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Starting in 1979, workers started dumping good amounts of dredge from the Cuyahoga River within a metal retaining wall fashioned along the Lake Erie shoreline, about four miles east of downtown. Over decades, ship after ship ladled mountains of river remnants into this small quarantined section known as Dike 14.

Then, without any other help from the hand of man, Dike 14 came alive.

Dike 14 8701 Lakeshore Blvd., Cleveland 216-341-9225

Seeds blew in and took root. Mammals and trees followed. Birders soon noticed that warblers, rare sparrows and waterfowl had a strange habit of stopping to rest atop a rather unsightly containment facility ironically shaped like a bird’s head.

Like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s table, a mound of garbage, compost, eroded riverbank, gravel and chemical waste became a thriving, 88-acre green space. In a primal way often masked by the modern world, nature took its course.

Dike 14 became the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve.

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“It’s the bottom of the river that we just put out there,” said Wendy Weirich, outdoor educator with Cleveland Metroparks and one of the dike’s die-hard champions. “We weren’t looking, and it turned into a nature preserve.”

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Today, the expanse courts white-tail deer, coyote, red fox and mink. Naturalists come for warblers in May, grasshopper sparrows in September and infamous October swarms of monarch butterflies. About 1.5 miles of grassy trails loop the preserve.

Invasive species dominate the landscape, but a few rare sedges have also popped up. In clear view of the Cleveland skyline, state researchers have been able to study succession in its rawest, most urban form.

Confusion over who actually owns the land — a former waste site started beneath Ohio’s most prominent natural resource — has kept the space from full-time park operation. Still, an ad hoc collaborative of northeast Ohio naturalists hosts regular open houses.

“People are really excited,” Weirich added. “We’ve had so many things come out of our burning river. This is one good thing. It’s magic.”

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