Island benefactor matching donations to $250K

RED DEER VILLAGE – The family that owns a 1,984-acre plot of land in the Whitefish Falls area has accepted Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC)’s offer to buy the land and preserve it as a conservation property with public access, in the process forming a crucial link between LaCloche Ridge Conservation Area and Killarney Provincial Park that will create a conservation zone more than 500 square kilometres in size.

“Every time I see that place I realize that it’s incredibly special. I associate it with friends and neighbours and just a long time of being in the Manitoulin-Algoma area. It just means a lot to me,” said EBC treasurer Ted Cowan, who is taking the lead on this project.

EBC has reached a deal with the family to purchase this eight-square-kilometre property, formerly known as Skyline Nature Reserve and now called Heaven’s Gate Reserve, for $1.65 million. 

To cover those costs, EBC is initiating a fierce fundraising campaign over the next 90 days. On May 5 of this year, EBC has to complete the sale, though it is aiming to complete all fundraising in 60 days to remove conditions from the deal.

This property will form a block of undeveloped, protected land that stretches more than 70 kilometres from Sagamok First Nation in the west to Killarney Provincial Park in the east, with the northernmost portion of Whitefish River First Nation in the middle.

The property will be the largest EBC holding by far. Executive director Bob Barnett told The Expositor that previously, EBC’s largest single property acquisition totaled 1,050 acres. Heaven’s Gate Reserve beats that size by nearly double.

Gary and Virginia “Ginny” Albrecht, originally of Michigan, bought the property about 15 years ago and the family has always called it ‘Skyline.’ He also bought an island in Baie Fine in 1976; it is still in the family.

When Gary Albrecht died in 2019, followed by his wife nearly one year later, his children were keen to continue his love of conservation and made it a priority to see the land protected.

“We looked at the property and thought about how we could let more people use it. We looked at groups like Boy Scouts and some of the Indigenous peoples to donate it to, but that never worked out,” Gary’s son Karl Albrecht, 58, told The Expositor. “(EBC ownership) fits into what he was always trying to accomplish.”

Karl Albrecht’s sister Joy Albrecht said preserving the natural property was the family’s highest priority, and her brother added that he was pleased with the outcome.

“We’re just happy for the community. Birch Island, Manitoulin Island and the area, we’ve always been welcomed there and we really love the area,” Karl Albrecht said. 

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.

Heaven’s Gate Reserve is home to the easternmost part of Heaven’s Gate Trail, an expert-difficulty hiking trail that stretches nearly 40 kilometres between Fort LaCloche and Willisville. (Author’s note: I once tried to hike the trail end-to-end. Did not go well.)

The trail emerged in its present form in 1994 when a youth group at Anishinaabe Spiritual Centre, south of Espanola, worked to blaze the path as part of a summer jobs program overseen by Fr. Michael Murray, SJ, who died last year. Its proper Anishinaabe name is Kitchitwaa Shkwaandem, which roughly translates to heaven’s gate.

By purchasing this property, that trail will remain on conservation land for all but a tiny portion that crosses Crown land.

EBC has already had some considerable support for the purchase. It secured a reasonable price from the landowner and has received a $500,000 bequest and $200,000 worth of pledges. Roy and Kathy Jeffery from Little Current have vowed to match donations up to $250,000; Mr. Jeffery is a board member of EBC and on the fundraising committee.

“It’s a phenomenal property. The potential for building trails, bicycle trails, walking trails, snowshoe and ski trails is just immense,” said Mr. Jeffery. “It’s just a wonderful thing for Whitefish Falls and for all the local hiking enthusiasts.”

EBC plans to make the property open to the public and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation and collaborations with area First Nation partners. Mr. Cowan said he expects the property to have massive economic boosts for the surrounding communities.

This property features vistas made famous by the Group of Seven, an iconic troupe of painters who popularized the natural beauties of Canada during the early 20th century.

“The power of this land lured the Group of Seven here nearly 100 years ago and is enshrined in their works. Their paintings are safe; now it is time to care for the land that inspired them,” an EBC press release stated.

The property is home to several species at risk including bald eagles, Blanding’s turtles and Whippoorwills. The property, located at the intersection of the districts of Algoma, Manitoulin and Sudbury, features old-growth forests, two mountains and three lakes.

Heaven’s Gate Reserve abuts La Cloche Ridge Conservation Reserve to the west, as well as EBC’s Red Deer Village property. The black line represents the eastern portion of Heaven’s Gate Trail.

Mr. Cowan said EBC may be able to borrow a bit of money to cover any potential shortfall at the end of the fundraising period, though he said his aim was to avoid mortgaging the property if possible.

Various estimates for EBC’s fundraising progress to date range from 50 to 70 percent, though some of the figures are pledges contingent on the project going forward. Mr. Barnett, EBC’s executive director, said the property will bring in roughly $50,000 on the carbon credit market because of the abundance of trees.

Those who wish to make a pledge toward the purchase of Heaven’s Gate Reserve can contact Mr. Cowan by email at tcowan@escarpment.ca or by text at 416-660-5545.