Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Old Trapper and the rogue beaver

On Friday May 21, 1999, I found a dead beaver washed up on a rock beside a rock off Picton Island. I hauled it into my row boat by its half bleached tail. It smelled like a dead fish. Back at my camp, I got the beaver into several plastic trash bags, out of the boat onto the dock, into a wheelbarrow, then into a garbage can, and all that into my car trunk and then I drove the beaver to some land we have on the mainland and dumped it a few yards off the largest pond not far from a beaver lodge that hadn't been used in years.

I couldn't leave a beaver bleaching and bloating on a rock in the river just off a main channel.

I finally got around to burying the beaver on Saturday. That same day Ernie died. He was the oldest trapper on the island, and I hope the last. He had nothing to do with my dead beaver. Ernie hadn't trapped in years, but when I heard, two days later, that Ernie died on Saturday, the image of the black earth granting the dead beaver a measure of peace came to my mind. Ernie's better stories were about muskrats who can be so contentious when they are trapped or cornered. He said beavers were gentle creatures even in death. At Ernie's funeral a story was told about how he was hired to clear the beavers off a small island where they were damaging a boat house. When the owner came back in the summer, Ernie sent him a bill for a couple hundred dollars. The boathouse owner questioned the bill since Ernie had no evidence that he had trapped any of the beavers. "I didn't need to trap them," Ernie told him, "I sent them all over to Picton." His grandmother was a Mohawk so who could doubt that Ernie had a way with beavers.

And after burying that beaver the day Ernie died, my stories about beavers suddenly got better because the beavers in what I call Beaver Point Pond on Wellesley Island became exceedingly kind to me. Beavers can be rude. If they want you out of their swamp they thwack their tails down on the pond water with unmerciful force. They might leave you alone after one thwack, but generally they keep at it until you leave. I always take it as a compliment when I see a beaver and it neither flees nor thwacks the water.

My first encounter with beavers after I buried the one from Picton came when I was on a mission to check the pond for otter signs. I had seen otters there twice in the spring. 

Before I had only seen them in the fall. So I periodically went out in the morning or early afternoon, so I wouldn't disturb the beavers, to see otters or at least any scats they might have left on the rocks they  favor.  I check the pond by approaching as quietly as I can, then sitting and checking out all the shadows. One time my eyes saw the wind lapping up the fronds of some pond plants, but my sense of shadows made me look back at one point and soon enough two small otters materialized.

But on this day there were no otters. There was a beaver floating not far from me. I stood and watched it as I always do and was surprised that it didn't bang the water. It floated slowly down along the dam which I regretted because I crossed the pond by walking down the dam, following the beaver. I hate it when I walk along a dam and a beaver comes out and pounds water at me. It's always a shame to be caught red handed.

I made it across without any commotion. I looked for the beaver and saw that it was slowly moving up below the rocks. It crossed my mind that I was being guided. Atop the rock - broad smooth granite - I got a vantage of the pond above Beaver Point, a pond I call Otter Hole Pond. I could see some beavers just beyond Otter Hole dam and then I sensed a shadow along the shore. A beaver was taking down a small maple tree. I scrambled down the rock to get a better view. A beaver pulling a sapling to the shore has all the sprightliness of a playful bear cub which, indeed, a large beaver resembles. This evidently was a mother beaver for she was serving two small ones floating a few yards out in the pond. Here was a show. The mother moored the sapling in front of them and the two yearlings stretched up and began their meal by nipping off the leaves.

In 4 years of trying to watch beavers,  I had never seen a mother feed her young in this way. I had heard the rustling of leaves and gnawing at night, but not in the broad daylight. I was lulled into thinking I was treated to a scene of perfect contentment. Then one of the yearlings tried to horn in what the mother beaver was eating and was warded off by a vigorous lunge.

Then I had another surprise. There was another adult beaver up on the wooded slope and it gnawed off another branch and took it to the pond. And yet another surprise, a smaller beaver, I assume the one that lured me up this way, came up the slope and fetched a small branch and took it back to the pond.

The beavers' tails were used to balance their bodies in the water as they nibbled leaves off the branches, not to slap the water and drive me away. I was amazed.

I strained to see where the beaver near me was taking its smaller branch but had to crouch down again because it came up the slope again right before me. Then there were tail slaps from the other pond. The beaver in front of me paused, then continued up to fetch another branch. Apparently it got the same impression I did, another beaver slapped its tail not because of me but because of the on-going tension between adult beavers and yearlings hogging the delicious leaves.

 I guess all their eating made me hungry. I went home for dinner.

The next time I went to Beaver Point Pond to check on otters a beaver sensed me before I saw it and gave me a hearty splash. I regretted that because I actually came out more to see the beavers than the otters. At this time of year, late spring, the beavers often eat roots that they pull up from the bottom of the pond, and I wanted to try to get a picture of that. I didn't let the splash deter me. I sat down on a shady rock anyway, after all, I had buried that beaver.

A small beaver angled its way toward me, nose up and in no time at all gave me a splash. Then as it circled away a large beaver emerged from the pond and swam close to me. How it scrutinized me in that imperturbable way a beaver can have! One of the little ones slapped its tail again, but the big beaver didn't flinch. Then it raised its nose, sniffed several times, turned its back on me and I braced myself for a loud splash.

None came and it glided down along the dam.

I turned back to the others - four of them, three small ones swimming before me and a slightly larger one chewing a root further off. The three came at me with I hoped new appreciation for their mother's (I assume it was their mother) approval of me, or so it seemed to me. One beaver would not be persuaded and splashed me again -

Fortunately two other beavers couldn't seem to get enough of me, swimming before me; they even bumped noses. 

How delightful to see their black noses, glistening wet, lifted out of the water. These two swam together as if conferring and then to my relief, for I don't like to be the center of attention, one scooped a root up out of the pond and began gnawing at it - well briefly. Then they both regarded me again - one with its tail cocked. There was mewing; one came up to my feet and swam back, mewing again and then it was as if there was a decision that nothing could be done about me. They dove, three of them again, for roots and just to my side I saw what I came to see, a beaver sitting out of the water holding a little root with its two small paws, like it was clutching a trump card. Then it began gnawing and eating it with that definitive crackling, crunching sound of chewing and gnawing that a beaver has.

One of these beavers had a curious way of getting roots. It looked down into the pond water and then seemed to twist like a living corkscrew.

Soon they all moved further up the pond diving for roots at their leisure. All this time the mother could not be bothered. Where in the pond she was, feasting on roots I assume, I know not.

I hated for these games to end. I know they were playing games because I have seen beavers when they were alarmed, when a mother brooked no nonsense and tremendous tail thwacks sent all small beavers into hiding. Other times a beaver would not deign to smell me and immediately signaled its displeasure. These beavers always came back as if calibrating their sense of smell, and testing their eyes. Or better yet, I hope they did to me as I have so often done to them, made me an object of their imagination and gave to my ungainly human form and mysterious human mind many of the finer attributes of beaver-life.

Well, I can go on and on about beavers. And as was writing about this in the summer of 1999, aiming to submit an article to the local weekly newspaper, I was at a loss as to how to end the rambling story that begins with my burying a dead beaver the day Ernie the trapper died. Then the morning after my writing ground to a halt, I went out for a long hike to check for otter signs. A hot spell was coming and in mid-July they can be bad. I wanted to see what had been happening before I hunkered down in the cool river. I did see several fresh otter signs and as I went from pond to pond began to fancy that I was on the trail of the otters. Grass was worn as if an otter had passed; I saw a few prints; some mud in the grass too. But I passed all the big ponds and saw no otters. In a way I was lucky because I didn't bring my video camera and so wouldn't have a record of anything remarkable. My "friends" at Beaver Point Pond were not out. I had taken some kids there a few days ago and the beavers put on a good show for them. Then up at the pond above, where I had seen the adult beavers feeding the yearlings. I didn't see beaver but I heard several tail slaps, not given as an invitation for games. So I moved on to other ponds looking for otter signs.

After two hours touring the ponds, I left the last large pond and faced two ways of getting home, along the ridge or along a series of diminishing ponds. I compromised and went down as far as what I call Middle Pond. I had not see it for awhile. It is hardly large enough to warrant a name, perhaps 20 by 30 yards. 

But I named it because in the summer of 1994 a memorable beaver family lived there. One beaver had grey whiskers! And another beaver was the largest I had seen or since seen. Really it was that large one who turned me into a beaver watcher. I remember a hot day, so hot I walked in only my shorts, when I came down to Middle Pond and sat and to my amazement this huge beaver came to the shore before me, came on land, stood up to nibble a tree, until I turned my head slightly to get a better view of it, and off it went rapidly back into the pond. I have thought many times since that I should have jumped in too and gotten all my questions about beavers answered! After that year the beavers stayed out of Middle Pond. Often the muskrats entertained me there as their busy jaws subdued the grass.

Anyway as I walked above the Middle Pond in July 1999, with my shirt off under the noon day sun, I saw something dive in the water too large to be a muskrat. I was almost certain it was an otter. It made an arching dive down and I saw enough of the tail to convince me. I watched it go down the shore, dive twice more and then it  disappeared. I know the pond well enough to know that at the place where it disappeared there is a burrow in the bank. Had I discovered the otters den? I waited for it to come out, but it didn't.

I first thought I would leave the pond so as not to scare the otter and come back the next morning to see it again. But I decided to walk down, high on the ridge, just to make sure the otter had not slipped down to the next small pond and then to the huge bay of the St. Lawrence River beyond. I passed under some rocks on the ridge with obvious animal scratchings leading to holes in the rock. I thought this would make a good otter den. Then I turned to look down at the pond and there was the animal, ten yards up from the pond, ten yards down from me, lying flat on some bare ground looking at me. I did not move and it lay its head down as if going to sleep.

While I would not expect an otter to act like that, I had seen them on land enough to know that they do stretch out at times on dry ground. Then I heard a screech from behind me - perhaps an otter in a hole calling a warning! But the animal I saw did not flinch. I trained my binoculars on him and began forming another impression. I had immediately noticed that its drying fur had a lighter and redder hue than I'd expect an otter's fur to have. Plus it had small ears like a beaver. Then I saw that its tail was not all fur. It was a beaver. Soon enough I heard that screech from across the pond - a bird.

Still, what I was seeing amazed me. I had never seen a beaver on land that was not on full alert and quick to come attention and sniff the air at any odd sight or sound. This beaver was sleeping exactly as a human would, lying on its side, feet comfortably half curled in, not stretched out like a dog or folded in a crouch. Its head was angled to the side as a human would, not square to the ground. I didn't know it then but learned later that beavers sleep on their backs. Was the poor thing sick? I had just seen it diving for roots in good form; its eyes healthy; no marks on its fur. I moved down a few steps to get a better view of its tail. It stirred just as a sleeping human would shifting
just slightly for more comfort.

I decided it was a beaver who had reached the age when it must leave its parents and home colony and fend for itself which often entailed confrontations with other beavers protecting their ponds. I thought of the beaver back at Beaver Point that had just pounded its tail at me. Perhaps it wasn't me that gentle creature was mad at but the rogue beaver. Here was a weary beaver preferring to sleep stretched out under the sky rather than hazard any more encounters in occupied ponds. It was not living in Middle Pond because there was no beaver gnawing there nor had there been for some time.

But perhaps there is a gentler explanation. This young beaver was before me acting like a man. Why wouldn't Ernie be exhausted as he searched for his new home? I snuck away, letting him rest in peace.

That ending was good enough for the local newspaper. Then there was a better ending a year later. On May 22, 2000, exactly a year after Ernie died and exactly a year after I buried a beaver beside a pond on my land, I saw a beaver swimming in that pond. 

I'd never heard of restoring beavers by burying one next to an empty pond, but thanks to old Ernie, it seemed to work for me.

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