Part 28 of the Journey Along the Shores series takes a look at our work to stabilize the canal banks and create vistas throughout the course
“What are you doing down there?” That is a frequently asked question that floats down from the ridges and bridges as we undertake work on the canal banks. The short and pithy answer is “weeding”. As is the case with many aspects of the journey along the shores, the full answer is a bit more involved, touching on golf, ecology, community and aesthetics. Retrovation work on the banks provides and instructive example of the broader effort to maximize the potential of our community golf course.
What is Retrovation?
Land is constantly evolving, subject to the forces of nature and the hand of man. During the process of creating the Ecological Component of the Canal Shores Master Plan, we were informed by the experts of the simple fact that a true restoration of our site was not possible because the canal is man-made. Restoring our property to its natural state would require filling in the canal. This is the same problem faced by many golf club green committees. It is often impossible to go back to square one, leaving it up to the leaders of a renovation project to decide how to proceed. Similar to many golf courses and clubs, we decided to move steadily forward with renovating Canal Shores while honoring its roots. We’re undertaking a “retrovation”.
What that means is that we have studied the ecological history of the area, and the design history of the course. Insofar as we can given contemporary constraints, we are basing enhancement projects on that historical perspective. For example, the photo above shows an early view of the canal, with the El bridge between the 12th and 3rd holes. The slopes are grassy, with dotted shrubs and trees. This hardwood savanna habitat is one of several native options recommended to us by the ecologists, with prairie and wet meadow being the others. This original intent for the land has been lost under invasive overgrowth, but we can retrovate it over time.
A priority for our clearing efforts has been in areas where issues of playability and safety exist on the golf holes. As the recap video below indicates, improving scale and visibility were the goals of the work performed on the 16th hole this fall.
The thrill of taking on the challenge of clearing the canal on this par-3 can only be fully experienced if players are able to see both the water and the land on the far side. Knowing the punishment for a poorly struck tee shot heightens the excitement and quickens the pulse. Pulling off the carry and seeing the ball land safely on the other side is the satisfying payoff that keeps players coming back. An added benefit of our work is that visibility improves safety in this section of the course that is highly trafficked by walkers.
Beyond the 16th, our ridge and bank clearing has focused on areas adjacent to tees and greens. The more buckthorn and invasive vines we cut back, the more sunlight gets to the ground and air flows over it. Those are the conditions necessary to keep our turf healthy and happy.
One of the many problems created by the invasive species that have overrun Canal Shores is erosion. This seems counterintuitive for those who are used to looking at the course from eye level. They see green and assume that all is well. Taking a closer look beneath those green leaves reveals bare ground caused by the thick canopy of buckthorn and vines. That exposed dirt slowly washes off, destabilizing the roots of the trees. The trees begin to lean and ultimately fall, ripping up the bank as they go. The cycle of erosion continues. In some places on the property, the issue is quite evident and will need to be addressed with machinery in a larger renovation. For now though, we can help to stabilize the banks through clearing.
A seed bank of grasses, flowers and other forms of ground cover exists throughout the course. When we clear brush, vines and dead trees, the sun hits the ground allowing the seeds to grow. Plant coverage is what holds the banks together best, and although some of the plants that grow are undesirable, we are also seeing stands of goldenrod, phlox, milkweed and other pollinator-friendly natives. After clearing, we can enhance the areas over time according to the guidelines of the Master Plan.
Compression & Release
In addition to being a fun and playable golf course, we also want Canal Shores to be visually interesting and beautiful for the broader community. Diverse, healthy habitat is one factor in achieving that goal. Employing the design principle of compression and release is another. This concept was advocated by Frank Lloyd Wright and his landscape architecture contemporaries, and basically refers to complementing confined spaces with more expansive ones.
As players and walkers make their way around Canal Shores, they will find alternating sections—some with dense vegetation and trees, and others with open vistas containing specimen trees or small copses that have been tagged by the ecologists for preservation. These complementary spaces create a rhythm to the journey of compression and release. The map below indicates (in purple) where we have begun to create the vistas.
At the north end of the property an opening is planned right of the 6th green, allowing players to see Wilmette Harbor and Lake Michigan from the upper tee on the 7th.
Restoring playability and visibility to the 9th is well underway. A vista between the 3rd and 11th greens has also been started.
Clearing to increase light and air for the 13th green and 2nd has begun to improve turf health, while also creating a vista. The areas between 14 green / 15 tee and 17 green / 18 tee are also being opened up.
In keeping with our theme of community, these vistas also allow visitors to catch glimpses of other people enjoying outdoor recreation. There is a pleasurable camaraderie that is fostered by seeing our friends and neighbors at play that extends beyond the course out into the community.
At present, these clearing and enhancement efforts carry on in “pilot project” mode, but with an eye to bigger retrovation steps in the future. We welcome volunteers willing to come pitch in labor, as well as donors who would like to sponsor improvements. As we make progress, we hope that you come out to visit and enjoy our open banks.
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf