The preserves are mostly open to the public for non-motorized recreation, but don’t have maintained hiking trails or other infrastructure. Some are only accessible by boat, and the group’s volunteers often lead field trips to different sites.

While most of the acquisitions have depended on donations by club members and other donors, the organization has also been very successful in receiving grants from government programs to protect natural resources. Several of the preserves have also been donated by previous owners seeking to protect cherished lands in perpetuity.

Here are a handful of the unique sites the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists have protected:

The Mouth of Nipigon River is where the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists purchased their first 320 acres in January 1994 — a site with no roads, but wetlands, forests, and high cliffs where endangered Peregrine Falcons are known to nest. Several years later, they added more than 200 acres that were threatened by a development proposal. The addition included more wetlands, cliffs, and a cedar swamp full of Yellow Ladyslipper orchids.

Bay’s End is an 80-acre preserve northeast of Thunder Bay that includes more than half a mile of undeveloped Lake Superior shoreline. A rare sand beach on this stretch of the lake also shelters marshes that provide critical habitat for nesting and migrating birds. Only acquired in August 2022, the club already discovered two rare plants: Auricled Twayblade (Neottia auriculata) and Scabrous Black Sedge (Carex atratiformis). While it’s only accessible by boat, the beach is popular with local families for swimming and picnics.

Bowman Island in Lake Superior is a remote site that’s now almost totally protected from development. The Thunder Bay Field Naturalists purchased two private parcels on the island in 2012, while the rest is Crown Lands — preserved and open to the public — except for an outfitting business. The island is designated as significant for both its geology and unique plants. Its extensive raised cobble beaches were formed when Lake Superior’s water and waves reached higher here thousands of years ago, and many plant species that are typically found in the Arctic are also present. There are also interesting archaeological features: “Pukaskwa pits” that were dug into rocky shorelines by ancestors of the Anishinaabe; their purpose is still not fully certain.

Everard Fen is a 160-acre “patterned peatland,” with ridges of peat separating parallel pools of water. Every spring, sharp-tailed grouse perform dramatic dances on the same piece of ground, a site known as a “lek,” as part of elaborate courtship rituals. A bird species not commonly found in the area, protecting the places they depend on for breeding is essential to their continued presence. Several other uncommon birds have been documented breeding at the site, as well, as well as a rare orchid called Bog Adder’s-mouth (Malaxis paludosa). 

Granite Point comprises 400 acres on Lake Superior’s Black Bay, an area rich in wildlife habitat. The Granite Point Preserve has become an oasis among cottages and RV parks. Featuring more than three miles of shoreline, it also includes a coastal marsh. Purchased in 2016, Granite Point is now protected in perpetuity as a refuge for pelicans, mergansers, and more.

Hare Island not only honors one of the founders of the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists, but it also protects a nearby bird observatory. The tiny 4.5-acre island was once owned by Gordon and Elizabeth McLaren, avid hikers and bird watchers. For sale as a potential cottage site, the couple’s friends and family rallied to raise most of the money to acquire and donate the land to the Field Naturalists in 2008. It serves as a memorial, and also prevents increased boat traffic that could affect the group’s Thunder Cape Bird Observatory, located less than two miles away.

Michipicoten Island was one of the last holdouts of woodland caribou along the Lake Superior coast. This species was once widespread in the region, but largely wiped out by logging, hunting, and other forces. When wolves appeared on the island in 2014 and threatened the long-term chances of the two dozen caribou who lived there, local First Nations, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and others moved the animals to the safer Slate Islands in 2018. The wolves were transported to Isle Royale as part of a reintroduction effort. The Field Naturalists purchased 537 acres, with the hopes it will someday be home to caribou again.

Ward Lake was the group’s most recent acquisition, purchasing 410 acres in December 2022. Nearby cliffs are where Peregrine Falcons were first reintroduced in the area in 1989, and the birds continue to nest in the area. A stream flowing out of Ward Lake is the source of freshwater for sensitive wetlands near Sturgeon Bay of Lake Superior. Once again, the organization moved to purchase the land because zoning regulations could have allowed housing development at the special site.

The Thunder Bay Field Naturalists’ nature preserves are only part of the 90-year-old organization’s mission. The group also seeks to educate about and enjoy the region’s rich natural resources through walks, talks, and other events. 

Field trips scheduled between now and this fall will visit several of the group’s nature preserves, as well as other special natural places. On Monday, April 24, an experienced forester and an ecologist will present a talk on sustainable forestry and the importance of fire in the boreal forest.

About the author

Greg Seitz shares stories that inspire and inform environmental stewardship and cultural connectivity.

Related: Meet your Boreal Community Media Freelance Journalist: Greg Seitz
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