The gifts of George Merry’s long life are reflected in the faces and the landscape he sees every day. He’s known as a physician, a husband, a grandfather and a neighbour on picturesque Wolfe Island where he lives in southern Ontario. Now retired, he sees the legacy of his long-running practice in the growing families all around him. But the other half of his legacy is best seen from the shores of Big Sandy Bay.
Wolfe Island is at the entrance to the St. Lawrence River on Lake Ontario. It’s a close-knit community of some 1,500 year-round residents—although it nearly triples in size each summer. That’s when the ferry scurries back and forth across the water from the city of Kingston filled with visitors who come to enjoy the island’s small-town vibe and stunning shorelines.
Many of those visitors make their way to the beach on Big Sandy Bay at the north end of the island. They have George Merry to thank for the natural setting there known as Lasalle Marsh. In 1999, Merry donated an ecologically significant portion of his family’s land on the bay to DUC. The lush coastal wetland with nearly a kilometre of shoreline was DUC’s first gift of land in Ontario.
Merry then inspired his neighbours to help conserve more of the marsh around the bay. “Shorelines are becoming more precious and valuable as natural habitats,” says Merry. “People didn’t always understand the importance of them.”
When dawn breaks through the sky, the birds will fly
Very high numbers of waterfowl and landbirds have been recorded in the habitat over the years such as ducks, geese, swallows and owls, and including rare species such as least bitterns, black-crowned night-herons and black terns.
“There is no better feeling in the world than being in a boat at the northern tip of Wolfe Island when dawn breaks through the sky,” says Merry. “Thousands of birds—ducks and even sandhill cranes from the west—are flying overhead and the sight and sound is spectacular.”
Merry knew that protected wetland shorelines were increasingly rare in the Great Lakes region. At the time, he had already logged 20 years of volunteer support for DUC. A natural leader, Merry chaired the provincial volunteers and served at the national level on DUC’s board of directors. In 2012, he was honoured with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his dedicated service to conservation.
With population pressure evident in the region, the Wolfe Island community is aware that vigilance is needed to retain the quiet, rural character of the place. The ferry terminals were recently upgraded to meet peak summer demand for increasingly popular day trips and stays.
But the foresight of the community in protecting Big Sandy Bay’s natural shoreline has placed the future of the marsh in good hands. In 2021, DUC continued its stewardship of Lasalle Marsh with restorations to protect and enhance the wetland functions and ecology that support local biodiversity, pollinators, carbon storage, water storage, clean water and overall watershed health.
“The beauty of what Ducks Unlimited started almost a century ago is that preserving these natural spaces doesn’t only help migratory birds, it helps everything else as well,” says Merry. “Every summer, Big Sandy Bay is enjoyed by hundreds of people walking in from the gate by our former property and down to the beautiful sandy beach.”
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