The Dunes Of Greenwich

September 1, 2003 by L.D. Cross

Top: Tourists head towards the boardwalk leading to the beach. Bottom: A couple enjoys a quiet stroll along the beach at Greenwich.

Think of Prince Edward Island and the images that come to mind are of a small, green garden in the gulf, a land of spuds, mud, Anne of Green Gables and golf courses. It is also home to beaches, wetlands and forests, a diverse environment of rare species, and the parabolic sand dunes.

In February 1998, six kilometres of the western tip of Greenwich Peninsula, separating St. Peters Bay from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, became part of Prince Edward Island National Park. Greenwich, P.E.I. National Park is a separate and self-contained addition which protects a unique, migrating parabolic sand dune system as well as many cultural artifacts revealing 10,000 years of Micmac and European settlement.

The Greenwich Dunes area is a natural treasure internationally recognized for the dune system, its wide variety of bird species and rare marsh and woodland plants plus nationally important Aboriginal and Acadian archeological sites. Located in the Bays and Dunes Region of Kings County on the northeastern shore of Prince Edward Island, Greenwich is just a 70-kilometre drive from Charlottetown.

In 1995, after nearly two decades of recognition as an important area by such organizations as the United Nations International Biological Program and the World Wildlife Endangered Species Program, the province acquired the site, placing it under the Natural Areas Protection Act. Three years later, the three parcels of land were transferred from the province to Parks Canada as an addition to the Prince Edward Island National Park.

The strong appeal that such a site has for tourists, and the region’s interest in stimulating economic activity, has prompted some alarm among conservationists who view plans for future development as the first steps toward mass tourism and commercialization. Certainly the challenge will be to strike a balance between protecting the fragile ecosystem and allowing people to experience and appreciate it.

Construction of boardwalks, beach access points and an interpretive program are designed to ensure the development of Greenwich will not adversely affect its unique cultural and natural resources.

The Prince Edward Island National Park is one of the most visited National Parks in Canada during the summer months. Although separated from the busier Brackley-Cavendish-Stanhope sections, Greenwich is vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Besides people, coastal erosion, species displacement and insect infestations are a constant threat.

Greenwich Peninsula’s most significant and sensitive feature is the rare and relatively undisturbed parabolic dunes which lie at the western end of the peninsula. Parabolic dunes are U-shaped mounds of fine to medium sand that form near coasts where sand is abundant and there are strong, unidirectional onshore winds. These dunes have elongated arms that extend upwind behind the central part of the dune. They move inland into areas with denser vegetation where the sand then piles up as its advance is halted or slowed.

At Greenwich, these migrating dunes are pushed by the prevailing winds in the direction of the inland forest at the rate of two to four metres per year, depending on wind and weather. Sand trapped at the base of these large mobile parabolic dunes by colonies of vegetation, mostly marram grass, leaves behind a series of concentric, low dune ridges, called counter ridges or gegenwalle. Such gegenwalle are rare in North America. Continuing overland dune migration has engulfed forests, killing trees in its path, then exposing woodland previous buried, creating an exhumed skeleton forest. The Greenwich dunes site provides one of the best examples on the continent of slowly recovering exhumed forest land. The combination of dune grasses, sedges, marsh rushes and forest floor species, in the low-lying depressions of dunes, called ‘slack’ areas, where glacial deposits are exposed, are ecologically unique.

The wetlands, dune and woodland habitats are significant for their biodiversity. The pileated woodpecker, believed to be extinct on P.E.I. by 1986, has recently been seen in the Greenwich woods.

The peninsula is also home to breeding pairs of piping plover, an internationally endangered sand-coloured shorebird that nests and feeds along the coastal sand and gravel beaches of Atlantic Canada. They forage actively on the ground or in shallow water for small insects and both parents care for the chicks that hatch from the four eggs usually laid in a well-camouflaged clutch on a flat rock. Swift in flight, the plover migrates south in late summer to winter in Cuba, the Bahamas or Mexico. Some hardy adult plovers undertake a spectacular, nonstop, transatlantic flight of 3,900 kilometres to the northern regions of South America. Residential development has reduced coastal habitat and attracted predators such as skunks, raccoons and foxes as well as family cats and dogs. Human disturbance curtails breeding, threatens the eggs and the young and can cause the parents to abandon their nests. Along many shore trails there are restricted areas where people are advised to keep out and not disturb nesting birds.

The grassland found in the dune system’s slack areas is the only known dune habitat for the leathery grape fern. In the salt-free acidic wetlands, a rare association of salt-tolerant and alkali-tolerant plants coexist with bog plants. In the gegenwalle, marram grass seedlings are abundant and act as a living net to anchor dunes and reduce drift. Once the grass is gone, the wind blows away exposed sand and creates giant holes called blowouts.

On the St. Peters Bay side, the very rare bullrush foredunes are remarkable, considering the high salinity and sand depths of the area. The park’s wetland bogs and ponds provide habitat for fish, waterfowl and muskrat. Along with forest areas of hardwood and softwood such as red maple and birch, they support a variety of plant life and different species. One sector surveyed identified 300 plant species on site. Included in the list are the water wort and mud wort as well as many unusual grasses.

The south shore of the Greenwich Peninsula is rich in evidence of past human use. Remains indicate the presence of at least six cultures: late Paleo-Indian, Early/Middle Archaic, Maritime Woodland/Late Archaic, Late Prehistoric, Proto-Historic and Recent Historic, ranging from Aboriginal to evidence of French, Acadian and Irish, Scottish and English habitation in the 18th century. In the 1960s, amateur archeologist Rollie Jones began collecting artifacts he found exposed on the beach of St. Peters Bay. In 1983, 1985 and 1987, the Canadian Museum of Civilization excavated layers of the site to reveal close to 700 ancient artifacts dating back more than 10,000 years. Hunting spear points and implements brought from northern Labrador speak of the nomadic lifestyle of the earliest people. Relics typical of the more recent settlements of Acadians at the mouth of St. Peters Bay (Havre Saint- Pierre) include glassware and ceramic ware. A barely visible foundation may mark the site of their church and cemetery on the ridge.

Greenwich can be a day trip from Charlottetown, but it would be an opportunity missed not to make a reservation at a local bed and breakfast and stay overnight. According to Carol Horne of Tourism PEI, Greenwich visitors should also sample mussels at local restaurants and check out the mussel buoys and fishing boats in nearby St. Peters Bay. Another outdoor adventure is the island-long Confederation Trail which passes by communities like Morell and St. Peters near Greenwich. Completed in August 2000, it meanders some 300 kilometres from one end of the Island to the other. Built on a former railway bed as part of the Rails-to-Trails conversion, its finely crushed gravel surface is almost flat and great for hiking and biking. Watch for the bright purple gates which mark entry points. In winter the trail is turned over to snowmobilers.

Island History and Some Greenwich Logistics

The first inhabitants of the Island were the precursors of the Micmac. The name they gave to the island was Epekwitk, meaning resting on the waves or cradle on the waves. The name was later changed to Abegweit. French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in 1534 and the French called it Île St-Jean. Under British administration, the Island was known as Saint John. Since there were far too many cities, rivers and colonies called St. John’s or Saint John, the Island was renamed Prince Edward in 1799 in honour of one of George III’s sons, Edward, Duke of Kent and father of Queen Victoria.

The Greenwich interpretation centre is open daily from late May to late October, so are the beach facility and interpretative trails. Guided interpretative activities are offered, and buildings and boardwalks are wheelchair accessible as is the 1.25-kilometre Havre Saint-Pierre Trail. September and October are great times to visit because they are outside the normal tourist season.

Because of the fragile environment, there is no camping at Greenwich. Pets are prohibited on all beaches and in the public buildings between April 1 and
Oct. 15. However, trained guide dogs are allowed.

The drive from Charlottetown to Greenwich is approximately 70 kilometres. Take Route 2 east through the village of St. Peters then onto Route 313–also known as the Greenwich Road–to the parking lot. For the latest information, call 902-961-2514 or visit the Web site http://www.parkscanada. gcc.ca/pei.

The Greenwich Interpretation Centre

Walk into the Interpretation Centre from the paved parking lot and walk onto a clear floor over a 3-D topographical model of the Greenwich Peninsula, St. Peters Bay and the surrounding area. This, of course, is the only way you should ever walk on the dunes! More than 20 exhibits cover the cultural and natural history of the region, including Time Line, which charts 10,000 years of habitation and displays on-site artifacts. Before leaving for the dunes and beach, stay and watch the 12-minute multimedia presentation on local human history called Wind, Sea and Sand, the Story of Greenwich and test your naturalist skills with the Shell Game, Shorebird Challenge and Dune Plant quizzes.

Exploring The Hiking Trails

Three trails, with interpretative signage explaining natural and cultural history, are available at Greenwich. The 4.5 km Greenwich Dunes Trail is rated at moderate difficulty. The 4.5 km Tlaqatik Trail and the 1.25-kilometre Havre Saint-Pierre Trail are rated ‘easy’, with the latter being wheelchair accessible. Because of the fragile nature of the dunes, visitors are asked to stay on the trails and designated beach access points and not trample vegetation. Park studies have shown that it can take as few as 10 footsteps through the same area to destroy protective plant cover which leads to erosion that scars the delicate dune habitat.

The Dunes Trail goes through fields with a view of the community of St. Peters, then an evergreen forest and a floating boardwalk over Bowley Pond. Walking further, you reach the coastal dune ridge where several side trails are available to get a closer look at the shifting sand system. Another designated pathway leads down to the beach. Chances are, when you get there, you will be alone. Nor do you have to be the outdoorsy type to see the dunes because paths are well marked and there are no arduous uphill climbs.

Day-Use Facilities

Sustainable development is the key design concept at Greenwich. Energy comes from wind, of which there is a plentiful supply, and solar power. Composting toilets eliminate the need for a traditional sewer system. The day-use area has washrooms and change rooms plus exterior showers, a picnic shelter and a wooden boardwalk to the beach. An observation tower with outside stair access rewards climbers with a cardiovascular workout and a panoramic view of dunes, beach, ocean and sky. Swimming is supervised only between late June and mid-August, so an off-season visit in the brisk spring or fall breezes makes land-based activities most attractive at Greenwich.

If you listen as you walk along the shore at Greenwich, you may hear the phenomenon of whistling or singing sand. Musical sand is a natural art that happens on beaches and in deserts worldwide. In dry weather, the top layer of sand near the water’s edge can emit a fleeting harmonic sound when walked on or moved by a trailing stick. This is much more melodic than the crunching sound you hear underfoot when walking on hard, granular snow in very cold weather. Caused by the rubbing together of fairly smooth and uniform grains, the sands lose their singing voice as you move away from the shoreline to the upper wave limit of the beach.

Nature is the attraction of the Bays and Dunes Region of Kings County. Greenwich offers breathtaking views and uncrowded beaches removed from other busy Island attractions. The dunes provide an additional buffer that heightens the sense of serenity.

Still unaffected by heavy traffic and shoreline development, Greenwich sits in solitude.

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