North of Long Tail

A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie

Patricia – Pelee Island

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Patricia grew up in British Columbia, then moved east to continue her studies in costume and set design. Her first job in her field was at the University of Windsor, as an instructor of makeup, puppetry, and historical costume design.

In 1995, Patricia suffered a nervous breakdown after working on a production with an abusive director. A friend recommended Pelee Island as a place she could visit to get some much-needed rest and relaxation.

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(left) Patricia with her Mum at home in British Columbia. (right) Patricia on the Pelee Islander 2, the ferry that goes out to Pelee Island from the mainland. “The ship traffic in Pelee Passage was at one point the busiest shipping trade route in the world; It was so busy that you could walk from ship-to-ship and get to the island!” Patricia explains how there are supposedly more shipwrecks in Pelee Passage than in all of the rest of the Great Lakes combined.

“I fell in love with Pelee Island at first sight. It reminded me of home.”

Patricia kept returning to the island. On each subsequent visit, her fascination with its residents and flora and fauna grew. She jokes about how there is nothing to do on the island, but it still takes all day.

After living for decades in cities, the island made Patricia feel like a kid again, giving her a sense of exploration. It brought back memories of many of the comforts she had as a child in BC. Patricia spent her youth in the gully beside her house — exploring with her friends “the fish, the pheasants and the ferns.”

This ongoing curiosity led Patricia to connect with and learn from local botanists, biologists, and birders in the area.

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(top) A snowy egret flies by. (bottom left) An orange trumpet vine growing on Pelee Island. (bottom right) Patricia with her friend Irene on the property they purchased on Pelee Island in 1997.

In 1997, only a couple of years after her first visit, Patricia purchased a small forested property on Pelee Island. For many years they used it to camp on when visiting the island.

Patricia stands on her property. Tree specialists, and one author writing about Carolinian forests, have visited her property to see this large elm tree. They are interested in it as it did not succumb to Dutch Elm Disease, like other Elms in the region.

Patricia stands on her property. Tree specialists, and one author writing about Carolinian forests, have visited her property to see this large elm tree. They are interested in it as it did not succumb to Dutch elm disease, like other elms in the region.

In 2009, Patricia became the artistic director of Windsor Feminist Theatre. She and co-worker (now partner) Trevor wanted to produce Margaret Atwood’s Panelopiad out on Pelee Island. While scouting out a place for the performance, they found a beautiful quarry and leased it from the township. While they never did put on that production, in 2012, they had their first full season of “quarry theatre.” Since then, they have had a wide range of artistic performances from grand chorale and acid jazz to Inuit throat singing. It’s an extraordinary place to put on productions and the only natural limestone amphitheatre in North America.

“The quarry has amazing acoustics. You don’t need to mic anyone. You can hear everything as clear as a bell.”

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(top) Trevor and Patricia stand with their box office sign in front of the quarry. (bottom left) Patricia’s partner Trevor in the quarry playing a dan trung, a Vietnamese bamboo instrument. (bottom right) Pelee Island Winery, which is across the road, has always supported their artistic vision at the quarry, providing the audience with glasses of wine and letting them use their washrooms. Patricia says she only drinks wine from Pelee Island now.

In 2012, the same year the quarry theatre started, they had artist residencies at a rented farmhouse on the island. The concept worked, so they recently put up three tiny houses and a small composting toilet on Patricia’s land where artists can stay in the future.

In 2012, the same year the quarry theatre started, they had artist residencies at a rented farmhouse on the island. The concept worked, so they recently put up three tiny houses and a small composting toilet on Patricia’s land where artists can stay in the future.

In 2014, Patricia started a Saturday morning farmers' market in the quarry. At the market, you can find expected produce like garlic, bay leaves, tomatoes, and more unusual produce like pomegranates and amaranth. The market has become a place where the community comes together.

After a swim in the lake, Patricia stops at local farmer Bruno’s produce stand in front of his house.

After a swim in the lake, Patricia stops at local farmer Bruno’s produce stand in front of his house.

Patricia is concerned and scared about the future of the island and the islanders. The high lake levels have caused significant erosion, with some roads becoming impassable on the island.

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(top) A grey-headed coneflower grows beside the quarry. It’s a native species of Pelee Island. Patricia feels like each corner of the island has different flora and fauna. (bottom left) Patricia loves reminders of how the whole area was a salty sea at one time. Fossils, like this piece of coral from the mid-Devonian period, can be found all over the quarry. (bottom right) A storm cloud seen from the Pelee Island ferry. Patricia believes Pelee Island has the best storms.

The island has less than half the population that it did when she started going out there. The people still remaining are older; there are fewer businesses and fewer kids. In 2019, only 136 people overwintered on the island.

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(left) A rainbow appears as a storm subsides in the Pelee Passage. (right) Patricia sits in the quarry.

Patricia is aware of how bad Lake Erie was in the 1970s and how it has improved. But, recently, she feels like it is backsliding with the recurring toxic algae blooms. Patricia has seen how terrible it can be for islanders who rely on tourism.

“As soon as there is a hint of an algae bloom, all reservations are cancelled on the island.”

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Patricia stands on the quarry’s stone seating, installed in 2018 so they could get the “full theatre effect” for their Greek revival theatre festival.

COVID-19 has put a hold on the quarry theatre and farmer’s market. Still, Patricia hopes it will be back next year with performances, artist residencies, and a Greek revival theatre festival. If anyone is thinking of visiting in the future, Patricia emphasizes that Pelee Island has the best Canada Day parade in the entire country. “We take it very seriously!” One year, they had a float to promote the farmer’s market. It included a carrot family, a giant corn man, a scarecrow, and Patricia dressed as a banana riding a bicycle.

Read More

STORIES FROM THE LAKE

Heidi – Pigeon Bay

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Carrie Ann and Janne – Leamington

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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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