By the time my eyes landed on the movement in the water that Tim had pointed to it slapped it’s tail and dove under the water. After a few minutes the head reemerged and kept it’s course up the chocolate milk water of the Green River in Canyonlands National Park. We were out for a five day float and, ignorantly, a beaver is the last wild animal I had expected to see in this expanse of desert. Previously, I had tried in vain to see the beaver family that had taken up residence in downtown Martinez, CA. They caused quite a stir one year when the flooding from their dam almost reached the local shops’ doorways. After we learned that there was a very active little beaver near Sagehen Creek Field Station, where we camped for our California Naturalists class last summer, Tim and I made a point to get out to the valley early before breakfast to see if we could catch a glimpse before they burrowed in for the day. It was easy enough to find the fresh cut stumps along the stream’s path, the many willow branches that had fallen off his haul while being dragged towards the beaver’s lodges or dams and the watery game trails meant to keep him safe in the water where they can keep a steady 6-mph clip with their oil slicked fur and webbed back feet. Once we felt confident that we had found the most active spot we settled in for a quiet wait to no avail. The next morning we aimed even earlier and copped a squat. For a brief fleeting moment we saw a little brown head skimming the water before it dove back down.
Beavers are perfectly designed for their watery life with clear membranes to protect their eyes and valves to close their ears and nostrils. They also have skin flaps to seal their mouths around their front incisors so that they can still carry branches while under water. Amazingly they can stay under water for a full 15 minutes before needing to come up for air. Vigilant and accomplished engineers the beaver builds dams (some up to 100ft long!) along streams and rivers to slow the water for both protecting the lodge down river and to mellow and deepen the water for better swimming. Beavers play a vital role in creating meadows by this backing up of the water. The meadows keep the trees from filling in or it kills them off by drowning them out. The meadows and pools are habitat for insects and aquatic plants. Fish and frogs eat the insects, moose and fowl eat the aquatic plants. The fish and frogs are also a food source for predatory birds. The lodges themselves are masterfully designed usually with two water entrances not only for them to come and go safely but it makes for a good swimming hole for baby beavers, who take to the water within an hour of being born. Having a second hole makes for an easy exit should the beaver’s #1 predator, the river otter, make an appearance.
Like many thick furred animals they were hunted in astounding numbers during a time when beaver fur was quite the fashion. Beavers are a great come back story in that, with protection and reintroduction, they have managed since the 1940’s to fill back in their original North American range. To the point where some consider them a pest of sorts. The range is massive. They can be found in almost all of Canada and the US except most of Florida, Nevada, Southern California and the tree-less tundra of the north.
Most likely because of their initial abundance the beaver started showing up on everything from the first Canadian coat of arms to magazine titles. In 1975 Canada bestowed the beaver the honor of becoming an official symbol of their sovereignty. Driving along highway 17 from Ottawa to Sault Ste Marie we point out a lodge to each other every km or so. Thankfully we didn’t see any roadside, if you catch my drift. Walking along the River Aux Sable from our campsite at Chutes Provincial Park I catch a swirl of brown fur in the water below the hill we’re standing on. Tim catches it at the same time and we still our pace and sort of hide amongst the trees hoping it’ll pop back up with us unnoticed. Sure enough after a few patient minutes there’s our beaver chug, chug, chugging up the river. One could easily see his little paddle slipping slightly from side to side to steer his course. At one point he moves past a branch and then doubles back to check it out before moving on again. It seemed it was more the effort of trying to avoid notice while moving up river and not our “camouflaging” in the trees that had him paying us no nevermind. He didn’t even seem fazed much by the ruckus of the folks camped out in the group camp, there to enjoy celebrating the “May long weekend” rather than really take in the nature swimming right past them. After several minutes we moved on not wanting to stress him out, after all his night was just beginning and as beaver nights go he surely had a lot of work to do.
Beavers are still trapped, mostly for a food source. Those that know say the meat is tasty and the paddle is considered a delicacy. I have a lot of respect for those that are able to feed themselves off what the land provides them, and make use of all the parts. Still though when I found myself running my fingers through a magnificently thick and soft beaver pelt hung up for sale in a small town supply store in the U.P. the very next day, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted about the life that once was. I guess I have an extra soft spot for nature’s engineers.