North of Long Tail

A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie
For the month of June, see the exhibit live at Wychwood Barns Artscape.

John & Jan – Long Point

John’s parents started renting a cottage at Long Point, Ont. in 1952 where they regularly brought the family. Things were different then — they had no electricity, so they had an “icebox guy” instead of a refrigerator. After dinner, the whole family swam in the lake to cool down since they didn’t have an air conditioner. Swimming in the lake was the only way they were ever able to cool down enough to sleep in the balmy cottage.

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John with his sister Kathryn <div class='left-container'> and with his parents <div class='right-container'> on Long Point Beach in the 1950s. [bottom] A Maclean’s magazine article from 1958 describing Long Point as “The land that time forgot”.

John with his sister Kathryn (top left) and with his parents (top right) on Long Point Beach in the 1950s. (bottom) A Maclean’s magazine article from 1958 describing Long Point as “The land that time forgot”.

As an adult, John worked for the federal government for decades, which is where he met his wife Jan. In 2006, they married and formed a blended family with their four children.

Inspired by John’s deep connection to the area, John and Jan bought their cottage on Long Point in 2009.

“My blood pressure drops twenty points every time I cross the causeway. It’s so relaxing here.”

John studied Geology in the 70s and is proud of his collection of rocks and fossils. He has found many chunks of coal while walking along the shores of Lake Erie. John figures the coal was either cargo on ships going from Buffalo to Detroit or fuel on old coal-fired ships.

John studied geology in the 70s and is proud of his collection of rocks and fossils. He has found many chunks of coal while walking along the shores of Lake Erie. John figures the coal was either cargo on ships going from Buffalo to Detroit or fuel on old coal-fired ships.

John describes Long Point as “a ship graveyard with more sunken ships than the Bermuda Triangle,” as ships got upheaved by giant storm waves. He found this piece of a vessel along the shore — a cherished find he keeps in his cottage.

John describes Long Point as “a ship graveyard with more sunken ships than the Bermuda Triangle,” as ships got upheaved by giant storm waves. He found this piece of a vessel along the shore — a cherished find he keeps in his cottage.

To get out from the mainland to Long Point’s community of around 400 cottages, one needs to drive along Causeway Road. It’s a three-kilometre stretch separating the bay from the marsh, and one time it was considered the fourth-deadliest road for amphibian mortality in North America. In an average year, a turtle will cross this road three times — once early in the spring to lay eggs, then in summer to find a swimming habitat, and then again in the fall to hibernate.

“In my 68 years of crossing the causeway, I’ve seen a lot of squished turtles.”

Shortly after moving to Long Point, John picked up a shovel and started monitoring the causeway for turtles at risk.

In retirement, Jan had started painting with some paints John had given her as a retirement present. Her art is mostly landscapes, and Lake Erie inspires many of her pieces.

In retirement, Jan had started painting with some paints John had given her as a retirement present. Her art is mostly landscapes, and Lake Erie inspires many of her pieces.

Jan wanted to do something special for John’s 61st birthday and came up with the idea of creating a children’s book as a tribute to John — a story about little “Johnny” saving the turtles.

It was Jan's first time creating a book, and she experienced a lot of self-doubt. However, like the book’s takeaway message “never give up,” she wrote and illustrated her first children’s book and self-published it in 2013.

“Turtles are like that. They are slow, but they keep moving and never give up.”

John bought Jan this stuffed turtle for Valentine’s Day, not knowing that she was working on the book for his birthday.  It was perfect timing, as it gave Jan her book’s title.

John bought Jan this stuffed turtle for Valentine’s Day, not knowing that she was working on the book for his birthday. It was perfect timing, as it gave Jan her book’s title.

At the end of Jan's book, so that the turtles can save themselves, tunnels are dug under the causeway. Interestingly, this is the same solution that the Long Point Causeway Improvement Project Committee came up with to save real turtles and started constructing dry and wet tunnels between 2012 to 2017. Because of these tunnels, animal mortality on the causeway has dropped significantly.

At the end of Jan's book, so that the turtles can save themselves, tunnels are dug under the causeway. Interestingly, this is the same solution that the Long Point Causeway Improvement Project Committee came up with to save real turtles and started constructing dry and wet tunnels between 2012 to 2017. Because of these tunnels, animal mortality on the causeway has dropped significantly.

John standing on one of the wet tunnels installed along the causeway to help wildlife, including turtles, cross the road. The water can travel from the bay, through the wet tunnels and into the marsh, going through a natural filtration process. “The big marsh on one side of the causeway is part of the lungs of Lake Erie.”

John stands on one of the wet tunnels installed along the causeway to help wildlife, including turtles, cross the road. The water can travel from the bay, through the wet tunnels and into the marsh, going through a natural filtration process. “The big marsh on one side of the causeway is part of the lungs of Lake Erie.”

John and Jan have enjoyed touring the book around to schools, fairs, and community groups.

“The children get so excited! Who doesn’t love turtles and stories about turtles?”

The young audiences like the never give up theme of the book. It is especially important for children going through tough times. Jan will never forget watching a little girl at one of the readings repeat “never give up” to herself.

John uses fake turtles and an artificial road made out of a yoga mat to demonstrate to the children how to carry turtles across the street. “We have already worn out a yoga mat!” John is impressed with how many of the children at the schools they visit have their own turtle saving story to share.

John uses fake turtles and an artificial road made out of a yoga mat to demonstrate to the children how to carry turtles across the street.  John is impressed with how many of the children at the schools they visit have their own turtle saving story to share.

John helping a Painted Turtle hatchling cross the causeway. He figures it is only two hours old.

John helps a painted turtle hatchling cross the causeway. He figures it is only two hours old.

“Turtles are a litmus test to a healthy ecosystem. They are nature’s garbage cans. By eating waste they make sure bacteria doesn’t get into the water and harm humans.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada commissioned a local Long Point artist to draw John’s hands helping a turtle. This pamphlet explains the different ways Canadians can help reptiles and amphibians.

Environment and Climate Change Canada commissioned a local Long Point artist to draw John’s hands helping a turtle. This pamphlet explains the different ways Canadians can help reptiles and amphibians.

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(left) John in Big Creek National Wildlife Area, surrounded by Phragmites australis, an invasive species that is negatively affecting turtle habitat. (right) John holds the bullrushes (cattails), an indigenous species to the region that is being pushed out by Phragmites.

John has seen the lake go through several changes — from “beautiful and calm” in the 50s to “declared dead” in the late 1960s. In his assessment, since then, “Lake Erie has come back.”

In 2012, John remembers how worried everyone was about low water levels. In contrast, now the general concern is erosion from the high water levels.

The shoreline is one thing that has changed “dramatically” since they moved to Long Point in 2009. The beach was sandy and expansive, whereas now, there is “no beach.”

The shoreline is one thing that has changed dramatically since they moved to Long Point in 2009. The beach was sandy and expansive, whereas now, the beach has disappeared.

John knows that many of the issues affecting other parts of the lake aren’t prevalent in Long Point. Because of the marsh, the currents, and being so far from the pollution of major cities like Detroit and Cleveland, Long Point's water is much cleaner than other parts of the lake.

Still, John recognizes the interconnectedness of all areas of Lake Erie and worries about toxic algae blooms and Asian carp invasion.

“I just hope the lake can survive the environmental catastrophe that is befalling it.”

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(top left) John and Jan wear turtle masks a friend made for them at the start of the pandemic. (bottom left) They have one granddaughter, who loves to visit them at Long Point. (bottom right) A sign John helped distribute all over the region to spread awareness.

John says everybody in Long Point seems to be either a fisherman, a duck hunter, or a bird watcher. John and Jan aren’t any of those things, but they still feel like they have found their place. At the front of their cottage, they have a welcome sign carved into a rock. On the back, it says “Never Leavin’”, because they have found their forever home.

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STORIES FROM THE LAKE

Patricia – Pelee Island

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Heidi – Pigeon Bay

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Take Action

Lake Erie and the millions of people who rely on it for their drinking water, local jobs, and so much more need your help.

The health of Lake Erie continues to decline. Action is needed more than ever to restore its health for current and future generations.

You can make a difference. Here’s how you can help protect the lake and support the people who are closely connected to it.

EXHIBITION BY: documentary photographer COLIN BOYD SHAFER in collaboration with ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE

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