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Dam-Nation! Close Encounters With the Earliest Engineers

by Tamia Nelson

It's impossible to talk about canoeing without mentioning the American beaver. A modest and self‑effacing creature, he nonetheless played a pivotal role in opening up the North American continent to European settlement. It's an honor he'd have been happy to forgo, however, since it pretty much wiped his tribe off the map. But now he's back, and this means his dams are back, too. That's welcome news. Beaver ponds are always good places to spend a little time. And this week, Tamia's doing just that.

By Tamia Nelson

July 11, 2017

Article by Tamia NelsonAs Robert Traver — the writer who gave the "fish car" to the world — never tired of reminding his readers, beaver ponds are among the trout fisherman's best friends. They're also delightful places to dip a paddle. Whether you're listening to chorusing peepers in April, ghosting along under the full moon in July, or contemplating the reflections of the tinted hills in September, beaver ponds have something to offer every canoeist and kayaker — every canoeist and kayaker who doesn't live solely for whitewater thrills and chills, that is. And the best thing about beaver ponds is this: The never‑ending, ever‑changing show is free. The beaver does all the work. All he (or she) asks by way of payment is a bit of bark and some lily roots. Which makes our centuries‑old war against the beaver hard to understand. Or it would do, if there hadn't been a pile of money to be made by killing beaver and selling off their skins and glands to the highest bidder. That hasn't changed. Money talks, and when it does, it speaks with a thundering great voice. It did in the 17th century, and it does today. If anything, its trumpet blasts have gotten more strident.

Still, after being hunted to within a hair's breadth of extinction throughout much of North America, the beaver has now come back. His tenure is precarious, however. As the suburbs chew their way through forest and marsh, beaver have fewer and fewer places to call home. A beaver pond located in a state or national park is one thing. It's an amenity for the tourists. But a pond that encroaches on your patio is something else. It's an emergency. So it's a safe bet that before too many more years pass, we'll once again drive the beaver back into life's shadowlands. And then, sooner or later, he'll follow the dodo and the passenger pigeon into the perpetual night inhabited by nature's discarded experiments. Sic transit gloria mundi.

But that hasn't happened yet. The beaver is more than holding his own. This won't come as a surprise to most canoeists, who often encounter beaver ponds when they're making their way down a river — or up a river, if they're among the bold souls who choose to go against the flow. Of course, beaver ponds don't just happen. They're constructed, and this is where beaver get creative. They size up a stream as a potential home, and if they like the neighborhood, they build a dam. Water then backs up behind the dam, and the result is a beaver pond.

Simple? Yes, but by this point, you may be wondering …


And why he chose to cross it with a dam. It seems like a lot of trouble to go to, and it is. What's the explanation? Easy. Ask any economist. She'll tell you: self‑interest. When an animal — any animal, whether he's Bucky Beaver or Warren Buffet — makes an investment of time or treasure, he's hoping for a return. The American beaver is no exception to this iron law, and once the pond fills in behind a beaver's dam, he has the perfect site for his notion of a "des res" — the iconic beaver lodge. The pond offers security (many predators don't like getting their feet wet), access to transport (water makes it easy to move things like felled trees to where they're needed), and a well‑stocked pantry (lots of succulent greens in the shallows and plenty of trees along the shoreline). What more does any young beaver with his way to make in the world need? Except a lodge, that is. But with the closet of the woods to draw from, building a lodge is child's play. OK. We're talking beaver here. Make that kit's play.

The bottom line? A beaver pond is an engineered environment. Just like us, beaver aren't content to leave the landscape as they find it. That said, maintaining engineered environments isn't easy. It is, in fact, a full‑time, year‑round job. And in the beaver household, it's a family affair. Mom, dad, and the older kits ("yearlings") all pitch in. The dam must be kept in good repair. If it's breached, the lodge's moat can pour through the gap. Which means that damage from floods and heavy rains must be put right immediately. Droughts can also leave the lodge high and dry, as tributary streams slow to a trickle or stop flowing altogether. At such times, water conservation is imperative, and any leaks in the dam have to be plugged without delay. Nor does the need for maintenance end when ice sheathes the pond in winter. Even though predators can then move freely across the frozen surface, the beaver family go about their business pretty much as before, relying on the pond's icy armor for protection. The iced‑over pond does double duty as the family larder, too. Food stored under the ice — tree limbs and branches, mostly — sustains the resident beaver through the lean winter months.

Each season obviously brings new challenges. It's all in a day's work for the beaver, however, and the never‑ending cycles of construction and repair have been going on for tens of thousands of years. Until we came along, beaver were the continent's premier landscape architects. And unlike many of our own "improvements," the work of countless generations of beaver always left the land better off than it had been to begin with. Beaver ponds are both sponges and reservoirs, soaking up floodwaters while maintaining streamflow in times of drought. We humans would therefore do well to pay attention. Now that we're wholeheartedly committed to reengineering the world's climate, with deluge and dry spell likely to follow hard on each other's heels with little or no respite, the beaver dam–beaver pond complex could provide a much needed buffer, gentling at least some of the wilder swings in the hydrologic cycle. Beaver dams also trap sediment, ensuring that the meadows left behind when the pond's residents move on to pastures new are uniquely fertile. (All impoundments — including those created by our own imposing concrete confections — are necessarily ephemeral. Sediment eventually fills the basin to the brim. Building the dam higher buys time, as does dredging, but at some point a new dam will have to be built at another location.)

Did I mention that beaver ponds are havens for wildlife of every size and description, from minnows to moose? Well, yes, I did. I hinted at this in my first paragraph. And it won't hurt to say it again. But there's one flaw in this picture of paradise found: the dam. Of course, there wouldn't be a pond if it weren't for the dam. Still, if you're in a canoe or kayak, and if the dam just ahead is the tenth you've had to haul your boat across since breakfast, you may start to wonder if you didn't miss the turning for paradise. You might even think you've drifted into hell.

But be of good cheer. It's not a life sentence. Beaver dams are only commas in the narrative of any river trip. They're not full stops. Seeing a beaver dam ahead of you needn't mean paradise lost. At worst, it's paradise postponed. Trust me: You'll be on your way again before you know it.


Farwell returns next week to finish off bucket lists. A hint: serendipity rules! And next month? I tackle the finer points of getting your boat over beaver dams, swiftly and with style.

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Then e‑mail Tamia.

Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

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