Heaven’s Gate Trail protected east to west

Heaven’s Gate Trail is a scarcely marked route that stretches some 40 kilometres between Willisville and Sagamok. The reserve property has views similar to this photo, from farther west on the multi-day trail.

Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy raises $1.766 million

RED DEER VILLAGE – Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC) has raised all the funds it needs to purchase the Heaven’s Gate Reserve property near Whitefish Falls, fulfilling the late former owner’s wishes that the 2,100-acre property remain conserved for generations to come.

“It’s just fantastic. We’re just dancing,” said Dr. Roy Jeffery, a Little Current physician and EBC board member who has been a strong local supporter of the project.

This newspaper shared the full gravitas of the undertaking and the significance of this property in its February 10 edition. In short, the nature conservancy had 90 days to fundraise toward the $1.65 million purchase price, much more than it has ever had to raise in such a short time, to purchase a property that is twice as large as EBC’s previous largest single property.

The land was originally listed as 1,984 acres, but recent data from Municipal Property Assessment Corporation pegged the total figure as 2,100 acres.

It abuts LaCloche Ridge Conservation Area to the west and, together with EBC’s recent acquisition of Willisville Mountain, forms an eastward link to Killarney Provincial Park. The successful sale means there is now a 500-square-kilometre conservation zone in this area.

EBC executive director Bob Barnett said closing the sale was a massive relief and said he shared a physically distanced glass of champagne with EBC treasurer Ted Cowan upon learning they had raised enough money to finance the sale.

“Our website has been flooded with donations. It’s just wonderful. All of those people are now on our mailing list and hopefully they’ll continue in the spirit of (conservation),” said Mr. Barnett.

Mr. Cowan said the conservancy is past most of the legal obstacles and expects the final stages to be fairly straightforward.

“It’s a place that’s just so timeless,” he said, describing the complete lack of human development that can be seen from within. “It’s a complete different set of sounds. Even the bird life in there seems louder and different.”

He added that this property will help keep thousands of visitors in the area for an extra day, boosting the region’s economy.

“It was our last shot”

Gary Albrecht, the US-based landowner, first listed Heaven’s Gate in 2008 but the price was too high for the conservancy’s budget. EBC made a half-hearted offer but, as expected, was not successful. Mr. Cowan said EBC made other similar offers in 2016 and 2018 but, unsurprisingly, was not able to offer enough.

Mr. Albrecht died in 2019 and his wife died nearly one year later, leaving the property in the care of his children. As per the executor’s instructions, the family worked with an Island realtor to see if there was any potential for a deal with EBC.

“We realized it was our last shot,” Mr. Cowan said.

The price ultimately came down a small amount, but the family wished to resolve the process as quickly as possible and they only offered a 90-day closing (a May 5 deadline) for EBC to raise the funds.

By the time of its March newsletter, it had already raised $1,665,000, some $35,000 short of its goal (higher than the agreed price to account for closing costs and other contingencies).

“We are extremely excited about having saved the Heaven’s Gate Trail in its entirety. That little section (on this property) was in jeopardy so it was a nice thing that we managed to save it,” said Saba Ahmad, EBC board chair.

Rugged nature trail

Heaven’s Gate Trail is often cited as the key feature of this property, in addition to the quartzite mountains, pristine lakes and robust forest ecosystem, which are all home to species at risk. There are also “some other wetland areas, phenomenal stands of ancient hemlock, and yellow birches in there that you couldn’t even reach around,” said Mr. Cowan. “Things you couldn’t imagine are in there.”

The trail dates back to the 1994 summer work of youth at Anishinaabe Spiritual Centre, south of Espanola, under the leadership of Fr. Michael Murray, SJ. The Anishinaabemowin name for Heaven’s Gate is Kitchitwaa Shkwaandem.

The trail connects Fort LaCloche, near Sagamok, with Willisville, following conservation lands until it reaches the Heaven’s Gate property. If another private owner had purchased the land, they may have prevented the trail from continuing on its original path. 

Ms. Ahmad said it was particularly important for EBC to continue developing strong relationships with First Nations in the area.

Heaven’s Gate Trail is very lightly trafficked and there are lengthy sections without any trail markers or any semblance of a packed-down trail. Its 40-kilometre length, elevation changes and extremely remote location far from any roads or access trails makes it a very challenging trek, even for the most experienced hikers.

Ms. Ahmad said EBC’s stewardship has plans to improve the conservancy-owned portion of the trail, but this is just the start of the trail-making process for the group.

Dr. Jeffery, the Little Current EBC member, has spent many hours on the property in recent months, planning out an intricate system of trails with varying difficulties and hiking some 200 kilometres in the process.

“We’ve got a really interesting trail system pretty well ready to go but we still have to resolve the parking and figure out exactly where we’re going to have a parking lot. We hope to hear about that in the next few days and we’d like to have that in place before we really open it up to the public,” Dr. Jeffery said.

EBC’s biggest-yet 

fundraising effort

Dr. Jeffery and his wife Cathy had a major role in the fundraising process, too. They offered to match individual donations up to a total of $250,000, a figure that Dr. Jeffery proudly announced was maxed out.

Donation support came from a wide range of sources including foundations, estate bequests and individual donors, including a massive slate of first-time contributors to the organization from both sides of the national border. Many of the supporters, though, are those with property in the Sudbury-Manitoulin area.

“Between them, they are well under one percent of the provincial population,” said Mr. Cowan, “but I am certain they provided well over 50 percent of the funds. Northern Ontario people love the land, period.”

While many partners contributed to this project, including sizable donations from foundations and estate bequests, Mr. Cowan highlighted Ontario Land Trust Alliance (OLTA)’s contribution of $330,000 through the Greenlands Conservation Partnership, a $50-million investment across Ontario over four years.

That partnership is a collaboration between Ontario and non-provincial sources such as Nature Conservancy of Canada.

“OLTA is very grateful for the support and leadership shown by the government of Ontario through this conservation program,” OLTA executive director Allison Howson said. “It’s a really wonderful opportunity north of Manitoulin, a really well-connected property, and the program itself is really beneficial to help protect highly sensitive, biodiverse ecosystems.”

Gifts from individual donors, including Dr. Jeffery’s matched $250,000 contributions, totalled $886,000. Other foundations contributed $25,000.

To finish the project, EBC is prepared to draw as much as $250,000 from its operating funds.