A Story About Beavers
On a Thursday in May, I found the dead beaver washed up on a rock beside a dock off Picton Island. I hauled him into my row boat by his half bleached tail, putting him behind me so I wouldn't smell him. He 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 him 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. The story goes that when the summer came Ernie sent a bill for a couple hundred dollars. The boathouse owners 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 them, "I sent them all over to Picton." His grandmother was a Mohawk so who could doubt that Ernie had a way with beavers.
All this has little to do with beavers, except that ever since I buried that beaver from Picton Island, the beavers in what I call Beaver Point Pond on Wellesley Island have been exceedingly kind to me. All who have encountered beavers need not be told about the kindness of beavers. No animal can be ruder. 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.
It is said that beavers have poor eyesight. I'm not sure what that means. Mine keeps getting worse and yet I seem to be seeing a lot more in the swamps. You don't so much see in swamps as you sense shadows. So I think a beaver always knows when you are near his pond. I always take it as a compliment when I see a beaver and it neither flees nor thwacks the water - except in the early spring when they seem so hungry they would put up with a marching band in their midst.
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, which was new for me. 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 if the otters had left any scats on the rocks they usually favor, and I always hoped I would actually see them again. 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 the visit I'm now describing there were no otters. There was a beaver floating not far from me. I stood and watched him as I always do and was surprised that he didn't bang the water. He 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. There is always a shame in being caught red handed.
I made it across without any to do. I looked for the beaver and saw that it was slowly moving up below the rocks - otter territory. 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 vantage. A beaver pulling a sapling to the shore has all the sprightliness of 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 babies stretched up and began their meal by nipping off the leaves.
Beavers get a lot of work done in a way completely the opposite of the way we humans go about our tasks. We are more akin to the lower animals, say ants, and fret that nothing will get done unless there is regimentation and planning. It is one-two-three and we all pitch in at once, be it a hundred spadefuls, a hundreds chops or a hundred roars from the guns. The beaver has a curious way of rotating through all the activity around the pond. I will see a beaver gnawing on a tree trunk, usually no longer than ten minutes, and then it will move off into the pond and go down to another tree. Another beaver will come to the tree the other beaver left and start gnawing on it. A beaver, in our terms, is not individually a good worker. But all beavers seem inordinately curious about all work. They can't resist picking up where another beaver has left off. Consequently the beavers as a group get a great deal of work done.
All the times I've seen this shifting around, I've never seen any contention between beavers. But I had never seen a mother feed her young in this way. As you might easily picture, one of the little beavers, working in the crown of the little tree, got the pick of the leaves. The other beaver had the pick of the tender bark around the thicker part of the trunk. The leaf picker seemed to have more fun, but he was first done. He swam back toward the lodge but soon turned back seeing no better work around than what his sibling was doing. His attempt to horn in on the bark earned him a lunge from the bark-eating beaver.
The other curiosity was how these little beavers used their tails. An older beaver seems to have little trouble floating flat on the water and nibbling at the same time. At time these babies seemed to only be able to keep their head and jaws out by shooting their tails straight-up out of the water behind them. Fortunately there was no wind.
I had not lost sight of my guide during all of this, and perhaps he had not lost sight of me. He decided to imitate what the mother beaver was doing. He waddled up on land right in front of me, and took out, well, not even a sapling, just a little twig of a tree and brought it proudly down to the pond. Meanwhile up above mother dragged out another tree and took this one closer to the lodge. Perhaps there were smaller beavers there. I couldn't stay to find out. I had to go home to dinner.
The next time I went to Beaver Point Pond to check on otters a beaver sensed me before I saw him 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, early summer, the beaver eats roots that it pulls 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've often stood my ground at Beaver Point and the beavers have tolerated me. Two winters ago one beaver contentedly munched on a stick as I watched it from atop the point. It was not more that 20 feet away. Perhaps it knew the cold would drive me home soon enough. Now the time I'm writing about was a warm comfortable afternoon.
As I sat down in the shade just off the pond, a small beaver angled his way toward me, nose up and in no time at all gave me a splash. It circled as if to come in for another one and then a large beaver emerged and came close to me. How it scrutinized me in that imperturbable way a beaver can have! Indeed one of the little ones splashed while it regarded me, and it barely flinched. 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 -
with vehemence which in a little beaver means the back paws come out of the water in its effort to put all the force it can muster into its tail.
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 chawing 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. When they seemed to be gone I repositioned myself in a closer and more comfortable spot. Several minutes later one of the small ones came over from the lodge area toward me. It seemed that all the smelling and discovery of me that they had just done was for nought. Now they were playing a different game, each in turn, it seemed, coming at me boldly, weaving through the water and then zeroing in for a splash. One came too close and, when I dipped my shoe down to get a better view of it, dove quickly into the water. Then they came back to me as if playing another game - who could get closest to me without flinching. How their noses worked. And I shouldn't forget the ears - one kept wiggling its ears.
Meanwhile a deer came into the pond area across the way hopping over logs and feasting on some plants along the shore.
While it was there I was a victim of another tail splash. And how the deer carried on, clearing its nostrils with several snorts, as if it was shocked and embarrassed that it did not smell me and had to be warned by baby beavers. Of course it hurried back into the woods. The beavers seem to take heart at the deer's alarm and began playing a game I quite enjoyed, swimming rapidly in front of me but far enough away that I could see their heads break a wake in the pond water just where the stark bright grey reflections of the dead trees were.
Such rich colors, green, brown, sky blue, the color of the dead trees, the beaver itself reflecting the gold of the lowering sun. Then their tail splashes sent all that into undulations. These were tail splashes that seemed as much for show as for any purpose. They seemed to be perfecting the techniques of cruising and then speeding up and then with hind paws shooting out and tail shooting down showing me what for. Finally they tired of me and swam off into the distance. 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.
Of course I have written this story bit by bit and when I left off at this point I was at a loss as to how to end the story. The next morning 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.
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 five summers ago 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 him, and off he went rapidly back into the pond. I have thought many times since that I should have jumped in with him 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, 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 wwarning! But the animal I saw did not flinch. I trained my binoculars on him and began forming another impression. I had immediately noticed that his 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's. 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. 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 a Beaver Point that had just pounded its tail at me. Perhaps it wasn't me that gentle creature was mad at but the memory of the rogue beaver it and his mates had driven away. Here was a weary beaver preferring to sleep stretched out under the sky rather than hazard any more encounters in occupied lodges and burrows. He was not a resident because there was no beaver work there nor had there been for some time.
But perhaps there is a gentler explanation. Before this encounter I thought of ending my story by recalling the Indian belief that the prey of a hunter chooses to come and meet death, that there is brotherhood between the prey and the predator. This belief is easier to swallow when you are merely tracking, not killing, an animal. I can feel that I do not find the animal, or really track it, but rather that we meet by some arrangement of mutual need. Certainly with beavers I can feel that because they too like to look at other animals. I've seen them watch not only me, but the otters and the geese, both the great over-actors of the swamps.
Yet the nature of this encounter seemed deeper, for 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.
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