Volunteers sweep Prov beach clear of invasive sweet clover

PROVIDENCE BAY—Bedecked in work clothes, gloves, sunscreen, shades and hats, a swarm of volunteers gathered at the Discovery Centre on the Providence Bay waterfront ready to descend upon the forest of sweet clover that has festooned the dunes in recent years. Hard on the successful campaign to rid the beach of the invasive Asian reed (aka phragmites), this year’s Beach Action Day hoped to clear the sand of at least one of the species of plants that don’t belong.

“We are only allowed to remove the plants that do not belong,” explained organizer Judith Jones, an environmental consultant and the owner of Winter Spider Eco-Consulting, as she held up a large example of the distinctive sweet clover plant. In a pasture, she explained, the sweet clover is a great plant, providing nutritious grazing for cattle and other ruminants, but it does not belong on the beach, where it overshadows and dominates the natural grasses that do belong. It quickly became clear just how overwhelming the sweet clover is on the beach, with the plants towering over the bent figures of the volunteers pulling at the roots of the plants.

“The sweet clover is an annual,” explained Ms. Jones, “so it does not build up a significant root bulb.” That lack of a deep and extensive root system also makes the sweet clover an ideal target for a manual assault on the plant beds as the plants generally came free of the sand with nominal effort. For the larger established plants, a couple of shovels were on hand to assist with the effort.

Jamie and Toots McDermid teamed up to wrench the lightly rooted annuals from the grasp of the sand. As annuals that  reproduce from seed, the sweet clover does not put a lot of effort into its roots, saving its energy for a seed dispersing reach for the sky. In recent years the plants have invaded the dunes at Providence Bay beach, cluttering up the once pristine dunes and pushing out the native plants, some of which are endangered.
Jamie and Toots McDermid teamed up to wrench the lightly rooted annuals from the grasp of the sand. As annuals that
reproduce from seed, the sweet clover does not put a lot of effort into its roots, saving its energy for a seed dispersing reach for the sky. In recent years the plants have invaded the dunes at Providence Bay beach, cluttering up the once pristine dunes and pushing out the native plants, some of which are endangered.

Not everyone expressed delight that the day’s targets were limited to the sweet clover and a couple of residents made “political” statements expressing their dismay, but Ms. Jones calmly reiterated that the target was a plant the volunteers could legitimately target as invasive on the beach and Central Manitoulin Economic Development Officer Nancy Kinoshameg pointed out that the municipality has made the necessary applications for permits that will enable a broader assault on the larger trees and plants that also do not belong on the dunes, which slightly mollified the protests, although there remained some grumbling about the timelines involved in securing the permits necessary for the broader removal.

Other complaints voiced dissatisfaction that the efforts were focussed on the main beach area on the north side of the river. “There are a lot of us who are in the trailer park and the beach in front of our place is a real mess,” said one woman. “It isn’t just the tourists who visit the main beach, there are a lot of summer residents living in the park.” It was pointed out that the teams were going to be on both sides of the river and that efforts could extend to the beach in front of the campground.

After the short orientation, the volunteers divided into two groups and fanned out across the beach, gloves on hands, shovels and bags at the ready.

“This is long overdue,” said Toots McDermid, long time Providence Bay resident, booster and former Expositor community correspondent as she tugged determinedly at a plant that towered over her diminutive frame.

“When she heard that this was going on, I couldn’t keep her home,” laughed son Jamie McDermid. “I told her that she can’t stay out too long in this heat,” he added protectively.

Beachgoers blithely went about their summer fun, barely casting a glance in the direction of the Beach Action teams who were quickly making short work of the huge stands of sweet clover and hauling the piles of green plant matter away in large paper bags or on large blue tarps. “Try not to let the seeds shake off onto the sand,” called out Ms. Jones. “I would rather have done this a couple of weeks earlier when the seeds were less developed,” admitted Ms. Jones. Unlike phragmites, the sweet clover does not spread by rhizomes, so small bits of root left behind are not an issue, it’s the seeds that spread the plant.

Paper bags helped bundle up the sweet clover so that the seeds of a next  generation of the annuals were less likely to escape collection.
Paper bags helped bundle up the sweet clover so that the seeds of a next generation of the annuals were less likely to escape collection.

One elderly volunteer stood by expressing dismay that the plants were being hauled away by hand instead of enlisting his four-wheeler on the dunes. “It makes me not even not want to try,” he lamented, standing defiantly with his hands in his pockets as the other volunteers continued their efforts, studiously ignoring his proclamations. Challenged for his negative attitude, he replied “it’s who I am.”

It was obviously not who the other volunteers were, as they continued to haul the plants away to the road where the pile was quickly growing ever larger, and where the Central Manitoulin road crews were to collect the piles for disposal.

Asked about the reason for the lack of mechanization in the effort, Ms. Jones quietly explained that bringing mechanized equipment onto the beach would require permits and cause even more delay in getting the job done.

A troop of Ontario Parks rangers arrived at the scene to assist in the efforts, providing a significant number of younger hands to assist the generally older group of volunteers who were clearing the beach of sweet clover.

Ms. Jones explained that the sweet clover tends to shade and shelter other plants and prevent the scouring sands from having their natural controlling impact on the dune grasses and other natural denizens of the sands.

Despite the heat, the volunteers worked through the day. Ms. Jones exhorted the volunteers to take regular breaks from the hot sun by resting in the shade and to stay well hydrated.

The piles of pulled plants grew by leaps and bounds as volunteers hauled the  harvested sweet clover to the road to be collected by public works crews from the municipality of Central Manitoulin.
The piles of pulled plants grew by leaps and bounds as volunteers hauled the harvested sweet clover to the road to be collected by public works crews from the municipality of Central Manitoulin.

The impact of the Beach Day of Action was readily apparent after just a couple of hours.

“Hopefully we can bring the beach back into its natural balance,” said Ms. Jones, who reiterated that the goal of these efforts is to put the beach dunes back in a more natural state, rather than creating an unnatural desert condition.