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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Learning to live with the beaver

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 6/17/20

In 1995, I received a copy of a book entitled “When Beaver Was Very Great: Stories to Live By,” a compendium of tales from Anishinaabeg storyteller Anne M. Dunn. As I prepared to write …

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Learning to live with the beaver


In 1995, I received a copy of a book entitled “When Beaver Was Very Great: Stories to Live By,” a compendium of tales from Anishinaabeg storyteller Anne M. Dunn. As I prepared to write about my world surrounded by beaver, Dunn’s title story popped into my mind. She writes of an unspecified bygone age when beaver grew very large. Prehistoric skeletal fragments from the Ice Age indicate Castoroides grew to be eight feet tall and weigh three hundred pounds. Her story is about the competition between Beaver and Human over who would prevail as the world’s greatest landscape architects. I’m not convinced that this contest has ever ended!
Thanks to beaver, I am an “island dweller”. They are my neighbors, friends, “formidable opponents”, and at times, my nemesis. They live in three creeks that surround my little island of high ground, the creeks that drain miles of untouched spruce and tamarack swamp. The ones where my young sons spent hours catching water bugs and taking mud baths. Well, decades later, these creeks remain an intrinsic part of my life.
They have changed over the years right along with the humans who live along their banks. These small rivulets often swell into wide tributaries of the Little Fork River, a main artery of the Rainy River Watershed. This relatively nondescript network of streams provides perfect habitat for the American Beaver, Castor Canadensis, the second largest rodent in the world. The same river system also became “perfect habitat” for early human settlers to this territory. They, too, saw the many benefits of homesteading beside flowing water. Rivers were “highways” before there were roads. Both beavers and humans know a good thing when they see it.
Here are a few factoids…Beavers live an average of ten years. That’s a lengthy lifespan in the wild. They mate for life and are expert homebuilders. In fact, residential home construction is their main occupation, after keeping the family fed, of course. Their expert craftsmanship is a major factor in their longevity, not unlike humans. Beaver lodges house the entire family — Mom, Dad, and kits who reside with their parents for two years before leaving to find a lifetimmate of their own. The lodge is a fortress from predators, a shield from Upper North America’s bitter winter temperatures, and a remarkable example of engineering genius. A beaver lodge in northern Ontario was spotted in a satellite photo and measured close to 700 feet across. And they last many decades whether active or abandoned.
To locate the ideal place to build a lodge, beaver utilize a heightened sensitivity to subtle, ever-changing sounds of the flow and volume of moving water. And it must have abundant grass, brush, rocks, mud and mature timber, all materials needed in the construction of the lodge as well as the dams that will impede flowage, producing ponds large and deep enough to protect against intruders. As humans terrace hillsides, beavers “terrace” stream beds.
The dams are complex structures built to last. Just try tearing one apart and you’ll know what I mean! John and I have attempted to control flooding on our land many times by punching an opening in one of many nearby dams. With axes, adze and hoes, what might begin as a quick and easy fix soon becomes an extremely laborious undertaking.
A dam begins small but soon its width and breadth increase, the water behind it slows and deepens, and before long, a once-small mass of debris bridges the creek from bank to bank and is soon wide enough to portage. No matter how hard we’ve tried to interrupt beaver’s efforts, more often than not, we have totally failed. The beaver have staked their claim, completely flooding 40 to 50 acres of woods. If undeterred, they will continue building, raising the height of the water even further, claiming more and more territory while dramatically altering the landscape.
Beaver are very smart and very able to elude predators, including humans fully-tooled with snares, foot traps, conibears, buckshot, and even dynamite. So, in this contest of “man against nature”, it’s your call who to name “winner” and “loser”.
Beaver were once treasured for their thick, shiny fur that made dapper hats, warm coats and chopper mitts. In fact, their pelts were in such demand that beaver were trapped nearly to extinction. When I moved to Linden Grove, it seemed nary a man over fifty hadn’t trapped to supplement his household income. Then came synthetics. As the fur market declined, so did the number of trappers. Now, few remain in the area. For some, it’s a hobby. But others are contracted by county highway departments responsible for keeping beaver numbers down to prevent highway washouts. This spring, we were visited by three trappers asking to scout and remove beaver from our land. Before granting permission, we conducted a “cost-benefit analysis” of sorts. You see, these furry fellas don’t just make trouble, they make wonderful reservoirs that sustain life even in the driest times of summer — wildlife as well as our own.
We’re avid gardeners with a goal of growing and preserving enough produce to feed us year-round. When the bogs dry up, usually by mid-August, so does our creek. But not with beaver around! The beaver pond supplies a continuous source of water all summer long. For that reason, we thank our lucky stars that we’re still granted a say over their fate — whether to blow their dams or let them stay. We weigh the value of “many trees saved” against “many lives lost”. The pond is home to huge numbers of insects, birds, minnows, frogs, and waterfowl that bring us a lot of joy. They will most likely be sacrificed by trapping and then blasting the dam.
The nights are awfully quiet after the heavy hand of man has sent a hoard of co-habitating creatures downstream in one furious whoosh! Our smaller dam will be spared. Our garden will be watered. We humans will be left behind, able to live on, privileged, relatively undisturbed with our home still intact. We remind ourselves the manmade mud-plain that remains will soon green up again. And, “Glory be!”, signs of nature’s cycle of renewal will become evident again.
A few days ago, we spotted wood ducks who’d relocated upstream. A bittern, unseen for years, was sighted not far from our culvert. The geese and cranes have stuck around despite the disappearance of our beloved beaver lake. So, let me close with this. Read Anne Dunn’s book. It can help us understand this ever-changing world in which we live while in no way diminishing its wonder!


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  • genebaland

    I always enjoy Kathleen's comments on the world, wildlife, politics, and all of the other topics she enjoys telling us about from her point of view and observations. Thanks Kathleen, keep them coming!

    Saturday, August 22, 2020 Report this