Friends of Lower Lake volunteers restore native habitat

Postcard of The Canoe Club c.1920

The Shaker Parklands, a green oasis in the midst of suburbia, span Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. The boundaries are North Park Boulevard on the north; Eaton Road on the east; Martin Luther King Boulevard on the west; and an irregular line following Fairhill Road, South Park Boulevard into West Park Boulevard, South Woodland Road, and South Park Boulevard on the south and southeast. The main artery is Doan Brook, which spills into Lake Erie. Everything that happens in the Parklands doesn’t stay in the Parklands. Everything that happens ultimately impacts the Great Lakes, the largest body of freshwater in the world.

The Parklands contain four lakes. The Shakers first deforested the area 200 years agao by damming Doan Brook for lumber and flour mills, creating Horseshoe and Lower lakes. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Van Sweringen brothers dammed the South Branch to create Marshall and Green lakes for their Shaker Village “Garden City” development.

The Parklands as a whole are under the oversight of the three cities, and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District manages the hydrology with major infrastructure projects. The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes manages its 20-acre green space, and the Doan Brook Watershed Partnership (DBWP) convenes an advisory group, the Parklands Management Committee, to address land management across municipal borders.

In spite of the many capable and well-intentioned governmental and nonprofit entities that oversee the Shaker Parklands, one vital aspect of its environmental health has been neglected: plant life. Attention is paid to the water in the watershed; to paved trails for running, bicycling and walking; to environmental education for young children; to trash removal; and to mowing and blowing the grass. But tending the health of the vegetative habitat has been neglected. The Parklands have been invaded by aggressive non-native plants.

Japanese knotweed, tree of heaven, porcelainberry, honeysuckle, English ivy, and buckthorn have outcompeted the indigenous plants that support the native birds and insects dependent upon them. Unless they are removed and replaced with native plants, and a maintenance plan is created, the entire watershed is imperiled.

Many people have become alarmed by the dramatic degradation of the Parklands habitat, particularly at Lower Lake. With land stewardship and restoration activities its most requested volunteer activity, DBWP convened a meeting of volunteers who want to make a difference at Lower Lake, and Friends of Lower Lake (FLL) was launched. The mission of this new citizen-led DBWP volunteer program is to restore habitat and biodiversity at Lower Lake, in partnership with the stakeholders who oversee the Shaker Parklands.

FLL selected the Canoe Club site on the south side of the lake as its first project because of its historical significance and outstanding vista of the lake. The Canoe Club was built in 1909 and razed in 1976. The building housed 30 canoes, and the club presented annual regattas for many years, attended by crowds of up to 5,000 people. The foundation, complete with a cement boat launch, has been filled in with 40 years of silt overrun by porcelainberry, poison ivy and more.

Volunteers of all ages, including Boy Scouts from Troop 22, have been working Sunday mornings since May to expose the foundation and remove unwanted vegetation.

“It feels so good to be working locally on the environment,” University Heights resident Emma Shook said. “This has been bothering me since I first moved here.” Cleveland Heights resident Nancy Thrams said that she’d put it “out to the universe to do something at Lower Lake” when she first saw evidence that people were working there. And Kathy Smachlo of Shaker Heights is using expertise developed from years of gardening with native plants in her own yard to whack away at honeysuckle roots and suggest replacements.

FLL is realistic that habitat restoration and maintenance is a project with no end. There is not only physical work to be done—the cities and organizations that oversee green space need to create a vision and a maintenance plan for healthy habitat that goes beyond mowing and blowing. But someone has to start somewhere, and FLL has done that.

On a recent Sunday morning at the Canoe Club, volunteers stopped to look up at two osprey as they swooped to snag goldfish and flew off. A kingfisher rattled its call, a hummingbird flashed by. Dogs, new babies, runners, walkers, friends, and strollers wended their way on the path. People said “thank you for what you are doing.” Some asked, “How can I help?”

To volunteer, e-mail More information is available at

Peggy Spaeth

Peggy Spaeth is co-chair, with John Barber, of Friends of Lower Lake.

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Volume 11, Issue 9, Posted 1:12 PM, 09.01.2018