The City's Island Paradise

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Windsor Star/Anne Jarvis

Is this really Windsor? It is. It's the loveliest, most storied, most unusual park in the city: Peche Island, a 41-hectare island at the head of the Detroit River, 330 metres off the city's shore.

There are 22 rare native plant species here, including an enormous grove of Kentucky coffee trees. Southwestern Ontario is the only place in Canada where you can see Kentucky coffee trees. Their leaves are huge, 60 by 90 centimetres, larger than that of any other tree in Canada. There are also maple and oak trees on the island that are more than 175 years old. I saw a monumental oak tree Wednesday; its trunk must have been at least five metres in circumference.

There are all kinds of wildlife. Deer swim here. Fox land here on ice floes. Beavers, long thought to be expunged from the Detroit River, moved in three or four years ago. They've built a massive lodge, the neat rows of branches more than three metres wide. A member of the Windsor Essex County Canoe Club was kayaking here last spring when he passed a beaver. Agitated at being disturbed, it slapped the water with its tail.

Forty or 50 bald eagles gathered here last winter, Phil Roberts of the Essex County Field Naturalists' Club told me, drawn by the open water with abundant fish. A flock of black bellied whistling-ducks - they actually whistle - was seen three years ago. They're extremely rare here. Several spotted turtles, seen nowhere else in Essex County, have also been found here. Sturgeon, lake whitefish and some species of mussels, all also thought vanquished from the river, are all back, here. A great blue heron with a prodigious wing span startled me Wednesday with its raucous call as it rose from the water. Swans swam near where fish were jumping.

Eighty-five per cent of the island is marsh, and in that marsh are all kinds of animals we can't even see, says Karen Cedar, education and outreach coordinator at the Ojibway Nature Centre.

"It's a huge, hidden treasure."

The vegetation also filters the air and the water, she said. The air is cleaner; you can smell it and feel it. The water is like crystal in places; you can see down more than two metres.

"It makes me feel better about the water supply that Peche Island is there, filtering, filtering, filtering the water we're drinking," she said.

It's the solitude that Roger Chauvin, president of the canoe club and my guide, loves most. Sometimes he paddles his kayak around the island and just sits on the beach on the western tip, where you can watch the sun set.

And all this is happening between two large cities, along a busy shipping channel, "in a little municipal park in the middle of the river," says Roberts.

"People still consider the Detroit River an awful, icky place," he said. "But with stewardship and improved environmental measures, you have endangered species, you have interesting species, you have species that have been long considered extirpated from the Detroit River returning. Conservation measures pay off. The proof of that is Peche Island. Peche Island is a great jewel to showcase that."

But Peche Island isn't just a pretty place. It's got a cracking good history that dates back to at least the middle of the 18th century.

The Laforet family lived and farmed there for 100 years. Chief Pontiac had a summer house there.

So did Hiram Walker, the whisky magnate. He built a mansion with at least 40 rooms, an ice house, a stable, a carriage house and a greenhouse. He planted hundreds of trees (nonnative Norway maples) and an orchard. He had the canals dug so boats could carry supplies. He travelled back and forth in two yachts. The house burned down in 1929, but you can still see the cement foundation.

The stone bridge Walker built over one of the canals still stands. Cracked, with chunks missing, it still has an air of elegance.

Walker's daughter sold the island in 1907 and, over the years, different owners had different schemes to build a resort, hotel and restaurants, ritzy homes, a golf course, marina, amusement park, even a ski hill, with cable cars to Windsor and Detroit.

The company that owned Boblo Island bought it at one point to prevent competition.

During Prohibition, rum runners hid their contraband liquor on the island.

Why didn't anything succeed? Maybe it was the curse of Peche Island. According to legend, Walker forced the Laforets to sell. When Rosalie Drouillard, the last family member there, left, local historian Elaine Weeks wrote in The Walkerville Times, she knelt and cursed the island. "No one will ever do anything with the island," she's supposed to have said.

But that curse turned out to be a blessing. Environmentalists lobbied to preserve Peche Island in the 1970s, and it became a provincial park. Then Windsor bought it in 1999, and now it's our own, extraordinary park.

You can get a free tour Saturday, the annual Peche Island Day. Boats leave Lakeview Park Marina starting at 10 a.m