Oak Savanna – A Thumbnail Park History
The variety of habitats in Pinery help make the park a unique place. The protection of these habitats is just one example of how Ontario Parks helps to preserve Ontario’s ecological diversity through its system of provincial parks. One of the unique habitats in Pinery is the Oak Savanna.
The open canopy of Pinery’s Oak Savanna allows an abundance of light to reach the understory of the forest. This allows many beneficial shrubs and wildflowers to thrive beneath the towering Oaks. Many of these understory species serve as hosts to various pollinators that are essential to the function of Pinery’s ecosystems. Watch our video about Milkweed and Monarchs to learn more.
In recent history, management and protection have been the dominant factor in the preservation of Pinery’s natural environment. This wasn’t always the case. Two of the major themes of Pinery’s history have been fortune and circumstance. Pinery has been able to escape development a number of times.
Early settlers avoided agricultural development in the park because the sandy soils in the park made for poor farmland. Development of the town site of Grand Bend was spurred by the construction of a sawmill.
Later, in 1929 American developer Frank Salter wanted to transform the area into a million-dollar resort with golf course, clubhouse and yacht harbour but could not generate the financial support to complete the project; once again saving the area around Pinery.
The land for Pinery Provincial Park was purchased in 1957 and opened to the public in 1959 to provide recreational opportunities. The enormous popularity of Pinery attracted over 1.5 million visitors annually and placed pressure on the fragile environment.
Based on forestry practices of the early 1960s, pine plantations were established in the park. Pressure was created on the Oak Savanna by planting almost 3 million pines. Managers of the day, unfortunately, viewed the open nature of this ecosystem as degraded. Forest fires within the park were also suppressed.
It was not until the 1980s that it was realized how rare and fragile the park’s Oak Savanna ecosystem was. This globally rare habitat is a transition zone between prairie grasslands and oak forests that is kept stable by periodic forest fires. Over 99.93% of the Oak Savanna in the world has been devastated or altered. However, through deliberate management techniques such as prescribed burns and extensive pine cutting programs, Pinery has restored its Oak Savanna ecosystems. Pinery now protects almost 50% of the remaining Oak Savanna in the world!
Freshwater Coastal Dunes
The variety of habitats in Pinery help make the park a unique place. The protection of these habitats is just one example of how Ontario Parks helps to preserve Ontario’s ecological diversity through its system of provincial parks. One of these unique habitats is the freshwater coastal dunes which can be found along the shores of Lake Huron in Pinery Park.
Pinery owes its existence to freshwater coastal dunes, unfortunately, humans threaten this rare and fragile habitat. Watch this video about Freshwater Coastal Dunes to learn what you can do to help protect this unique ecosystem!
The sand dunes in Pinery are exposed to extreme temperatures and harsh conditions. Summer temperatures can reach a staggering 70ºC in the day and drop to 15ºC overnight. Most of Pinery’s dune insects, moths and mammals become active when the temperatures drop at night.
Building of the beaches with wind and waves
The sand on Pinery’s beach is carried here from as far away as 80 kilometers. It comes from the shores and bluffs north of Grand Bend. Prevailing northwest winds create waves that erode the bluffs. Sand from the bluffs moves south with the lake’s long shore currents. Kettle Point, a headland to the south of Pinery, blocks the sand from travelling further. The equivalent of 8,000 dump-truck loads of sand arrives at Pinery’s beaches in this way every year.
After being washed onto the shore by waves, sand grains blow over the beach like snow over a field. Driftwood and other objects on the beach create small pockets of still air, where the sand grains settle. As the sand piles up, it forms an “embryo dune”. If vegetation begins growing in the sand at this stage, it provides a foot hold for a larger dune to build on.
Only dune grasses are hardy enough to survive the shifting sands of a newly formed beach. These grasses are able to survive being buried by up to one metre of sand. Tough underground stems called rhizomes push their needle-like points through deepening sand to reach the surface where blowing sand actually stimulates growth. Though food and moisture are scarce, dune grasses thrive and stabilize the dunes, allowing other plants to become established.
Between the first and second dune ridge lies Pinery’s desert. On a hot summer day, ground level temperatures can reach 70ºC (166ºF)! The parched sand offers little moisture or food for the plants that live here.
Plants Suited to this Harsh Environment
Thick, waxy leaves help Bearberry to retain water. Since its leaves are evergreen, Bearberry does not need an abundance of nutrients to grow a new set of leaves every year.
Yellow Puccoon protects its stem from the searing heat by growing hairs that hold onto a layer of cool air. Its tap root digs down as much as two metres below the surface for water.
Wormwood is covered in light coloured hairs that keep it cool by reflecting the sun’s intense rays. It survives in poor soils by taking two full summers to store energy before it produces seeds.
Despite the harsh conditions even species of reptiles, mammals, and birds call the dunes home. Watch our video about Bank Swallows to see how these aerial acrobats make their homes in the dunes.
Behind the first dune ridge lies the undulating edge of Pinery’s parabolic dunes. These dunes form when strong winds undercut the vegetation and “blow out” sections of the dune ridge. The U-shaped dunes funnel the wind and intensify the movement of drifting sand. Reaching heights of 20 to 30 metres, the parabolic dunes advance like an army on the march, covering everything in their path.
Halting the Sand
Without their protective blanket of vegetation, sand dunes would soon be leveled and blown away in the wind. In the past, human activity has disrupted Pinery’s natural defenses. We now work to restore and preserve dunes many ways:
- In the early 1970’s, lower limits were set for the number of visitors allowed to use the park at one time.
- Nature reserves limit access to sensitive areas and minimize human interference with natural processes.
- Boardwalks allow visitors to cross the dunes without trampling vegetation underfoot.
- Playing and climbing on the dunes is no longer allowed.
- Volunteer groups and park staff have planted over one million dune grasses since 1978.
Pinery has been working on a plan to help protect our Freshwater Coastal Dunes from erosion due to trampling by human feet. Watch our video on Rolling Boardwalks to see our latest efforts to protect the rare Freshwater Coastal Dunes.
If you could use Rolling Boardwalks on your property or in your community, click here for building plans and step by step instructions.
During the summer months, Park Visitors may wish to join a Park Naturalist during an evening program or for a conducted walk to learn more about the dunes. All of these programs are part of our well-known Summer Interpretive Program.
School and youth groups may wish to learn more about Pinery’s dunes by booking a program such as Sand Dune Succession. This, and other programs, can be booked through our Group Education Program.
Old Ausable Channel
The variety of habitats in Pinery help make the park a unique place. The protection of these habitats is just one example of how Ontario Parks helps to preserve Ontario’s ecological diversity through its system of provincial parks. One of the unique habitats in Pinery is the Old Ausable River Channel.
The Old Ausable Channel possesses all of the qualities that once characterized the watersheds of Southwestern Ontario. Today, clean, clear water still flows through this channel.
Freshwater mussels are an indicator species that help us monitor the health of the ecosystem. The presence of mussels, some fish species, and aquatic insects help us to know that the Old Ausable Channel is mostly free of pollutants and other contaminants. To learn more, watch our video about Freshwater Mussels.
The First Ausable River Cut – Port Franks
A major influence on the water quality of the Old Ausable Channel was the development of agriculture outside of the park boundaries. In 1876, as the need for prime agricultural land increased, farmers began draining the nearby Lakes Burwell and George. This was accomplished by cutting a channel, just south of the park, from the mouth of the river to another section of the Ausable River, through Lake Burwell. Sand deposited as a result of the “cut” and quickly destroyed the Port Franks harbour.
The Second Ausable River Cut – Grand Bend
In 1892, a 400-yard trench was dug to the north of the park to link Grand Bend to Lake Huron. This second cut created the harbour in Grand Bend, but reduced the discharge of water that flowed through the park. This diverted flow protects the Old Ausable Channel by diverting the agricultural run-off and pollutants away from the channel, directly into Lake Huron.
Visitors often wonder why it is called the “Old Ausable Channel” and if this rare ecosystem is manmade. The answer is no – but humans did have a hand in shaping the landscape around Pinery. The Old Ausable Channel is now a time capsule of what this area use to look like before settlers altered the landscape, to learn more, watch our video A Snapshot of History.
Narrow Watershed Area
The second major influence on the water quality of the Old Ausable Channel is the topography of the park. On the East side of the park, there is a ridge of dunes. The ridge and its underlying bedrock contain precipitation and ground water flow within the park. Another parallel ridge of freshwater dunes adjacent to the beach directs water flow into Lake Huron. The Old Ausable Channel is located between both of these ridges and the park’s topography helps to funnel precipitation and groundwater into the channel.
Old Ausable Channel Springs
The third major influence on the quality of the Old Ausable Channel is the source of its water. Freshwater springs located beneath the river supply a clean source of water for the park. The cuts divert pollutants, the slope of the land stops pollutants from entering the park and the springs continually supply the river with clean water. The hydrology of the channel results in a unique aquatic ecosystem that boasts several rare fish species.
In addition to fish, the Old Ausable Channel is home to an abundance turtles. When fishing in the Old Ausable Channel, anglers must remember that it is catch-and-release only, and caution must be taken to ensure the safety of all animals in the channel, including our turtles. To learn more, view our video on Responsible Angling.
To explore the river, paddle a canoe along the water, hike the Riverside, Bittersweet, Hickory and Heritage Trails or bike along the river on the Bicycle Trail. More information about the river can be found in the numerous trail guides available at the head of each trail or for sale in The Friends of Pinery Nature Gift Shop.
In addition, during the summer months, park visitors may wish to join a Park Naturalist at an evening program, Ooze n’ Gooze, or for one of our Canoe Hikes. All of these programs are part of our well-known Summer Interpretive Program.
Join a Pinery Naturalist for a virtual Ooze and Gooze program and explore the Old Ausable Channel beneath the surface.
School and youth groups may wish to learn more about Pinery’s river by booking a program such as the Old Ausable Channel Aquatic Study or Canoe Excursion. This, and other programs, can be booked through our Group Education Program.
The River Guide also provides a good source of information about the Old Ausable Channel.