North of Long Tail

A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie

Ken – Shrewsbury

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Ken was born in the 1960s and has been a lifelong resident of Lake Erie. Growing up, he loved walking along the shoreline, listening to the sound of the waves, and watching how they rolled in and out. “It was like the lake was having fun with me.”

Ken has collected many interesting items from the shoreline throughout his life. As a boy, some of his most cherished finds were brachiopods and ammonite fossils that had been completely converted into iron pyrite (fool's gold) from the cliffs, and old coins from shipwrecks on the shore. He remembers finding a penny from the 1840s that was the size of a loonie.

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Ken still brings home items he finds, like eye-catching pieces of driftwood or bones.

More than half a century later, being around Lake Erie continues to make Ken feel alive.

“When I feel the wind of the lake in the morning, and the smell of the bay, I know I am home.” 

Ken has always seen Lake Erie as a living entity, and he tries to treat it as such.

“The lake is alive. It’s an ecosystem full of relationships. Like the human body, it is complex; it has inputs and outputs, and illnesses. It has moods, and it is almost like it has a personality.”

Today, Ken lives in Shrewsbury on Rondeau Bay, where he works as a "fixer-upper guy.” Everywhere Ken goes, he goes in an electric vehicle he has built. At the moment, Ken has four different home-made electric cars that are currently on the road.

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(left) Ken with his “Electro Velo.”  It’s an enclosed trike that he uses year-round. In the winter, he puts a little heater in it, so the windows don’t fog. (right)  He calls this blue electric bike “torky” (it has a lot of torque).

Aside from his fleet of vehicles, Ken’s property is full of many other exciting creations like a small greenhouse he built in the back in the forest. It is where Ken sleeps most nights when the weather is nice, and the rest of the year it is where he dries his clothes.

Aside from his fleet of vehicles, Ken’s property is full of many other exciting creations like a small greenhouse he built back in the forest. It is where Ken sleeps most nights when the weather is nice, and the rest of the year it is where he dries his clothes.

Ken grew up canoeing on Lake Erie. In the mid-90s, in an attempt to go faster, Ken started using a kayak paddle with his canoe. A few years later, he converted fully to kayaking.

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When kayaking, Ken usually heads east from Shrewsbury and explores the shore all the way to Port Stanley. He knows the shoreline like the back of his hand. Ken has kayaked across Lake Erie several times, going from Point Pelee to Sandusky, Ohio. One memory he will never forget was being out kayaking and seeing the Pelee Island Ferry decorated in Christmas lights.

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In less than a five-minute walk with his kayak on wheels, Ken can get from his house to Sterling Creek, where he launches to get out into the lake.

In less than a five-minute walk with his kayak on wheels, Ken can get from his house to Sterling Creek, where he launches to get out into the lake.

Ken has seen a lot of changes to Lake Erie over the years.

These old willows in the water used to be on a peninsula. When water levels came up, they separated from the land. “These trees are still hanging on.”

These old willows in the water used to be on a peninsula. When water levels came up, they separated from the land. “These trees are still hanging on.”

In 2011, Ken witnessed toxic algae bloom as he had never seen before. He recalls that it was so alarming that locals were calling 911. When Ken went down to the shore look, the emergency vehicles called to the scene were there, but there was nothing they could do.

Ken has witnessed and photographed mass die-offs of fish — thousands all laying dead on the shore. When toxic blue-green algae dies, it forms a sludge on the lake’s bottom, turning the water anoxic (depleted of dissolved oxygen). When the lake does its usual turnover (in spring and fall), it brings this anoxic water to the top.

“It looked like a big black spiral from Point Pelee to Long Point. All the species of near-shore fish died. People thought there was a pig manure spill because of the smell.”

Ken’s photograph of thousands of dead fish washed up on Lake Erie’s shore.

Ken’s photograph of thousands of dead fish washed up on Lake Erie’s shore.

“Despite all of the changes, the character of the lake hasn’t changed.”

When he goes kayak camping out on the lake, Ken still drinks the water. He makes sure to get it out in the open water, never from the shore, and boil it. He knows how to spot and avoid microcystins  from toxic blue-green algae.

When he goes kayak camping out on the lake, Ken still drinks the water. He makes sure to get it out in the open water, never from the shore, and boil it. He knows how to spot and avoid microcystins from toxic blue-green algae.

Ken explains how in Rondeau Bay, there has never been long-term regular water testing. In 2003, after substantial manure spills into the bay, and finding out that cottagers were putting diquat dibromide into the water to kill the weeds around their boats, Ken decided to start taking water quality samples.

In 2016, he focused most of his testing on nutrients due to the toxic algae blooms becoming more prominent in Rondeau Bay. Ken takes samples from the creeks that runoff into the bay to determine where the nutrients originate.

Over the years, Ken has collected water samples for himself, as a volunteer for the Ministry of the Environment, and for the Environmental Management course at U of G. These water samples test for nutrients, heavy metals, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity.

Over the years, Ken has collected water samples for himself, as a volunteer for the Ministry of the Environment, and for the environmental management course at the University of Guelph. These water samples test for nutrients, heavy metals, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity.

Ken has always had an affinity for photography. He had a little Kodak Brownie camera as a kid and has never stopped photographing. The pictures he takes now are part of his work as an environmental activist and science communicator.

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“I like taking pictures of beautiful things in nature. I’m trying to introduce people to a beauty beyond the normal of what they see — the beauty of things we take for granted. For many years, it has been my ongoing effort to identify, conserve, and protect natural infrastructure. Through photography, I can share the beauty that I see in and around Lake Erie.”

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A collection of Ken’s photographs from around Lake Erie. (top left) a Cape May warbler in his backyard. (top right) A redback salamander in Sinclair Bush. (bottom left) Green Leptonia mushrooms in Rondeau Provincial Park. (bottom right) A young great egret learning how to fish at the McLean Wetlands.

The Lake Erie coastal wetlands are essential for numerous native and migratory species. Ken emphasizes how Southwestern Ontario has the highest density of species at risk in Canada. The wetlands are integral to the lake’s ecology as habitat and biofilters, and feeding and spawning grounds.

Ken approaches an osprey to attempt  a photograph. “I see that bird in the same spot every year.”

Ken approaches an osprey to attempt a photograph. “I see that bird in the same spot every year.”

Ken with a giant yellow lotus (Nelumbo lutea). Ken explains how their range was originally from Virginia and Carolinas. Their roots were a food item amongst indigenous people, and the flower also happened to look neat. The seeds are incredibly hard and can last for decades, making them a great commodity to trade. Because of trade, over hundreds of years, they migrated north via trade routes.

Ken with a giant yellow lotus (Nelumbo lutea). Ken explains how their range was originally from Virginia and Carolinas. Their roots were a food item amongst indigenous people, and the flower also happened to look neat. The seeds are incredibly hard and can last for decades, making them a great commodity to trade. Because of trade, over hundreds of years, they migrated north via trade routes.

“When you see a patch of yellow lotus on Lake Erie, you are looking at a patch of human history.”

Swamp Rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is a species at risk. “There is a lot of Swamp Rosemallow in Rondeau Bay, which indicates that Rondeau Bay is a bit of a sanctuary. The bay needs to remain protected, so we don’t lose species like that.”

Swamp rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is a species at risk. “There is a lot of Swamp rosemallow here, which indicates that Rondeau Bay is a bit of a sanctuary. The bay needs to remain protected, so we don’t lose species like this.”

Ken holds up European frogbit. When the park aerial-sprayed glyphosate to kill the invasive species phragmites in 2017, Ken says it worked. Still, it also killed a lot of the indigenous vegetation. By 2018 European frogbit and Cladophora, other invasive species that Ken thinks may be worse, took over. “There is this myth out there that Phragmites creates this inhabitable zone for plants and animals, and that isn’t true. Phragmites are capable of integrating into local ecologies. It simply takes time.”

Ken holds up European frogbit. When the park aerial-sprayed glyphosate to kill the invasive species Phragmites in 2017, Ken says it worked. Still, it also killed a lot of the indigenous vegetation. By 2018 European frogbit and Cladophora, other invasive species that Ken thinks may be worse, took over. “There is this myth out there that Phragmites creates this inhabitable zone for plants and animals, and that isn’t true. Phragmites are capable of integrating into local ecologies. It simply takes time.”

“The lake knows how to take care of itself. I hope people will leave it alone. That’s as simple as I can put it.”

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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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