Heaven's Gate officially opens, LaCloche property now firmly protected

·5 min read

The parking lot at Gate 3 overflowed with cars and people wearing backpacks and carrying water bottles and walking sticks on the afternoon of July 16 as staff, board members, supporters and new visitors came out to celebrate the official grand opening of Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy’s (EBC) Heaven’s Gate preserve.

EBC operates to protect land through Ontario’s land registry system, explained Chair Saba Ahmad. “We buy land and then we exclude the developers, the cottagers, the miners, the quarriers, in order to protect the trees, the plants and the animals that depend on the land for their survival. Protection is step one. That’s how we stop the destruction of the beautiful wilderness that we see around us here today,” she said.

Stewardship, taking care of the land, is step two, and the ecological health of the land is of paramount concern to EBC, she added.

As part of the grand opening, Ms. Ahmad acknowledged the land, known as Kitchitwaa Shegkwaandem in Anishinaabe, as a sacred place on the traditional territory of the Whitefish River First Nation. “Every piece of land that EBC acquires has a history and we must commit to learn that history in order to properly implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report,” she said, adding that EBC aspires “to protect the land in a good way in the spirit of reconciliation.”

The 2,100-acre property was purchased from the estate of the late Gary Albrecht for $1.65 million, following a whirlwind 90-day fundraising blitz by EBC members. Many years ago, EBC founding member and Executive Director Bob Barnett began talking to (Manitoulin Island realtors) Jim Bousquet and later Chris Bousquet about the Albrecht reserve. “Gary Albrecht bought this land and set it aside so it wouldn’t be developed,” Mr. Barnett said. “He called it the Skyline Nature Reserve. It was always part of the Heaven’s Gate trail.”

Following the deaths of Mr. Albrecht and his wife Virginia, the family approached EBC once again. “They said, Harry always wanted you to have the land. We’re willing to sell it. The price is $1.65 million and we need the money in three months,” Mr. Barnett said.

The fundraising effort was spearheaded by founding member and EBC Treasurer Ted Cowan, and was greatly helped by Bay of Island Community Association (BICA) members and some very generous donors, both individuals and corporate. “This project wouldn’t be happening without them coming and helping us. It’s just amazing that people really got on board. It was a project that really captured people’s imagination.”

At the end, there was a more than $300,000 contribution from the Greenlands Conservation Partnership, he added. “We really appreciate that.”

It was “nothing short of a miracle,” he continued. “Roy Jeffery spent 200 hours exploring the land and laying out trails. He was helped by a number of people in the community. I couldn’t believe all the effort. Roy and Stan Ferguson made a parking lot here so we could actually get the cars off the road. It wasn’t just money, it was a lot of effort.”

The Bay of Islands community that lies adjacent to Heaven’s Gate contains only a few hundred properties, but community members are bound by their love of the place, said Patrick Thoburn, who spoke on behalf of the community. “We talked today about what an important environmental preservation it is,” Mr. Thoburn said. “We’re sequestering carbon forever in this beautiful, pristine forest, and that’s amazing. We’re protecting flora and fauna. Through this preservation we have an incredible new hiking trail connecting adjacent properties.”

That’s important, he said, but there’s something more. The quartz mountain makes the area unique from anywhere in the world. “When we watch the sunset,” he said, “It’s the silhouette of the Heaven’s Gate mountain that we look at. To me, there’s nothing more beautiful to look at than that.”

Mr. Thoburn said the odds of reaching the fundraising goal were steep in the beginning, but rumours of a quarry or a potential subdivision proved to be a great motivator. “We got fired up,” he said. “So many members of the community made phone calls, sent emails and went door to door.”

He offered thanks to the Bay of Islands community members who participated and who made donations, and on behalf of the community he thanked “everyone who participated through their actions, through their donations and made this dream a reality.”

He made a special mention of Roy and Cathy Jeffery’s incredible leading donation and effort and Mr. Barnett for his leadership, ending with a shout out “to that individual who lit the fire in the beginning, got us motivated, got us organized, Mr. Ted Cowan.”

After the speeches, the sunny July afternoon was not wasted. The star of the day was not EBC but Heaven’s Gate preserve itself. Most of the dozens of people who came to the opening ceremony came prepared to hike. Two options were provided: the more challenging, six kilometre Arabella loop, which contains some steeper slopes but also offers the payoff of stunning views over the North Channel at the lookout; or the five-kilometre Gorge trail, with more gentle uphill climbs.

One Arabella hiker was a visitor to Manitoulin Island who was intrigued after seeing an advertisement in The Expositor; others were avid hikers, already familiar with the trails. The preserve contains old growth forest, three lakes, two mountains and numerous wetlands in a Canadian Shield landscape. If you’re lucky, you may see one of the more than 12 species at risk that are found at Heaven’s Gate.

Bay of Islands resident Kathy Brown, who hails from Nashville, Tennessee, said her family has had a cottage there for many years and supported the purchase, like so many of her community. Right now, there are four generations of her family at the cottage. “We have always hiked in this area, mostly Mount Ararat,” she said. “I just felt it was very appropriate to want this property to be preserved.”

Following the hikes, there was a reception at Whitefish Falls Community Centre to end the day. “We really appreciate everybody’s help,” Mr. Barnett said. “For hundreds of years to come, maybe thousands of years, Heaven’s Gate is protected, thanks to all of you.”

Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor

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