Sunday, October 30, 2016

CAMPING IN LONG POINT PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO—MAY, 2016




The second half of May is a perfect time to commence the camping season—the bugs have not arrived yet, children are still in school and the weather is quite nice, at least during the day. As I mentioned in my other blog, in 2013 we went camping to Algonquin Park at the end of May and had to cut our trip short due to swarms of black flies (and mosquitoes). Thus, in order to avoid those horrible insects, we decided to go South, not North, in May—where black flies were not present.
 
Long Point
It was our second visit in this Park in as many years and we even managed to stay on the same campsite we had bivouacked the previous year (Monarch Campground). We left on Sunday, May 15, 2016, one week before the Victoria Day long weekend. The first two days were cold (probably below freezing at night), windy and rainy (well, the day we left Toronto, it was actually… snowing!), but we still had a wonderful time—our 4 sleeping bags certainly came in very handy. Besides, soon the weather improved and it was almost hot the day we were leaving.
Boathouses

In fact, the first evening it was so cold, windy and cloudy, that Catherine, afraid it might rain, decided to skip cooking at the campfire and headed to the Boathouse Restaurant in Port Rowan. In front of the restaurant I took numerous photos of the row of —what else?—boat houses—it was a picture-perfect view! The meal of fish & chips and bread pudding also hit the spot at this delightful eatery.
Our campsite in Long Point Provincial Park

The campsite, located in a sandy hollow close to the shores of Lake Erie, was very nice and private—and the site across was vacant. There were plenty of poison ivy around the campsite, so we had to exercise caution, especially at night. There were some RVs at the park, most of them on Firefly Campground (which was very open, with little shade) and on bigger campsites farther from the lake and closer to the road. The beach was quite wide and long. The park’s occupancy rate was quite low, but according to the online Park Reservation System, there was not going to be a single vacant campsite over the upcoming long weekend! We hardly saw any mosquitos—but after sun tanning in the dunes Catherine realized there were plenty of ticks all over her and one had to be removed with a tweezers. Since ticks are carried of Lyme disease, from then on we were very careful to avoid any areas where ticks could be present. We spotted a lot of various birds at our campsite; one of them, a very friendly and inquisitive red winged blackbird, hung around our site all the time—it had a very distinct shiny silver band on one of its legs, no doubt a souvenir of his involuntary stopover at the nearby Bird Observatory! At night we could see from the campsite city lights on the other side of Lake Erie, in the USA—as well as from time to time I could spot a big freighter traversing the lake.
It was cold!

We also rode our bikes to the ‘old’ section of the park, Cottonwood Campground (which was still closed), and it had a number of first-come, first-served campsites. Some sites at Cottonwood were nice, but too close to the road and not as cozy at the ones at Monarch. The separate day use area had huge dues and picnic areas.

Although we were quite busy with our activities, I still managed to finish reading one book, “The Courtyard”. Its author, Arkady Lvov, smuggled it from the Soviet Union in a shoe-shine kit. The book dealt with the lives of the residents of an apartment building in Odessa from 1936 to 1953. Readers had an opportunity to closely observe their everyday struggle under communism and their dealing with the absurdities of communal living and daily repressions, albeit some trivial, of the Stalinist system. Although almost 700 pages long and at times somehow boring, overall I enjoyed this epic work as it gave me a unique and humorous insight into the lives of individuals representing various sections of Soviet society, who shared the same apartment building.
Poison Ivy at campsites

Long Point is the world’s longest freshwater sand spit, about 40 km long and about 1 km across at its widest point. The Point’s sand dune system is constantly shifting. It is also home to various wildlife and plants. Several hundred years ago there was a portage here and a historical plaque located just before the entrance summarized its history:

Long Point Portage

This portage, which crossed the isthmus joining Long Point to the mainland, was used by travelers in small craft following the north shore of Lake Erie in order to avoid the open waters and the length of the journey around the Point. Although used earlier by the Indians, the portage was first recorded in 1670 by two Sulpician missionaries, Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhant de Galinée. For about 150 years traffic increased over the carrying place, first as a result of the French expansion to the southwest, including the founding of Detroit in 1701, and, after 1783, because of the movement of settlers into this region. The portage was abandoned in 1833 when a storm broke a navigable channel through the isthmus.

The shallow waters and shifting shorelines around Long Point claimed a lot of victims in the early 1800s, and wrecks were frequent. In 1828 deliberations on a proposed channel at the base of Long Point to create a safer route for the ship traffic. In November, 1833 a big storm washed a cut 400 meters wide and 4 meters deep across the base of the Point and the government of Canada kept maintaining it. Storms changed the channels’ characteristics over the years from the width of a ship and 1.5 meters deep to nearly a kilometer width and 7 m deep. In 1879 a wooden lighthouse was built to guide ships to the tricky channel. Some storms closed one cut and opened another, so ships, seeking shelter from open lake storms, often had a hard time finding their way. No wonder that many ships ran aground around Long Point. Furthermore, during the mid 19th century, that area became a center for land-based piracy, called ‘blackbirding’. Local residents, called ‘blackbirders’, erected fake lighthouses during times of low visibility. Ships trying to enter the old cut would run aground. When the crew abandoned ship, the blackbirders would loot the ship of cargo and other valuables.
The Old Cut Lighthouse

Fortunately, not all locals were so callous. Abigail Becker (1830–1905), also known as the Angel of Long Point, saved the lives of numerous sailors caught in storms along the shores of Long Point. In November, 1854, she spotted an overturned rowboat and immediately realized there must have been a shipwreck nearby. Six sailors managed to reach the Old Cut lighthouse (the lighthouse keeper already gone for the winter) and they were nursed back to health by Abigail. Not long afterwards, on November 23rd, 1854, the schooner “Conductor” was caught in blinding snow squalls and captain Henry Hackett decided to change the course and head towards the safety of Old Cut. Unfortunately, finding the cut in such a weather was almost impossible and soon the schooner ran aground. As it was stuck in a shallow sandbar, 200 meters from shore, it was mercilessly pounded by the waves and torn apart as 8 men clinging to the rigging. After spotting the wreck, Abigail got her children and rushed to beach opposite the wreck, where she started a huge fire, thus encouraging the men to swim to the shore—the only viable chance they had to survive. And so they did, with her help, reach the shore—she waded into the water to drag the men to the shore, where the blessed fire and hot tea that was waiting for them! There is a historical plaque in Port Rowan dedicated to Abigail Becker:


The Heroine of Long Point

In November, 1854, the schooner "Conductor" was wrecked off this shore during one of Lake Erie's many violent storms. Jeremiah Becker, who resided nearby, was away on the mainland but his courageous wife, Abigail, risked her life by repeatedly entering the water while assisting the exhausted seamen to reach land. The eight sailors were housed and fed in her cabin until they recovered from their ordeal. In recognition of her heroism she received a letter of commendation from Queen Victoria, several financial awards, and a gold medal from the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York.

The “Old Cut” channel remained navigable until 1906, when it was filled in by storms, thus ending Long Point’s brief history as an island. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1916. Its refurbished likeness on the original foundation is a remainder of Long Point’s fascinating human and natural history—as well as for those not familiar with Long Point’s history, it looks out of place. (Sources: Bird Studies’ information plate, “Wikipedia” and “Lake Erie Stories: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean” by Chad Fraser).
Relaxing in the dunes

Long Point is very well-known for its bird migration and one day we visited (for the second time) the Bird Observatory/Field Station, located on Old Cut Blvd. It was just fascinating to watch the staff (partially made up of volunteers) catch, identify, measure, weight, band and release various birds. It was also a great opportunity to learn about birds, as the staff are very knowledgeable and willing to share their knowledge with visitors.

We found out that some birds were persistently hanging out around the observatory (certainly feeders full of seeds were one of the main reasons) and not only had they been caught numerous times, but sometimes more than once in one day! A small store sells books and other ornithological materials. Several informative plates along the nearby trail tell the story of Long Point and bird migration. Just be careful and do not get caught in the fine nets designed to trap birds, or you might end up being banded (or perhaps handcuffed), too! Although I was not interested in birds that much, each visit to this field station turned out to be a very inspiring, delightful and thrilling experience.
Twins' Ice Cream Parlour

We went to the nearby town of Port Rowan several times and of course, each time had excellent ice cream at Twins’ Ice Cream Parlour, as well as spent a few hours browsing in the Thrift Shop and a well-stocked dollar store—a lifesaver for campers forgetting needed items or a getaway on a rainy day. Like last year, we brought bikes and were looking forward to riding on numerous biking trails near Waterford, Simcoe and Delhi.
Asparagus

Port Rowan and Long Point are in Norfolk County—a well-known agricultural area, which has been the center of the Ontario tobacco belt. Because of the decrease in the tobacco consumption, many farmers have switched to other crops, like ginseng and asparagus. There were still plenty of almost historical kilns (curing barns, where tobacco leaves were undergoing a curing/drying process), often heated by coal—some, semi-abandoned, sat empty, others transformed into storage.

Many farmers have decided to switch to farming ginseng, yet it requires a large investment of capital and it takes at least three years before the first harvest. Since ginseng is native to the floor of the mixed hardwood forests, it requires little sunlight. Thus, fields where ginseng is cultivated must have been modified to resemble its natural preferences by erecting shade that can filter most of the sunlight.
Old kilns

We also visited several farms growing asparagus—it is said that one sure sign of the spring season is asparagus appearing in local stores—or on farms, from which we could directly purchase it. We bought a couple of very fresh bundles and at the campsite we added some butter, wrapped them in aluminum foil and grilled over the fire. They were soft and delicious!
Ginseng plantation

After planting asparagus, it takes several years before the first harvest, but amazingly, it is a perennial vegetable and can be productive for 20 to 30 years if given proper care. If the stalks are not picked they will grow into tall fern like with small red seeds. There were a number of workers employed on the farm—some harvesting, others sorting and washing asparagus. Many of them were seasonal workers were from Mexico and Caribbean countries, they annually come to Canada to work on farms, since not too many Canadians are interested in such work—they much prefer living comfortably in cities, often in subsidized housing units and collecting social assistance (i.e., welfare) which the Liberal governments in Ottawa and Ontario generously bestow on them, almost no questions asked. O, Canada… I feel like crying…
Morden Cemetery

While driving from the park, several times we passed by the Morden Cemetery, located at Concession Road East and East Quarter Line. It was an ‘abandoned’ cemetery, operated by Norfolk County (which has one hundred and eleven documented burial sites/cemeteries). Such cemeteries are quite common in Ontario. Unfortunately, many headstones got lost, vandalized, broken and unreadable and local authorities decided to just collect them and erect them in one place, not necessarily at their original locations. Most of the burials occurred at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Many of the graves are children’s.


DELHI RAIL TRAIL

Although it was very windy, we drove to Delhi and found the beginning of the Delhi Rail Trail (which runs almost 14 km from Delhi to Simcoe) on Fertilizer Road, near the Co-op Fertilizer Plant. Surprisingly, there were semi-abandoned tracks on the other side of the road and they actually ran parallel to the Delhi trail for about one hundred meters. They were part of Trillium Railway, also known as the St. Thomas & Eastern Railway, operating between Delhi and St. Thomas, which carried fertilizer, grain, salt, ethanol, forest products and other goods. The line ceased local operations at the end of 2013. The rail lines were established by the Great Western Railway in 1873 and the Simcoe-Delhi line must have been abandoned several decades ago.
Delhi Rail Trail

There was a small parking near Fertilizer Road and several informative plaques. The trail passed through fields and forests, sometimes very close to farmers’ buildings and crossed several roads. We saw some other people also using the trail-cyclists, joggers and hikers. The shoulders of the trail had plenty of poison ivy. Because it was very windy, we decided to turn back a few kilometers before reaching Simcoe. Overall, it was a very easy, flat and scenic trial, perfect for beginners.

WATERFORD HERITAGE TRAIL

Old Waterford Train Station

The Waterford Heritage Trail is almost 20 km long and passes through forests, wetlands, fields and grasslands. It follows the right of way of the Lake Erie and Northern Railway (LEN), which commenced operation from Galt to Port Dover in 1915, transporting passengers and freight. It made stops in Galt, Brantford, Waterford, Simcoe, Port Dover and other places in between. The passenger service was discontinued in 1955. The line between Waterford to Simcoe was abandoned in the early 1990s.
The Black Bridge

The most prominent—and still existing—feature of the LEN is the imposing Black Bridge that carried it across the Toronto Hamilton and Buffalo Railway (THB) and Canada Southern (CASO). In the past Waterford was an important railway hub. Passengers could go by train not only to New York, but also to Detroit and even Chicago. The passenger service on the THB line ended in the 1960s and freight service in the late 1980s, when the route was abandoned. Remarkably, up to 120 trains per day used to pass through Waterford!

We departed from Simcoe at Lion’s Park (on Davis Street East), which had ample parking. According to the information plaques along the route, this trail is part of what is known as “Brock’s Route”—it is for the most part aligned with the route that Major General Isaac Brock took between Hamilton and Port Dover through Brantford in the war of 1812-1814.
View from the Black Bridge towards another old rail bridge

After riding for 9 kilometers, we arrived in the town of Waterford. On our right (at the end of Nichol Street W) stood big silos, now apparently abandoned—their side draws, designed to unload their content directly to railways cars, were still in place. The empty site across from the silos is where the LEN station once stood.
Brock's Route

We continued for about a hundred meters and reached the impressive Black Bridge (which just celebrated its centenary), now modified for the new trail users. From the bridge we could admire Waterford Ponds and the town of Waterford. There was also a small pedestrian bridge—I think that once it had connected the LEN and THB.

As we did not have the time to continue on the trail towards Brantford, we retraced our route for approximately 600 meters, where the trail split—I guess it had been another junction connecting the LEN and the THB. We took the other sloping paved trail, turned right under the Black Bridge and ended up riding on the THB and Canada Southern right of way. A few minutes later we arrived at the old railway station of the Canada Southern Railway Company at the west end of Alice Street ( its sign still proclaiming, “Waterford. Pop. 2700. Elev. 820”). This modest station, built in 1871, resembles train stations in the USA. Fortunately, not only has it been preserved, but also thoroughly renovated and now it is the home of “Quilt Junction”.
The Waterford Heritage Trail

After enjoying two slices of pizza at a local pizzeria and cycling on several streets in town for a while, we got back to the trail via Nichol Street and returned to Simcoe.

Altogether it was an easy and very pleasant excursion which also allowed us to learn so much about local history. Kudos to the organizations and individuals that maintain this trail!

PORT DOVER

We drove to Port Dover en route home to Toronto just a week after the Friday the 13th celebrations, when thousands of motorbikes descended on this small town. In fact it was the Friday eve of the May long weekend and very busy once again. We walked to the lighthouse, then bought a pizza at Harbour Pizza and had it while sitting near the Port Dover museum, on the Lynn River. We got chatting with a local lady. Catherine asked her about a newly opened Bed & Breakfast on the former Clonmel Castle Estate property and got directions to visit. It was still a beautiful stone-fenced property that looked straight out on an Irish movie set, but had been subdivided and had a new subdivision of upscale homes just meters from the entrance. There were a number of very informative plaques along the Lynn River with photos and interesting facts pertaining to Port Dover’s history and I took liberty in reproducing some of that text below.
Pizza delivery in Port Dover!

In the 1840s the mouth of the Lynn River was dredged and the first piers and lighthouse were built. Soon commercial wharves and warehouses sprang up along the banks of the Lynn River. They were essential for loading and unloading the trading schooners, which made regular stops here, bringing manufactured goods and other merchandise and taking away farm products, lumber and tanned hides. With the coming of the railways in the late 1800s, schooner trade fell off and the harbor and creek sides became the domain of commercial fishing boats.
Port Dover

In the twentieth century Port Dover was the heart of Canada’s freshwater fishing industry. The stretch of the Lynn River was once lined on both sides with net shanties, docks and processing plants associated with these fisheries. By the 1970s Port Dover was home to the world’s largest freshwater fishing fleet. Well, I only spotted one old shanty on the other side of the river.

There were several photographs on the plaque, depicting the banks of the Lynn River in the late 1890s and early 1900s—and red dots indicated the exact spot where we were standing now. Indeed, it was just unbelievable to look at all the structures that dotted the shores then—almost all of them now gone! It remained me of the ghost town of French River in the mouth of the French River: old photographs showed numerous buildings standing on the rocky shores—when I visited that place in 2008, I could only see the lighthouse and the ruins of a once very tall chimney. Time marches on…
Port Dover, an old shanty

When the prohibition was introduced in the United States in 1920, commercial fishermen on Lake Erie were experiencing one of their industry’s cyclical downturn—what a wonderful coincidence! Soon boxcars full of whisky were appearing on railway sidings and their contents were shipped across the lake aboard a variety of craft, and then transferred to American vessels. Thousands of cases of Canadian whisky and beer made their way to American speakeasies. With the end of the prohibition in 1933, this colorful era was brought to an end as well.
The story of my life

Near Port Dover we briefly stopped at Canada’s First Forestry Station and Interpretative Center and drove around for a while. This station was established by the Ontario government in 1908, on 40 ha of wind-eroded sandy land. There was a huge tree trunk on display, its growth rings clearly visible. The information plaque, “The Story of My Life”, was explaining the history of this 277 year old tree—in its own words!

“I grew from an acorn in 1723 along the bank of the Lynn River, when there were only native people in this region … When I was 25, in 1750, I could start seeing what was going on around me … I saw horse-drawn carriages travelling along Norfolk Street … In 1795 the popular governor John Graves Simcoe came to visit our county and camped close by …In 1812 war broke out with the United States and I could see the militia practice all around me … In 1914 there was war again and many soldiers practiced where I could see them before they went off to fight in Europe … The farmers had cut down too many trees and the good soil was blowing away. In 1908 a few people at St. Williams had started a nursery to try to stop the dust storms by replanting the trees … In about 1980 my end was coming near: new insects from foreign lands attacked my leaves … Then disease struck my bark and I passed away in the year 2000. I had to be cut down and people made many beautiful things from me.”

While driving near Simcoe, we spotted a small distillery in a tiny community of Green’s Corners, which for the last 6 years had been producing rice-based Silver Lake Vodka. It was possible to buy (or sample) the product at the distillery, but it was already closed.
McQueen Cemetery

On our way home I noticed a historical plaque in Port Dover—there was a small McQueen Cemetery-United Empire Loyalists Burial Ground. The United Empire Loyalists were those who had been settled in the thirteen colonies at the outbreak of the American Revolution, who remained loyal to and took up the Royal Standard, and who settled in what is now Canada at the end of the war. Apparently the McQueen cemetery is on the original McQueen farm in Port Dover. One of the oldest, and most prominent graves, was that of Alexander McQueen, who died in 1804. The inscription days the following:
Alexander McQueen's grave

In memory of Alexander McQueen
Died 10th July 1804
Aged 93 years
As a highland soldier under the valiant Wolfe,
He helped to capture Quebec and
Win Canada for Britain.

This memorial is erected by one of
His great, great grandsons
Mr. Justice Teetzel
1908

We wished we could have stayed in Long Point Provincial Park for the long weekend, but as I mentioned before, all campsites had been booked. It was our first camping trip of 2016 and we enjoyed it a lot!



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