Published August 15, 2018
Quacking fills the air. Suddenly, a dozen or so ducks swim to shore, their swiftly moving webbed feet creating W-shaped ripples in the water. A duckling explores its new aquatic world. Nearby, a gaggle of Canada geese honk. An osprey circles overhead, scouring the water below for the catch of the day. And then — silence. All is calm on the water.
Off in the distance, cars hurry by. Greiner Hall and the Ellicott Complex loom large, filling with the hustle and bustle of university life. But out here, there’s a peacefulness, a stillness.
This is Lake LaSalle, the 60-acre, human-made body of water on UB’s North Campus that offers all a respite from life and its craziness. Built in 1970 to provide flood control and water runoff, the lake has been around for nearly five decades. But it has only truly come alive within the past several years, thanks to new recreational and research endeavors. It is now becoming the vibrant campus feature it was always intended to be.
Molly Dreyer is among those leading the effort. “I’ve always loved Lake LaSalle. I think it’s one of the most unique things about UB,” says Dreyer, who, after receiving her bachelor’s degree from UB in 2017 decided to return this fall as an environmental engineering master’s student. In the spring, she planned and implemented a living shoreline restoration project for the northern end of the lake, which had been experiencing erosion.
“We can really bring together a whole ecosystem through this planting,” Dreyer says.
The lake provides a habitat for a thriving community of fish, water fowl, birds and amphibians. But for many years, there was little life on the lake, no opportunities for the campus community to fully enjoy and embrace it. It was merely a scenic backdrop for pictures. The installation of a boat launch four years ago changed that.
“The installation of the boat launch was part of an effort to ‘activate’ the lake and engage the UB community, especially students, in nearby natural resources,” says Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer and whose office, UB Sustainability, has helped transfer Dreyer’s research into practice.
“While it’s nice to look at the lake, it’s quite another thing to be on it, to appreciate it, to feel it and to let it transform you when needed,” McPherson adds.
For her project, Dreyer assembled a team of more than 50 volunteers from around campus and the community to help plant more than 200 trees and shrubs and about 260 perennials to stave off erosion, as well as 600 aquatic plants — all native to the area. “It’s incredible that we’ve done all of this just on volunteer effort. It’s been great how we’ve been able to mobilize the community and the university to get all this accomplished,” says Dreyer.
The project offers ample opportunity for faculty and students from a range of disciplines to collaborate. In fact, Trevor Krabbenhoft, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and a member of RENEW’s Freshwater Coastal Ecosystems focus area, plans to conduct a fish tagging and movement study in Lake LaSalle, which could complement Dreyer’s shoreline restoration work.
In addition to the trees and shrubs, volunteers installed a 50-foot-by-150-foot wildflower garden that’s added a pop of color to the end of the lake that runs along Frontier Road near the Oozefest mud pits. The garden beckons a plethora of pollinators — from bees and birds, to butterflies — and a host of human visitors admiring the garden’s vibrant bounty of purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, elderberry and cardinal flower, among other native plants.
A few weeks ago, Dreyer and some volunteers gathered at the garden for a ceremonial butterfly release, signifying the importance of this new habitat, particularly for monarch butterflies, whose population has declined 90 percent from two decades ago, mostly due to loss of habitat.
Dreyer tends the site regularly and will be incorporating the project into her master’s work. She’s been encouraged by the reception her efforts have received. Earlier this summer, she was working at the site when a little girl and her father approached.
“She was running around all the trees, reading all the signs,” Dreyer says. “She told me she wants to go to UB when she’s older because she wants to help me with the garden. She was wearing a butterfly dress. It was just perfect.”
Perfect is how Russ Crispell, director of Outdoor Pursuits, which is housed within Student Life at UB, describes being out on the lake on a nice day. Four years ago, Student Life installed a boat launch on the southern end of the lake (near Starbucks) and began offering the campus community an opportunity to borrow kayaks and canoes.
“A lake of this size on a university property is really unique, and I think it’s a real jewel that we have,” says Crispell, who’s always eager to take visitors for a paddle.
Lake LaSalle has served as a beautiful backdrop for countless graduation and wedding photos, and the occasional selfie. On the water, though, you’ll see the North Campus from an entirely different perspective. You can paddle from the boat launch to the middle of the lake and marvel at iconic Baird Point. Feel the water push against your boat as you head farther northwest to find two tiny islands — careful, that’s where Canada geese lay their eggs — and catch a truly unique view of the Ellicott Complex.
This is why the canoe/kayak program has been wildly successful, with about 7,000 students taking advantage of it each season. Currently, Student Life provides staffing three days a week, from 4-8 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Boaters who have their own vessel are welcome to use the launch any time from dawn to dusk, as long as they follow the rules posted.
Beginning this fall semester, the UB community can use canoes and kayaks from 5-7 p.m. every day, weather permitting, instead of just three days a week. Crispell says it’s important that students see people using the lake on a daily basis to create a strong visual connection to it.
It’s not uncommon, especially on a sun-kissed day, to see several dozen students lined up waiting to paddle on the lake for a half hour. “It’s a great mental break from the rigors of the academic requirements that we have here,” Crispell says.
Gunnar Haberl, a senior and the incoming Student Association president, agrees. He’s been working with Outdoor Pursuits to expand use of the lake because there’s so much student demand for it.
“As students we’re under so many different pressures at the university, whether it’s academic or socially, and if you can just take that time to go out on the lake and have that 30 minutes where that’s all you’re focused on — you don’t have to worry about doing your homework or studying for an exam; your focus is just paddling on the lake and floating there. It’s here. It’s accessible to all students on campus and it’s just a great place to hang out with friends,” Haberl says.
Outdoor Pursuits has also worked to expand boating opportunities for UB faculty and staff. Crispell just received, via the Sustainability Committee of the Professional Staff Senate, a donation of seven green kayaks to be used for faculty and staff and, when not in use by them, students.
Lake LaSalle was always meant to be enjoyed. The lake was intended to be the focal point of the student experience when UB began building the North Campus in the 1970s, says Kelly Hayes McAlonie, UB’s director of campus planning.
“The original master plan for North Campus called for the lake to be the center of student life,” says Hayes McAlonie, who joined UB in 2010 and led the planning efforts for the new home of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“This was meant to be the heart of the student experience. Sadly, we got away from it. We forgot somewhere in the 1980s, but with the comprehensive plan from 2010, we’ve remembered again that we have a lake and we should be celebrating this,” she adds.
The 2010 comprehensive plan was UB’s first since the creation of the North Campus. It states that “Lake LaSalle represents perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of the 1970 plan…”
Over the past several years, however, UB has made strides in revitalizing and activating the lake. Future development on the North Campus will not only surround Lake LaSalle, but will celebrate it as well, Hayes McAlonie points out.
That’s what makes recent success stories such as Dreyer’s shoreline restoration project and Outdoor Pursuits’ paddling program so invigorating. “We’re really excited about the work that has happened so far, but it is just the beginning of a much more comprehensive and exciting plan to enjoy our lake as an asset,” Hayes McAlonie says.
The opportunities are endless, notes Dreyer, the environmental engineering graduate student. “It’s like a living laboratory.”
Kudos to Molly Dreyer for using her leadership skills for such a great cause for the university!
Lake LaSalle is a wonderful resource for our students. I don't think many people know how large it is and that it loops behind the North Campus.