Judy and Lou Probst (Photo by NCC)
Lou and Judy Probst: Guardians of the Carden Alvar
When Lou and Judy Probst first visited Ontario`s Carden Alvar looking for land to buy and protect, their knowledge of the area was rather limited. They had no idea that alvars were globally rare habitats in great need of protection. What they did know is that their world travels had showed them much of what conservation can do — from both sides of the coin — and they wanted to protect their own piece of Canada for themselves and for others.
Judy was a born naturalist. With parents who were avid birdwatchers, it was only natural for her to have an innate interest in wildlife. In the 1960s, Lou and Judy visited Kenya together and were awed by the beauty of the land and the abundance of wildlife. "Once upon a time in North America it was [abundant] like that," remarked Lou on a phone call from his home on Carden.
Judy and Lou Probst with two of their dogs, Bacchus (left) and Esther (right) (Photo by NCC)
In travels to southeast Asia, the Probsts saw the opposite. "We travelled in Borneo, Malaysia and Indonesia. There they had cut down forests for palm oil plantations," said Lou. Seeing a clear-cut like that can be absolutely heartbreaking, but also very eye-opening. For Lou and Judy, worldly people with a love for nature, this was hardly news, but it did set to motion their plans to try to save a small part of Ontario upon retirement.
"We were attracted to Carden because of the diversity of habitat," recalls Lou. "We didn't know anything about alvars then, but there were woodlands, wetlands, meadows. We knew that the variety in habitat would mean a variety of species. It's now even more special knowing the global significance of the place."
In the early 1990s, Lou and Judy found an old farmhouse on a significant piece of land and scooped it up. In the first year, they visited the farmhouse mostly on weekends, while renovations were being done. The house had only a summer kitchen — no insulation — but Judy moved in for the first winter, with Lou continuing to join her on weekends. The renovations and expansion took about a year, after which Lou and Judy moved in permanently.
Alvar pavement shows through thin soil in patches (Photo by NCC)
"It's beautiful here. There are very few people — you can barely see the closest house," Lou tells me. "We have annual encounters with American black bears and they are never a problem; you just need to be aware of them. They often wait for us to put food out for the ducks and geese, then once we've left they go eat it."
Since moving to the Carden area, Lou has become very involved in the local conservation community. He chairs the Carden Plain Important Bird Area Committee, co-chairs the Carden Nature Festival planning committee, chairs the Environmental Advisory Committee for the City of Kawartha Lakes and serves on the Board of Directors for the Couchiching Conservancy. It's no wonder that in 2008, Lou received the prestigious W.W.H. Gunn Conservation Award from Ontario Nature.
A wetland on the property that the Probsts acquired on Carden Alvar (Photo by NCC)
Lou and Judy had always planned to gift their land to NCC, but back at the end of the 1990s the Probsts also helped to bring to fruition the Nature Conservancy of Canada's (NCC's) first successful conservation project on the Carden Alvar. The opportunity to protect Cameron Ranch was brought to NCC's attention through Lou's connections with the Couchiching Conservancy.
This began a long-time partnership for NCC, not only with Lou and Judy, but also with the Couchiching Conservancy, which has seen more than 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) protected across Carden Alvar; the most recent of which is the addition of the Probsts' own property — the 489-acre (198-hectare) McGee Creek and Cranberry Wetlands.
The golden-winged warbler is at risk both provincially and federally (Photo by Bill Hubick)
The Probsts' original plan had been to leave the land to NCC in their will, but then the question, "Why wait?" arose and they decided to make the donation while they would still be around to see its benefit to the larger Carden Alvar conservation efforts. Despite a lengthy severance process, which allowed the Probsts to keep their house and 100 acres (40 hectares), the land was officially placed under conservation ownership at the tail end of 2008.
Long-time supporters like Lou and Judy are critical to conservation efforts across Ontario and the rest of Canada. NCC is indebted to their support over the last decade, and for their generous gift of land, which protects habitat for at-risk species like golden-winged warbler and Blanding's turtle, as well as important common species, including frogs.
"To protect species you need lots of space; connected space, so species can move around," notes Lou. Thanks to the Probsts, species across Carden have lots of protected space to roam, and it's still growing.