Along the Lake

Only a 25-minute drive from London, Port Stanley has all the elements of a quaint southwestern Ontario lakeside retreat. Here, past and present are fused through a diverse mixture of domesticity, leisure, tourism, industry, and a rich cultural and natural history. Colourful cottages dot a picturesque sandy beach and numerous year-round B & Bs provide accommodation for both summer and winter travellers. The authentic 70-year old family-run hotdog stand by the beach satisfies the appetites of both locals and tourists. Industrial practices at the mouth of the Kettle Creek River include several fisheries, a busy marina, an oil transfer station for large oil tankers, and a small historic terminal railway. These industries offer seasonal attractions for tourists as well as a continued livelihood for town residents. All of this activity takes place within the natural boundaries of an escarpment that is associated with the steep cliffs, dunes and positioning of Port Stanley on Lake Erie.

The sand dunes formed by the lake winds define the physical landscape. In the winter months, when the town quiets down after a busy tourist season, the balance between the built and natural environment shifts as small wood-plank cottages that are converted to year-round dwellings slowly reclaim the beach from the tourists. Decreased traffic allows the sand to sweep across the roads. Although the town is situated beside a Great Lake, its tenuous condition approaches that of a seaside village that must batten down windows in anticipation of the winter weather. As summer approaches, the cycle begins anew. Tourists return and human activity rather than nature begins to affect the procession of changes in the landscape. Increased traffic and pedestrian activity mean that the state of the natural environment is overtaken by the amounts of garbage that tourists produce.

Looking out toward the inviting beach populated by cozy dwellings, you would not know this to be an active industrial town. Yet within the same panoramic view, bustling industry can be seen adjacent to cottages scattered along the beach, river and lake. Rumbling trucks, blasting horns and whistling trains echo against crashing waves and the call of gulls along the shoreline. At a cottage located on one of the roads leading to the beach, a resident lingers over an early morning coffee while seated on a swinging bench. This solitary ritual may be more easily enjoyed during the off-season months, hidden from the inquisitive gaze of tourists temporarily enjoying the simple pleasures of small-town living.

What is most striking about Port Stanley are these simple, daily events of human life juxtaposed against the monumental industrial signifiers of gigantic proportion. While massive salt hives, a network of oil pipes and bulk fuel storage tanks are not screened from everyday life, the industrial features of the town still appear to fade behind icons of national identity (the abundance of Canadian flags) and the ubiquitous commercial and tourist signage that advertises and promotes everything from food to lodging. Even in this raw and natural setting, an occasional archetypal suburban landscape complete with highly manicured lawns and homogeneous shrubbery passes itself off as “nature.”

With elements of static steel structures representing industry, the ebb and flow of tourism and the constant wind blowing off Lake Erie, the daily existence of this port town is defined by the seasons.

Emily Andreae is a Graduate Landscape Architect living in Toronto. Photographs are by the author.

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