Today’s post comes from Mikhaila Lafleur-Weidhaas, Park Ranger at Pancake Bay Provincial Park.
Two beach paths diverged on a dune, one clear and busy and the other a shortcut. Do you take “the road most traveled”?
The shores of Lake Superior, with its sandy beaches and Caribbean blue water, have been a popular attraction for thousands of people, from nomadic travelers to people looking for paradise close to home.
However, as people rush to Ontario beaches in search of vacations, more pressure is being put on our sandy shores.
This increase in pressure may cause a decline in these dynamic and rare freshwater coastal dune ecosystems.
Development of a dynamic dune
A dune is a complex system that is always in motion, caused by wind and water that change the shape of the coast seasonally.
As the elements move the sand, obstacles such as driftwood become an integral part of the dune’s development.
The sand travels over the driftwood and settles on the other side of the windbreak, slowly accumulating until a mound is created and the original log is buried in the dune.
This is the beginning of an “embryo” dune, the first step of many in its development.
As the seasons pass, the dune becomes larger, more established, and can be colonized by pioneer species such as Marram Grass (also known as American Beach Grass).
Marram Grass is the ultimate beach plant, with its 1 meter deep taproot, a large clump of underground stems and a delicate root system. This complex underground system keeps the sand grains in place, maintaining the integrity of the dune in flood years, reducing the effect of erosion on the beach.
Essentially, if there is no grass on the dunes, there are no dunes.
And if there are no dunes, there is no beach.
Finding rare wildlife in Ontario
Once Marram Grass becomes established and the dunes develop further, rare and specialized wildlife and plants begin to migrate to the area.
Rare plants such as Woolly Beach heather can grow. Birds and small mammals have a place to nest and reproduce.
Woolly beach heather
In fact, Pancake Bay Beach is one of twelve places in Ontario where you can find the endangered Lake Huron grasshopper (Trimerotropis huroniana).
This species is only found in dune ecosystems along the shores of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior; and Pancake Bay is the only known location on the shore of Lake Superior in Ontario.
Lake Huron grasshopper. Photo: Al-Harris
They are tough creatures that occupy the sparsely vegetated beach or the face of a lakeside dune, where they are most exposed to the elements.
Their diet consists mainly of marram grass and sage wormwood. As you can see in the photo above, they are well camouflaged and would be difficult to detect.
An ecosystem in danger
The dunes of the Great Lakes are in danger of irreversible damage.
Dune ecosystems in Ontario represent less than 0.5% of the total ecosystems found in the province and Pancake Bay is privileged to protect over 3 km of dunes and beaches.
Pancake Bay has seen record visitor attendance over the past few seasons, leading to an increase in the number of shortcuts created as people walk to their favorite beach spot.
Increased foot traffic on the dunes and trampling of Marram grass can cause catastrophic damage to its roots.
The additional stress on the dunes has led to dune loss at an unprecedented rate as shortcuts become more used rather than main access points.
Fortunately, it is not too late to reverse the damage and save the dunes and the beach.
A simple solution to a complex problem
Pancake Bay is implementing a restoration plan to help visitors find the best beach access points while providing relief to impacted dunes.
This project can be summarized in three parts, the first is the installation of a beautiful cedar fence with ropes to guide visitors to the main access points avoiding areas of fragile ecosystems.
Park staff dug 1 m deep holes in the sand with a vacuum cleaner, which is less invasive in the direct environment as smaller holes can be made for cedar posts.
The posts were placed every 3m and then cut to 1.4m height. Once trimmed, two holes were drilled creating a cordoned off area without affecting the aesthetic view.
This type of fencing allows visitors to appreciate and interact with the environment around them while minimizing the effects of human activity on protected areas.
The second step is transplanting and planting Marram Grass in the running dunes and along the productive edges of the dune.
Marram grasses are carefully removed from a donated local dune, transplanted into impacted areas, and then snow fenced to provide additional protection and collect sand during the winter.
Locally grown conifers are transplanted at the entrance to the numerous shortcuts to the dune, creating a natural physical barrier.
The last step is to allow our best tool, natural regeneration, to advance.
Please do your part
If we stop interrupting the natural process of dune formation, we will have more beach to enjoy year after year.
The dunes are very dynamic ecosystems and staff hope to see positive change within the first year. However, this cannot be achieved without the help of the campers.
Remember: taking the right path to the beach guarantees you will enjoy the beach for many years to come.