With her leash unhooked, Mia, the chocolate Lab, took off – tail wagging – to circle and chase other dogs at the new island Bark Park at Ellicott Creek Park.
Her owner, Laura Wright, paused to admire the newest feature of one of their favorite local places to go on a walk: the shiny new chain-link fence entryway from the bridge to the island along Tonawanda Creek.
The fence, which keeps dogs from wandering at large, is part of the Erie County Department of Parks, Recreation & Forestry’s new change for the island. Letting dogs off the leash had been against the rules.
But now, as part of a collaboration with the nonprofit Friends of Ellicott, the dogs are free to roam – within limits.
Last week, the Erie County Parks Department announced the second of its popular Bark Parks, located at the park’s dog-walking refuge of tall trees and stone picnic shelters. The county also offers a smaller Bark Park near the Black Rock Canal.
“This has just made my entire year. … Look how happy this one is,” said Wright, as Mia dashed to greet a Portuguese water dog. “It’s a beautiful snowy day, and she’s got cabin fever.”
Owners like Wright have long been coming here to unleash their dogs, in spite of concerns about receiving citations or complaints from other park users for letting their dogs run unfettered around the island along Creekside Drive in the Town of Tonawanda.
With new signs posted at the park and a supply station of plastic bags for cleaning up after their dogs, owners were out in numbers Saturday afternoon.
“Now I don’t have to worry,” said Kemal Koksal as Messi, his black Labrador, frolicked with Mia. “She used to try to run out. I love that they’ve got the fencing.”
Ellicott Creek regulars say the fence, which prevents dogs from bounding off into the parking lot, has been up since the Christmas holidays.
Friends of Ellicott, a nonprofit with 90 dog-owner members, had lobbied unsuccessfully for an off-leash park until Parks Commissioner Troy P. Schinzel said he was interested in a partnership.
“I almost fell out of my shoes,” said Mary McNeill, president of Friends of Ellicott and owner of a Norwich terrier named Lucy. “That was the first time I ever even got a ‘We can talk about it.’ ”
Schinzel agreed that the island, which is surrounded by Tonawanda Creek and only accessible by bridge, was perfect for a dog park. In turn, Friends of Ellicott will maintain liability insurance, clean up and may raise funding for park improvements.
Todd Cleckley’s three dogs have grown so fond of the island that they start barking at the stoplight on Niagara Falls Boulevard just before the turn into the Creekside parking lot.
“They’ve learned that when we get to that light, we’re about to pull in,” he said.
Cleckley said other park users won’t be able to scold him as one woman did, saying, “All dogs must be on a leash. I guess some can’t read.”
Yet he doesn’t want the publicity to lead to crowds. Cleckley said he and his partner and their dogs – “our kids” – are regulars of the island, which has always seemed like “an undiscovered gem.”
The tree canopy is cool refuge from the heat in the summer. It is big enough for both dogs and owners to walk around together and get exercise. When the weather warms, he likes watching people come to pick cardoon, a thistle-like artichoke that grows along the river and is sometimes used in Italian cooking.
“I hope that things remain the same,” Cleckley said.