A Hole in the Ice

By Bob Arnebeck

December 6, 2000: Ten degrees when I set off in the morning for the ponds, sunny and almost no wind. I went across the golf course, head down looking at the green pawings of the deer. Not many tracks down the valley, but it looked like a coyote crossed the Double Lodge pond. Up at the Big Pond Dam there was a little muddy strutting by, my guess, a mink. A little open water at the dam, open below the dam.

    I scanned the pond with the binoculars to see if the dark area in front of the lodge on the north shore was open water. I saw a beaver poke its head up - breaking the morning ice. The ice seemed safe enough and staying close to the edge I walked out to that lodge. The beaver stopped its chore long before I got there. I took a photo of the lodge, showing the efforts of the beavers to keep some open water

Of the dozen ponds that I regularly watch, the Big Pond usually has the least activity during the winter. If the past was prologue, the open water in front of the lodge would soon freeze up and the large pond would serve me best as a short-cut over the ice to the ponds where the otters were active.

December 16 almost 30 degrees in the morning and warm and rain predicted. I headed across the golf course on skis aiming to get at least to the Lost Swamp. I figured out a new way into the woods so I didn't have to take my skis off and the second time down the valley was much easier, as was the way to the swamp. I was so quiet that coming down on the old lodge on the south shore I was shocked to see a beaver out. It retreated as I came,

    but was not fleeing. He stopped next to a hole in the ice and began munching on sticks that judging from the worn path at my feet, it had just cut and brought down to the ice. I moved in another direction, away from it, but when I moved, it dove. I went by the old lodge - buried in snow and heard a great deal of beaver mewing in there. So they've been living here too! I saw tracks all over the pond, all proved to be deer.

The lodge in the photo above is the newest lodge on the pond. Directly across the pond from it, on the south shore, is a lodge the beavers had used three years ago, and then, as far as I could tell, abandoned.

December 21 when I neared the old beaver lodge, I heard gnawing. I soon realized that it was coming from a hole in the ice by the shore, the hole that I had seen a small beaver use a few days ago. There were at least two beavers gnawing in the hole and I heard two or three beavers swimming underneath. A small maple log was halfway down the hole in the ice. On the snow outside the hole were branches from the buck brush and willow bushes. I was quite close to the hole and judging from the swimming beneath some of the beavers had figured out I was there. Then one poked its nose out of the hole and sniffed the air.

After that I heard some pointed mewing; still, the gnawing resumed. Then I heard one swim into the area, give a few grunts and the two beavers who were there swam away, I assume to the nearby lodge. I went up to examine the hole -- two little stripped sticks bobbing in the muddy water. Over at the new lodge there is a pretty good winter food cache. Regardless, the beavers, evidently, have to take advantage of opportunities to get out from under the ice to get more food.

December 22 We had three to four inches of nice fluffy snow beginning at 4 am and ending a little after dawn. So I delayed going out to check on the ponds to give the animals time to make tracks. I went off on skis a little after 10 am and made good progress even though I lost the ice cover on the logs and rocks. I entered the ponds right at the beaver hole that was so active last night. I took a photo of it with the camera.

The beavers had been out since the snow stopped; there was a wide trough in the snow going up into the brush. And as I hovered over the hole, I saw the water moving and then a beaver growled at me and probably swam away. I suppose once the beavers establish such a set-up, they are prone to keep gathering wood because to stop even one night might cause the water below the hole to freeze up. Unfortunately I'll be away over Xmas and so won't be able to check up on this.

I was preparing for what I was sure would happen: the beavers would soon be defeated by winter. The week between Christmas and New Year's Day generally is the time when a deep freeze locks up the ponds, and snow covers everything. This year was no exception. But the beavers seemed unfazed.

December 28 I went up to the active beaver hole. They had not been out recently but I could see that the activity had increased with a large opening in the ice. Fresh sticks were about and outside the little hole. And that hole still had unfrozen water in it. Perhaps the beavers had been swimming under the ice and not venturing out into the cold air. I skied up their trail in the bush and saw what they were taking: one or two of the old gnarly bushes, and then quite a bit of small maple, going a good distance in, perhaps thirty or forty yards. Recall that earlier the coyotes had been all over this pond. Certainly felt good to be back and I soon forgot the inconvenience of aching thumbs almost succumbing to the freezing cold.

The nights remained cold and we had six inches of snow, and that always seems to blanket human senses. We expect all the world to obey nature's command to stiffen and lay low. Not the beavers:

December 31 Then as I skied back to the beaver hole -- on my route to home, I saw a little brown dome. A beaver's head! The wind was at my back and as I approached that head sank, as did another one, and then as I got close I saw a beaver head with snow on the nose! The beavers had broken open the larger lower hole in the area. It was filled with sticks and chunks of ice. I waited for them to resurface but nothing doing.

When I go out on skis in fresh snow, I generally don't take my camcorder. I wait until I wear down some trails I can have some confidence in. On the first day of the new year, I got a photo of the hole, just after the weather seemed to close down the beavers' operations.

January 1, 2001, The temperature was about 15 degrees, perfect for travel. But the freeze in the night iced over the large hole the beavers had opened in the Big Pond. Yet, I could still hear gnawing coming out of the small hole closer to the shore.

There must be some open water under the ice shelf. Indeed it looked like the beavers had been out on the their trail to the brush. By the way they no longer go up the slight hill but take a level route to the east.

And my next trip out I discovered that the beavers had fashioned a place under the snow so they could munch their sticks out of the reach of the cold winter wind and also up from the cold pond ice and water.

January 3 with the temperature hovering at 30 degrees I set off on foot, with camcorder. I reasoned that since the temperature had been above 22 degrees since 10 pm last night, beavers and otters and muskrats would have found the ice more breakable. I took my ski trail across the golf course and down the valley expecting to see once again three beaver heads in the large hole by the south shore of the Big Pond. This time I would sneak up on them and get good photos. Well, first of all slogging through the snow was almost difficult, but by not being on skis I could experience the pleasure of going over the great granite boulders on the gentler ridges. Plus going over the ridge between the valleys shortens the way to the beaver hole considerably. As I got there I could see two things: the larger hole was not open at all, and the small hole was jammed with just collected branches. I probably should have waited for a beaver to come out, but instead I walked up to the hole. First I heard munching and then I saw the beaver in the hole. It stuck a nose out and ducked back.

When I took another step it was off in the water.

I still checked the other lodge too; expecting that some beavers there would break out a hole. But I no longer heard mewing in the lodge. All the action was across the pond at the hole.

January 5 I could see a beaver out next to the hole on the other side of the pond. There was enough snow and wind to shield me and I got pretty close. Just one beaver was out, primarily eating the small stuff. I thought I might sneak by without disturbing it. No luck. It slipped back into the hole.

Meanwhile there was great excitement in the other ponds I watch. I was seeing a lot of otter slides and tracks. I write about my winter's otter tracking at winter.html

January 11 woke up to a cloudy and warm day; temperature 30 degrees when I headed off on skis across golf course. I usually don't use skis when it is this warm, but the snow is so deep the only other option is snow shoes and they weren't available this morning. I soon discovered some drawbacks. The wet snow on top of the ski slows you down. Then while the snow collecting on the bottom of the ski doesn't freeze on, it can slough off as you're going down hill, giving you a burst of sudden acceleration, which is to say, I fell down once! I anticipated real problems once I got to the Big Pond. I snuck up on the beaver hole. They had been out because I came down on a fresh beaver path. I saw a log a few inches in diameter across the lower hole.

I didn't see any beaver there until I took another slide closer and I saw the beaver's back as it dove into the water. The upper hole was also in operation though I heard and saw no beaver in it. I waited hoping the beaver would come back -- in vain.

January 13 Today my son Ottoleo went out with me on cross country skis, across the golf course and then down to the Big Pond. For the first time there was no beaver action in the hole - no gnawing nor splashes even. But their recent work was evident. Very cold last night but warm enough yesterday for them to be out and leave a new array of branches around the hole.

January 14 As I approached the Big Pond I saw where the beavers had taken down a tree at the edge of the woods, right behind a maple that the porcupine had worked on. I could see that there was at least one beaver at the usual spot by the edge of the pond, and so the game became how close I could get. I wound up getting rather close. To begin with I saw two beavers, one large and one small, both munching on sticks as they sat on the partially flooded ice beside a large hole between the ice and rim of snow. This hole was closer to the lodge. The larger beaver dove into the hole, not because of me. Indeed it soon came back up followed by another small beaver.

I kept creeping closer. The larger beaver paused to smell the air,

and soon after dove into the hole but the two smaller beavers remained, and remained as I stepped ever closer (stand still for a long time with snowshoes and when you try to move your feet, your first impression is that your feet are frozen to the ice and snow!) The two little beavers stayed on the ice, and kept working on the smallest twigs even though larger branches were up on the ice near me.

The bigger beaver surfaced again, but kept sniffing the air and seemed nervous. I think it swam up to the shore. I could hear gnawing from the land hole but could not see the beaver there. One of the smaller beavers had reddish fur and in its search for twigs it left the pond and began coming up the hill toward me. Then it stopped and sniffed the air, turned and went back down to where it had been and began munching again. The other little beaver would also stop now and then and sniff, then go back to munching.

I got a good demonstration that there is no method to their munching. At one point they were facing each other yet both ate so that the stripped end of the stick came toward me. The only noise between them was when one came over to get sticks close to the other. There was no shoving however, or nuzzling.

These beavers were rather small and given their disinclination to notice me, perhaps they were undernourished. My usual experience is for the smaller beavers to be far more likely to act like they know I'm around. Also these beavers were single minded in their eating. I so often make much of the beaver working five minutes on something and then moving on. These guys stuck to their sticks and only let up when I announced to them that I had to cross the pond. So I got a photo of how a beaver looks when it is being talked to:

They both dove but by the time I got to the other side of the pond, I could see that a beaver was back up.

It had almost been a month since I had been observing the beavers at this hole. Finally after that time I accepted what I was seeing. The beavers, all the beavers in the pond, had abandoned the larger, newer lodge that they had prepared for winter by packing mud and caching food, and moved into an older, small, and unpacked lodge that had the virtue of being where the ice was weak enough to break and where there was evidently more to eat on the shore.

I should add that there were other holes in the ice. Below the dam above the pond the ice was thin and easily broken. A spring kept a large patch of water open on the north shore about fifty yards above the new lodge. Indeed, last year the beavers had, late in the winter, gone out of that hole for foraging. And the ice behind the dam that formed the pond was, as is almost always the case, relatively thin. Here's a hole there on January 11, but the tracks are from an otter, not a beaver.

Yet there was something different about the arrangement on the south shore near the old lodge. The old lodge was but a few feet from where they made their hole. And what was especially convenient was that there were two holes.

The large hole, which could be about six feet in diameter during a warm spell, was typical of pond holes, totally dependent on the temperature and snow conditions. But the small hole was special. It began at the surface of the pond, then cut through dirt and out into the air so that a beaver could eat below the snow and above the water. In the fall, before the snow, I didn't notice this area. In April, I got this photo. The water level of the pond had risen a foot or more from its winter level, but you can get some idea of how the hole worked.

Of course the tunnel from the pond to the air was at an angle so that the pond surface below wasn't directly exposed to the air. That helped keep it from freezing at night during January, February and March, though I think the frequent activity of the beavers was just as important. To keep the hole and the opportunity for getting food from the pond shore, they had to keep using the hole. And, as you'll see on the next pages, as I continue the story in mid-January, they did.

Go to A Hole in the Ice: Part Two holept2.html

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