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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Voices from the Wild

Busy as a Beaver

By Tamia Nelson

A Note to the Reader

We've had unseasonably warm weather, and I've been taking every chance I get to spend time out-of-doors. While enjoying a last paddle on a nearby pond, I found unmistakable evidence that a beaver had been at work: a neatly-trimmed, gleaming white billet, hewn from the trunk of a small aspen. The longer I looked at the toothmarks that covered its surface, however, the more questions I had. The marks seemed much too regular for random gnawing, and I was almost certain that there was more here than met the eye. In the end, I took my find to an expert who'd worked on decoding Linear B. Here's what he discovered.…

November 25, 2003

Dear Tamia [the message began],

There's no doubt about it, is there? Winter's on its way. The days are shorter. The water's colder. The leaves have fallen from the maples, aspens, and birches. Even the tamaracks have lost their needles. Soon you'll be putting your canoe away.

Sorry. I forgot my manners. My name's Morgan. We've never met, but I've seen you and Farwell on my pond before, and I've heard you talking. That's how I learned your names. (I don't normally eavesdrop on private conversations, but you do paddle right by my lodge. And — I hope you won't be offended — Farwell doesn't exactly whisper, does he?)

I imagine you'll be getting your snowshoes out of the closet any day now. Me? I'm keeping busy. In fact, I'm as busy as a beaver. No surprise about that, is there? I've got a family to think of. Collecting enough food for the five months or so we spend locked under the ice isn't easy. Try it yourself sometime, if you don't believe me. We eat the inner bark of living trees, after all. Aspen's a favorite. It may be a "trash" tree to human loggers, but it's Grade A to us. We also like alder, willow, and birch. Of course, we'll eat almost any tree's bark if we have to. We eat buds and leaves, too, in season. And the large, fleshy roots of pond lilies. We won't pass up a chance to chow down on succulent ferns, either.

But the ferns died in the first hard frost, and they don't keep very well, anyway. Our pantry's under water, remember? That's why we'll be working straight through till freeze-up, felling trees and dragging them to the pond. And this is only the beginning. We have to trim every tree into manageable lengths, then float each piece out into deep water and wedge it into one of our storage piles near the lodge, all of them anchored by branches driven into the muck on the pond's bottom. A big job? You bet it is.

Still, the kids help. We've got seven living at home with us right now. The four older ones are hard workers. And the youngsters? Well, they try, bless 'em. But they're just babies, really. Mother pitches in, too, whenever she can. Luckily, the older kids baby-sit their younger brothers and sisters. That makes it easier for Mother to get out of the lodge.

You knew that we beavers sleep in during the daylight hours, I'm sure. But maybe you didn't know that it hasn't always been this way. We like the sun as much as you humans do, and we used to be out and about all day long. The Great Slaughter put an end to all that, though. The Survivors taught us to avoid crossing paths with your kind, and it's a lesson we've never forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind, right? So we work the night shift now. We only made it by the skin of our teeth.

Speaking of teeth, it's lucky for us that we're natural engineers. The Survivors didn't need to teach us that. What we build is built to last. Take our lodge, for instance. It's old. Older than Mother and me. Older than our parents, probably. Look at the grasses and blueberry bushes that have taken root on our roof over the years. Despite its age, though, the lodge has everything you'd want in a year-round residence. Two entrances. A carpeted living area. Bathroom. Split-level floor plan. We've made repairs and improvements, of course. We add new branches to the roof after almost every meal, plastering them down with mud and armoring the surface with small stones. And just last year we added a room for the older kids. (Me and Mother like to have a little privacy.)

Plus, it's all done with recycled materials. Waste not, want not. Isn't that what you humans say?

Our dam's old, too. It needs constant attention. Without the dam, we'd have no pond. If a beaver's lodge is his castle, then his pond is the moat, and it's mighty important to keep that moat wide and deep. Not all our neighbors are vegetarians. Coyotes and wolves, foxes, lynx and bobcats.… They're not the sort of folks we want dropping in for dinner, and I don't take chances. I inspect the dam each evening, making any necessary repairs immediately. High water takes its toll. So does ice. And so do careless canoeists. But like I said, we build things to last. The dam will be here long after Mother and I have gone. The lodge, too. You haven't forgotten how cold last winter was, have you? The ice didn't go out until late in the spring, and a groggy bear lumbered right up to the lodge. I suppose he was hungry after his long sleep. Anyway, he did his best to break into our home. He didn't succeed.

That's security for you. Maybe it's why the lodge attracts so many guests. A muskrat built a ramshackle bachelor pad in our wall a few years back. Even if he wasn't much of an engineer, he was a lively little fellow, coming and going at all hours. He's moved out now, but a Canada goose couple raised a family on our roof this summer. They started south only the other day. Come ice-out, though, and they'll be back. A pair of otters once set up housekeeping in the lodge, too. (This was when Mother and I were just starting out, and we had plenty of empty rooms.) In the end, however, I had to put my tail down. The smell of fish was bad enough, but when I saw the otters showing a little too much interest in our kids — they were our first children, and otters eat other things besides fish — I knew it was time to act. I sent the otters on their way. We meet them from time to time now, and they're always polite, but I can't say we'll ever be friends.

Well, that's enough gossip. The kids are restless. They want to get going. And we've still got an awful lot of work to do before winter puts an icy roof on the pond. At least I'll be able to relax a bit once that happens, though — and I'll get to spend a little more time with the family. It'll be the older kids' last winter with us. Next spring they'll leave to start families of their own.

Spring! It seems a mighty long way off now. But it'll be here before we know it. And then it'll be summer. That's my favorite time of year. Mother and I like to climb onto the lodge each evening, to bask in the last of the sun's warm rays and look around. Our pond's wonderfully alive then. There's the twilight chorus of birdcall and frog song. Dragonflies sweeping over the water in endless search-and-destroy missions, chasing down mosquitoes and blackflies. The orange flash of returning monarch butterflies. And the splash of leaping trout.

I do love that time of day. Sometimes the otter family passes by, talking to each other in that mysterious foreign tongue of theirs, nodding politely, but keeping their distance. (Like I said, we have an understanding.) Ducks dabble and dive for their dinner. Canada geese honk softly. Deer bring their fawns down to the water to drink. A bear thrashes through the fresh growth in the old fire scars, looking for early berries. Chipmunks and red squirrels chatter tirelessly, setting the world to rights, while turkeys strut and scrat in the thick duff on the forest floor. Across the pond, the white-footed mice who moved into the lightning-struck pine peek out of their nests, noses aquiver to catch all the smells in the evening air. Meanwhile, our kids will be splashing around in the shallows, playing tag before getting down to work. Life just doesn't get any better than this.

Mustn't let myself get carried away, though. Summer won't be here for six months. Winter's only beginning. There are chores to be done, and Mother's impatient to get started.

Best wishes to you both. Hope we'll see you back on our pond in the spring.

L.H. Morgan, PE

Dulce Domum

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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