It is dusk. They swim together across the pond to a tasty patch of cattails. They dive for the roots, come up together, and chew the wads that they hold in their long orange-nailed fingers. They roll around, holding each other for a few moments, until one floats silently to a willow stand, cuts four plants – chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp – with its very long orange front teeth, then disappears seamlessly with the willow bouquet, into the lodge for the kits.
A little while later, she is seen floating in stillness. Peaceful, in no hurry, she watches.
Then more willows are cut, the small branches discarded, to float downstream to the dam, to be woven later. She eats the bark, like an ear of corn, manipulating and rotating it with her hands.
They both swim to the dam for their nighttime vocation of building, weaving alders and willows, and patching with mud and rock. He clutches a wad of mud he has just dug to his chest, swims to the chosen spot and pats it into the dam with his hands. She brings a rock in just the same way and places it strategically against a leak.
Each evening, the beavers eat first, but are always doing at least two things at a time – shaping sticks for the dam, while eating the bark. The original multi-taskers. They keep the water table high. They attenuate floods. They prune the willows perfectly, so that they grow back plentifully to use for the dams, lodges and for feeding their families.
How do they decide which dam to construct, patch or change on any given night? Is the plan to work on the lodge tonight? It all seems so architecturally planned in advance, their vision and foresight astounding. I can just imagine them, glasses on their noses, consulting the blueprint that they created. They get so much done every night, yet they never seem to be in a hurry. Always deliberate, but always serene. I aspire to the cooperative way in which they work, as well as their tranquil steadfastness.
All the other wildlife are dependent on these sleek, shoe- button- eyed, large nosed and round- eared creatures with the big flat scaly tails and bright orange teeth and nails. The wetland is here because of them. This whole valley was influenced by them before they were trapped out in in the mid 1800’s. They are a “keystone species,” meaning they are central to the survival of many.
There was an effort from 1930 – 1950, to reintroduce them, but beavers are now considered a nuisance, and hated by many. However, some of us know how beneficial to the land and ecosystem they are, not to mention our hearts. We appreciate that our neighbors on both sides love them, and understand their role.
The first year we were here (we bought our land in 2004), there were two families of beavers – one at either side of our land, just over each boundary fence. They both had a lodge, and they both had babies. There were no beavers on our land, only old abandoned remnants of dams. We would gaze longingly at the neighbors’ ponds and wish that we too could have beavers on our land.
We enjoyed visiting the lodge closest to our camp site (on the east side of our land) every evening. It was exciting to watch them, to listen to them talk to each other, and to share direct eye contact with them as they swam in circles, studying us.
An adult would appear first, circle the pond, then dive under and back into their lodge to have a family discussion about us. “Eeee eeee eeee. Mmmmm, ah mmm eeee eee. Are they safe? Are they the ones that were here last night? Eee, oh mmm?” Their sound reminded me of a cross between guinea pigs and a litter of new puppies. Who knows, not that I would EVER anthropomorphize, but they could just as easily have been saying, “Gosh Dad, are you going to bring us some willows or what? We’re hungry!”
Then up would pop a youngster, who would swim briskly around, dive, come up again, and invite play. Pretty soon the whole family was swimming together, eating some, carrying willow sticks to the dam, and putting new mud and sticks on the lodge. Then inevitably, BOOM – the loud tail slap, and they would all disappear in a flash.
We enjoyed that family for a couple of years, but during the summer of the third year, the creek dried up. People whose families have lived here for generations said they had never seen it dry up completely. The beavers had just started to build a dam on our side of the fence. Though beavers are good at survival, they are totally vulnerable without water. Sadly, we watched the family disappear one by one. We were sad for a long time over that loss. The lodge, without maintenance, fell apart, as did the dams. I don’t know if they were killed by coyotes, bears or lions, but their predators too, were desperate without water, and needed food. The next fall, a rain event washed the dams away, leaving only a few sticks, chewed in beautiful patterns.
I look forward to telling you about all the beavers on the west side, on another day. Also, about all the beavers we have had and have on our land. They have been a great source of joy for us – the beavers themselves and the ecosystem they have created. It has been an interesting, fun, creative and funny dance – encouraging them, but also working with some of their more undesirable behaviors, and figuring out how to solve some of those differences.
We built our new house overlooking the west side pond, and the pond on our land, and have been watching them from our porch, and from the other side of the creek for several years now.
Though climate change has brought us many losses over the years – species lost, beaver colonies lost – today we have beavers. Today the wetland is full of water. Today, I am grateful. Hopefully, we will have lots of snow, and the ecosystem will enjoy a wet spring and summer.
I find it difficult to prevent my mood from being dependent on how much water we have in the creek. I strive and choose to be happy, not “because” of anything, but happiness for its own sake. Climate change challenges me on that score. I work with that one a lot.
Look for the next beaver installment called, “Beavers are Great, but They Ain’t Free,” but first, there are other animals to talk about.
Thank you Brett Housego for taking the picture of the beaver while you were here visiting from Scotland.