“What’s that terrible odor?” we asked ourselves while biking past the nearby Sauk River. We gingerly investigated: a roadkill beaver. Encrusted in flies, this one had died a day or more earlier.
Is it ironic that this is the first almost-live beaver I’ve seen, in the the last 5+ years of researching to write novels about the French-Canadian fur trade, with Andre and his fellow voyageurs hauling canoe-loads of beaver pelts to the rendezvous (“Waters Like the Sky” and “Treacherous Waters” with Book 3 in progress)?
Bill kindly took a better portrait than the one I took with my phone. In thanks, I offer this compendium of fun facts about beavers.
Beavers are herbivores, preferring aspen and willow bark, green plants, water lily flowers, leaves and roots, ferns, berries and sedge roots.
Predators include: bear, bobcats, goshawks, wolves, otters, people (trappers) and people, especially in cars and trucks.
The beaver is the largest rodent in North America, once weighing up to 60 pounds. They can live up to 24 years.
Those teeth: two pair of incisors that oppose each other — which sharpens them. The teeth grow their whole life. And, they’re orange!
Features include: webbed feet, one with a special cleaning claw; wide flat tails; oil glands for waterproofing their coats; clear eyelids that protect their eyes underwater; the ability to close their noses and ears and to empty loose folds in their cheeks, which lets them to sink in the water; tool-using front paws for carrying mud or moving branches to build of dams and lodges.
Seasons of their lives
Beavers are monogamous. Babies, called kittens, are born in spring in a litter of three or four. At birth, their tails are the size of a man’s thumb. Kits can walk at three days and can swim that first week — but not dive. Kits stay near the lodge for 30 days before getting survival lessons in the water, and then on land. Very susceptible to otters at that age.
In autumn, they stash and sink branches, prepping for the long winter months.
Beavers don’t hibernate, but around the winter solstice, they sleep, waking to eat from their stash and re-oil their fur.
Yearlings stay with their parents, but two-year-olds leave the colony to start their own as adults — the most dangerous time of their lives.
Intelligent and resourceful
Their lodges have separate areas for drying off and eating and for sleeping. The underwater entrance has escape tunnels as well. An air hole is at the top.
They usually fell trees close to a river. (However on the Sauk River, they miscalculated choosing a tree 100 feet from the river — an impossible carry for them)
They “engineer” dams, adjusting the water level in the spring, so the pressure doesn’t destroy their dam! Dams are built with deeply laid foundation, followed by many layers of branches cemented by mud.
Some beavers intentionally spring traps that are set for them.
They’re fabulous swimmers but walk on pathways next to the streams they inhabit — instead of swimming. If not sleeping in their lodge, they might bed down between boulders, in hollow logs or beneath fallen spruce trees (more danger).
Scent mounds — made of mud and castoreum, from their oil glands — mark boundaries between their lodges and others’.
The fur trade
Beaver felt was the best material for producing hats. When it was realized that Canada could provide vast quantities, the fur trade went into full swing and millions of pelts were taken each year, decimating the beaver population. It’s taken more than a century to recover.
When silk top hats (like Abraham Lincoln’s) became stylish, the market collapsed. That left tribes seriously in the lurch. They depended on that source of income—and trade goods.
How many pelts did traders bring to the rendezvous? How many million pelts did the company send to Europe in a year? How did they become hats? Say — new blog topics! Stay tuned.
Anahareo, a Mohawk woman, became sickened by the wasteful killing of animals by trappers, one of whom was her husband, Grey Owl. She rescued two beaver kits which the couple raised on Beaver Lodge on Lake Ajawaan.
In her book “Devil in Deerskins,” Anahareo wrote about the early days of being the beavers’ substitute mom: “The [baby beavers] were no cringing, terror-stricken things … but a pair of very wide-awake, aggressive personalities who gave themselves completely into our hands and proceeded to levy unceasing demands on our attention.”
The book “Wilderness Man: The Amazing True Story of Grey Owl” is his biography. He’d already begun writing on environmental topics; after the adoption of the beavers, he became an early conservationist as well. Chapters 10-11 tell of the beavers’ introduction into their lives. (Pierce Brosnan starred in a film on Grey Owl.)
Now the big question: What am I going to do with this beaver info? Find out in Book 3. (Request to be on the waiting list).
- Find out about the fur trade for pelts — read “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters.” Or the ebook.
- Got a question? I’ll research the answers for a future post.
- Subscribe to this free blog and read posts as they go online!
- Visit me on Facebook for quirky comments and current surprises. Share! Comment!
- Book me as a speaker.
- Ask your library, local school, gift shop to buy copies of “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters.”
“Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl” by Anahareo. University of Manitoba Press (Winnipeg, 1972)
“Jack: The Story of a Beaver” by Shirley Woods, illustrated by Celia Godkin. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Markham Ontario, 2002) for youth “Wilderness Man: The Amazing True Story of Grey Owl” by Lovat Dickson. Macmillan Canada (Toronto, Ontario, 1973)