Today’s post comes from Micaela Lewis, student of the Discovery Program at Neys Provincial Park.
Seeing the iconic Neys forested dune system is an awe-inspiring experience that park visitors appreciate.
With the soft sand, lichen-covered trees and colorful wildflowers, the forest seems almost enchanted.
But the landscape was not always like this.
The dunes have been present for thousands of years, as the Little Pic River has deposited sand along the river banks and into Ashburton Bay.
The bay is surrounded by a long stretch of beach for which the park is well known. Waves created by winds over Lake Superior move sand toward the shore, forming dunes.
The Neys dunes have seen years of change. Come with us on a journey through history to explore this unique ecosystem.
A sudden makeover
Did you know that about 80 years ago, before Neys became a provincial park, the park’s landscape was actually used as a prisoner of war camp?
During World War II, the British funded the construction of Neys Camp 100 in the area that is now Neys.
Camp Neys 100
To create the terrain for the camp, the dunes were flattened. They wanted the area to be as flat as possible to maximize visibility for the guards, allowing them to keep the prisoners under supervision at all times.
Neys Camp 100 was closed in 1946 and finally dismantled in 1953, removing most of the building materials from the area.
Around this period, the dunes became relatively bare, allowing sand to blow freely without much tree cover to protect it from Superior’s powerful winds.
This prevented soil from accumulating and therefore prevented vegetation from taking root, leaving the landscape much more arid than it is today.
This changed in the 1960s, when the Boy Scouts of Canada planted rows of red pines in the dunes as part of their Centennial Project.
Red pines planted outside the Visitor Center (left) and along the Dune Trail (right)
Red pines are not native to the area, meaning they do not grow naturally on their own here.
The beginning of the succession
The flattening of dunes and the planting of pine trees disturbed the existing ecosystem, triggering a process of change called secondary succession.
This is when plants and animals return and establish themselves after there has been a major alteration to the ecosystem.
Reindeer lichen (left) and old man’s beard (right)
Grasses and lichens were the first to inhabit the Red Pine plantation, stabilizing the surface of the dunes. These species can thrive in nutrient-limited environments and often play a role in the early stages of succession.
The dunes are home to a variety of lichens, including reindeer lichen, which grows along the surface of the dunes, and old man’s beard, which grows on tree branches.
Did you know that a lichen is made up of two different organisms that work together to survive? This is called mutualistic interaction, which is a type of symbiosis in which both organisms benefit from collaborating with each other.
The lichen is made up of fungi, which create its structure, and algae, which carry out photosynthesis to provide food. With the help of the fungus that protects the algae from water loss, the algae can live in harsh conditions where they would otherwise dry out and die.
Grasses and lichens are followed by moss, which provides more nutrients to the soil, making it possible for the first successive plants to begin to grow.
Tremendous towering trees
Red pines themselves also affect forest succession.
Since they are not native to this ecosystem, many of the red pines are coming to an early and untimely demise.
Late forest succession along Kopa Cove Trail (left) and Dune Trail (right)
While they provide cover and stability to the dunes, fallen pine needles alter the chemistry of the soil to make it acidic.
This would also be the case for a natural species like the jack pine, although a healthy tree will shed fewer needles than our aging pines.
Pine trees increase shade cover and reduce the ability of dune plants to photosynthesize and grow in the understory.
Aspen trees growing outside the Visitor Center
Beyond the boundary of the Red Pine plantation lies a more biodiverse forest.
With the decline of the park’s red pine, the forest is gradually being replanted.
White birch and white spruce, which are native to the area, are being brought in to replace the dying pines so that we can have a more biodiverse forest in their absence.
Beyond the Red Pine plantation, the park’s forest also features other varieties of trees, such as Trembling Aspen, Balsam Fir and Black Spruce.
Dunes in bloom
Low-growing plants found in the dunes include labrador tea, blueberry and juniper.
Some indigenous peoples, and historically early settlers and fur traders, use ploughman’s tea to make a tea high in vitamin C, although steeping it for too long can be toxic.
Pink lady’s slipper in bloom (left) and a Bunchberry patch with blue beaded lily interspersed (right)
The dunes are also home to a variety of wildflowers, including Canada Mayflower, Starflower, Bunchberry, Blue-bead Lily, Wild Rose and Pink Lady’s Slipper.
The spectacular flowers of the pink lady’s slipper can be seen throughout most of June and July. They are a special sight to behold, as each plant takes about ten years to reach flowering age.
They, like many other plants listed here, are known to grow well in acidic soils, which explains why they make their home in the dunes of Neys.
Protecting the dunes
Dunes are important for many reasons.
They create flood barriers during storms and protect the interior forest from winds coming from Lake Superior.
They maintain the beaches by acting as a sand reserve, returning sand to the beaches to compensate for erosion.
Dune vegetation prevents sand from reaching unwanted places, such as campsites and roads.
These beautiful dunes need our help.
The ecosystem can be threatened by human activity. Pedestrian use can significantly damage sand dunes and reduce vegetation cover, as many plants are sensitive to erosion.
The next time you set foot in Neys Provincial Park, remember to stay on the designated trails.
Together we can treat our dunes with care to protect this important ecosystem.