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"the shyest of all fur-bearing animals"
Hi! I'm Grace Evans and this is Dry Spell, my weekly letter of off-season reflections on canoeing. My canoe is turned over for the season so I’m back with my weekly dispatch.
Over the past two years my skill for spotting freshwater mammals has improved. Once my brother pointed out a mink to me for the first time two summers ago my peripheral vision caught their particular kind of loping, the way they throw their long tube-like bodies forward and gallop along the bank, a dark glossy outline against the grey-brown sand-dirt.
But then I didn’t see a single mink in my local marsh last summer. Instead I saw muskrats. I saw them chugging along the water, towing reeds and grasses and tugging enormous bouquets into their little burrows in the bank of the creek. Or hunched in a ball cleaning their paws on the muddy shore. So I had a mink summer with zero muskrats in 2020, and then a muskrat summer with zero mink in 2021. I’m curious about why and what was different. The mink galloped on the southern banks of the lake-like part of the marsh, and the muskrats swam the creek, but I paddled both areas equally each year. Was I paddling at a different time of day? Do mink and muskrat alternate years in their population surges?
But the freshwater mammal with the fewest appearances on my canoe routes are beavers. I’ve seen a couple on the marsh, one day I was possibly even the cause of a warning tail slap that echoed down the creek. Last winter I spent some time watching a large lumbering beaver trample the snow near the fishway in the dusk. I kept my eyes peeled in Algonquin as I moved past lodges and dams but no beavers revealed themselves to me.
I don’t know if I’ve improved my chances of beaver sightings from my canoe next year, but I’ve learned enough to make me curious to know more. I’ve rewatched these two documentaries several times:
Beaver Lodge Construction Squad (BBC Earth, 10 min)
Life of a Beaver (National Geographic, 46 min)
Highlights for me include: beavers permit tenants in their lodges, like muskrats, mice, and frogs; they keep a “fridge” with underwater access so throughout the winter they can grab food without surfacing; beavers mate for life and are very family oriented; and that they are are nature’s engineers and landscapers.
I’ve heard the phrase “beaver pond” many times but registered it as a quaint name, instead of describing a particularly biodiverse body of water. I’ve learned that when a beaver moves in they change everything. They create channels along the bottom of the pond, creating a dynamic pond bottom that can support more biodiversity. They dam incoming streams which slows the current, causing the water level to rise and flood the land, which brings more nutrients into the water. This made me wonder about the large, ghostly underwater tree stumps I’ve paddled over in Algonquin Park. Did beaver flooding create the wider waterways where I saw them?
The canoeist Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) is primarily known for her poetry and performance art, but I adore her canoe writing from the 1890’s. On one of Pauline’s backcountry camping trips, which happened to be in Saskatchewan, she saw a beaver for the first time. This surprised me since she grew up paddling the Grand River and by the time she wrote this article in 1897 she’d camped extensively in Ontario.
“Before six o’clock - owing to our praiseworthy early turnout - we had launched the dugouts, and were silently paddling down stream when a little incident occurred that entirely reestablished our guide in our best graces. He and Mrs. Wentworth were perhaps a boat’s length ahead of us, when suddenly he raised a warning finger, enjoined silence to his bow paddler, and pointed across and down stream. Instantly we were quiet as mice, gazing with greatest intent at a little skill and nose that floated a few yards off our port bow. Closer and closer we drifted in absolute silence, I steering our bulky craft without a ripple to herald her, my breath fairly abated with excitement. We were increditably [sic] near the little animal before he sighted or snuffed us, but no sooner were we discovered than he sounded his customary note of alarm, the sharp warning “whack” of his broad, flat tail on the water, and then skull and nose disappeared. We had seen for the first time in our lives Canada’s national emblem, the beaver, in his own haunts.
Many an idle day have I spent tramping through the Muskoka forests to hunt out stretches of beaver meadow, that, whether you are looking for them or not, always seems to burst upon your view with a rudeness that surprises you, the long grass-grown levels lie like miniature savannahs in the very heart of the forest, and at their lower edges the inevitable beaver dam, crested with scrub growth, living evidence that its usefulness is long since dead, that the water which in erstwhile days lay on these meandows like a lake have turned their courses into other channels, and the sturdy little animal who planned, and worked, and built his village highways, his secret habitations, his dykes, and his honest reputation at the same time, but with all my dodging about his haunts I never really met him personally until that day on the Saskatchewan, for he is the shyest of all fur-bearing animals, and is now, alas, about the scarcest of them.”
“With Barry in Bow IV,” The Rudder. 1897.
Where had they gone in 1890’s? I had forgotten about the fur trade, lasting from the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries and the starring role that beaver pelts played to supply Europeans with fancy felt hats. The sheer number of pelts being exported from North America was staggering, but Frances Backhouse writes that “it was the fur trade’s relentless, colony-obliterating progress across the continent, which wiped the species right off the map even as the cartographers were drawing it.”
I wondered what this meant for Algonquin Park. Concern over the loss of wildlife was one of the reasons Algonquin Park was created in 1893, though it seems like the creation of the park blatantly ignored the rights and requests of Indigenous people who lived on the land, and who would have likely looked out for the beaver themselves. After the park was established the beavers bounced back, “so much so in fact, that Algonquin Beavers were soon being dead-trapped to help pay the Park’s operating expenses, and also live-trapped to re-stock areas where Beavers had been extirpated.” Mammals of Algonquin Park says: “Even as late as the 1940s Algonquin was still one of the very few places in Ontario where either animal was present, let alone common.” Pauline primarily tripped in Muskoka, the region next to Algonquin, so her experience reflects this.
Here are some great photographs from the Friends of Algonquin Park’s online archives that illustrate the trapping that went on:
1915 or 1918: Beaver in a live trap caught near Joe Lake by rangers. This beaver's new home was St. Thomas, Ontario.
1916: Mrs. Frances Wollett holding a paddle and standing on a beaver dam.
1932: This is an interesting series to see how the park was promoting tourism at the Canadian National Exhibition. A ranger posing pulling a beaver’s tail. Live trapped beaver. The Superintendent of the Park with a live trapped beaver in front of a round log cabin. Probably wearing culturally inappropriate clothing?
1946: A park ranger live trapping beaver on the Bonnechere River.
1948: Two men carrying a beaver kit in a live trap.
1948: Two men moving a live trap containing beaver for restocking in James Bay.
1958: Live trap with beaver inside, Jack Lake.
In “Rethinking the beaver” in Canadian Geographic, Frances Backhouse writes that although beavers are once again thriving in North America, they fuel a lot of complaints, such as “when they compete with us for timber or meddle with the scenery, we also object when their dams flood highways, farm fields and waterfront real estate.” But a growing body of research suggests that coexisting with beavers will help mitigate the effects of drought brought on by climate change. “We need to rethink our relationship with beavers,” Backhouse writes, “and learn to appreciate them as stewards of our most precious resource.”
Days after announcing that beavers are my new favourite animal, the headline in my local paper was: “A dam problem: should the City of Hamilton kill beavers?”
This was jarring, but fit neatly into what I’d learned. It reminded me of the amazing story in Life of a Beaver where self-styled beaver whisperer Michel Leclair figured out ways to work with beavers to minimize flooding and damage in Gatineau Park, instead of killing them (watch 5:37-13:05). According to the article it looks like my city killed three beavers that built a 20 metre dam, but tries to avoid killing them when possible. Concerned citizens and one city councillor are hoping for a clear citywide policy in the future. Luckily, the managers of my local marsh are "at peace with the beavers” according to a 2014 article. At the time, the head of conservation said "We have about a dozen different beaver lodges.” I think I know the whereabouts of one of these lodges, in the creek. “As a general rule we don't worry about them,” he said. “They go about their business and things are fine." Which is nice to know, and hopefully I’ll get to see the creek beavers while out paddling next summer.
Thanks for reading Dry Spell. I’d love to know what you think; please feel free to leave a comment or reply to this email!
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