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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eric's Beavers

One of my favorite books is Three Against the Wilderness, which describes how Eric Collier, his wife Lily and his son Veasy trekked up to the headwaters of Meldrum Creek not far from Williams Lake, BC, Canada and trapped furs for a living.  When they got there, the land was  desolate and there was not much of fur bearing use except coyotes. It was Lily's ancient Grandmother, a full blooded Indian, who suggested they go to that area.  Eric recounts:

    One evening while I squatted by her campfire, studying her wrinkled face, I said, "No trout stop now, Lala.  Just suckers and squawfish.  And now the Indians never bring beaver pelts to the store to make trade"
     She shook her head.  Her scraggy hand sought and found my arm.  Her fingers gouged into it's flesh.  Lifting her blank eyes to my face, she said swiftly.  "No, Not'ing stop now".  Her fingers relaxed their grip.  Suddenly she demanded. 

     "You know why?"
     I pondered this a moment, then hazarded, "Is it because of the beavers?"
     "Aiya, the beavers!"  I filled her pipe from the sack of tobacco I had fetched her from the store, passed it over to her and held a faggot to its bowl.  She sucked deeply at the stem, imprisoned the smoke in her mouth and then slowly expelled it.  "Until white man come," she then went on to explain, "Indian just kill beaver now an' then s'pose he want meat, or skin for blanket.  And then, always the creek is full of beaver.  But when white man come and give him tobacco, sugar, bad drink, every tam' he fetch beaver skin from creek Indian go crazy and kill beaver all tam'.  Again her fingers clawed my arm.  Harshly she asked.  "What's matter white man no tell Indian --  some beaver you must leave so little one stop next year?.  What's matter white man no tell Indian s'pose you take all beaver, bimeby (by and by) all water go too.  And if water go, no trout, no fur, no grass, not'ing stop?"
     After a few contemplative moments she suggested, "Why you no go that creek (Meldrum) and give it back the beavers?  You young man, you like hunt and trap. S'pose once again the creek full of beavers, maybe trout come back.  And ducks and geese come back too, and big marshes be full of muskrats again all same when me little girl.  And where muskrat stop, mink and otter stop too.  Aiya!  Why you no go that creek with Lily and live there all tam', and give it back the beavers."

That ancient Indian lady knew a thing or two that wildlife and fisheries biologists are only just reluctantly coming to terms with now.

Hand built dam is now overgrown with poplars*.
Of course there were no beavers around.  They had been  exterminated from all but the most remote corners of North America by the fur trappers.   Eric and family got busy rebuilding the beaver dams by hand.  The results were spectacular but you will have to read the book to see what resulted.  Chapter 18 makes the hair stand up on my neck.  It describes how, after 10 years of living in the area, building dams by hand and in so doing, restoring the environment, they acquired their first two pair of beavers which then took over the work of keeping the dams repaired and building new ones.  Below is part of chapter 18.

*Click on picture to enlarge

From Three Against the Wilderness

R.M. Robertson, a native of Glasgow, Scotland migrated to Canada in 1910.  He homesteaded on the flat plains of Saskatchewan in 1914, owner of one hundred and sixty acres of untiled prairie, his home a small hut with a sod roof.  If it had not been for World War I, Mr Robertson might today have been a prosperous prairie farmer, the hut with its sod roof a memory of a day when he hitched his team of horses to the doubletrees of a walking plow and turned the very first furrow in his rich Saskatchewan loam

     But by May 1919, when he stepped out of khaki, all he had in his pocket was a month or two of back pay, plus a hundred or so dollars of gratuity money.  He took a two-bit piece from his pocket, flipped it into the air and closed his eyes.  Heads he went back to the plow, tails he sought other employment.  Tails it was, so with a shrug of the shoulders, the ex-machine gunner turned his back on Saskatchewan's sod and pushed westward into British Columbia.  Outdoor life had ever had a magnetic attraction for Robertson's keen mind and in 1920 he joined the staff of the British Columbia Game Department with the rank of game warden.

     Game warden R.M. Robertson never limited his activities to enforcement of regulations alone, or to apprehension and prosecution of offenders under the Game Act.  He was more interested in what led a pair of Canada geese back to the few acres of water in which the hen bird had nursed her brood to maturity since first she laid an egg.  Of the horns and skull of a bighorn sheep, now crumbling to dust before the indifferent stare of weather, yet still visible on the slope of a hillside that had not been trodden by the species within the memory of living man -- what catastrophe, natural or man -made, had wiped these big game animals from the face of the land?  These and a host of similar questions were ever demanding explanation from the game warden, who whenever other duties allowed, was out on moraine-littered slopes or in sombre conifer forests, eyes searching for some clue that might lead him to the answers.

     The divisional inspector followed many a stream bed from source to mouth, examining the foliage that still clung tenaciously to the banks seeking answers as to why they were now dry.  And he too sensed that in the prostitution of the beavers lay at least part of the answer.

Eric takes up the story.

     Remote though we were in our lonely isolation, not too much touching  upon wildlife matters in his division went unheeded by Inspector Robertson.  Though no game warden had ever set foot upon it -- at least not since we had come to it -- not only its existence but also something of our activities to do with its beaver dams had reached the inspector's ears.  And believing that secondhand knowledge is a sorry substitute for that gained from personal observation, Robertson wrote me that he had decided to visit us and learn of our goings-on for himself.

     One day in late June of 1941 I saddled up my own horse and trailing a spare behind me, rode out to Riske Creek to meet the divisional inspector and guide him back to our cabin at Meldrum Lake.  For at that time it never occurred to me that any mechanical vehicle could possibly navigate the rock-littered track.

     He was cooling his heels at the trading post when I arrived with the horses.  About five feet nine, graying slightly at the temples, his one hundred seventy-odd pounds of well-knit flesh told of a body well tuned to vigorous outdoor exercise.  "He knows what the drag of snowshoes was on a soft day in March.

     Robertson fitted perfectly.  His left hand holding the reins was at the cheek strap of the bridle as it should be, his right on the saddle horn and not fumbling with the cantle.  When he hosted up he came lightly to rest in the seat, right foot instantly finding the stirrup.  The inspector was as used to the unpredictable manners of horseflesh as any cowpuncher working for the ranchers hereabouts.

     Not too much talk flowed between us as now at a trot, now at gallop, with the occasional walking gait between, our horses put the miles behind them.  That was another thing I liked about the man; instead of bothering me with small talk, he held his breath and gave all his attention to the countryside, marking a deer track when one crossed the road or the dusting place of a grouse whenever we passed one.

     Before getting back to Meldrum Lake, one minor incident took place that told me much of the mettle of the man who rode thoughtfully at my side.  We were skirting a small lake whose shoreline was fringed with a waving growth of foxtail grass, now heading out.  I was watching a brood of young ducks swimming parallel to the far shore.  Suddenly the ducklings huddled together and in close formation moved in toward the shore and the foxtail grass.  there they turned and swam parallel to the shore again for a few yards; then, breaking formation, two of them began moving toward dry land.

     The divisional inspector too had his eyes on the ducks.  Suddenly he braced back on his stirrups, brought his horse to a stop and sang out, "
     After staring intently at the other side of the lake, he breathed softly "over there in the foxtail, fifty feet from those two ducks -- can you see it?"
     Then I did see it, something that might have been a clump of foxtail grass waving in the wind but wasn't.  "Coyote", I announced.

     "The tail of one, anyway, " agreed the inspector.  "The rest of him is hidden in the grass."
     The bushy tail of the coyote was waving gently to and fro like a flag fluttering in the breeze, as the coyote tails have been waving in the long grass at the waters edge ever since there have been coyotes -- and ducks in the nearby water foolish enough to fall for the trick.

     "Curiosity," observed the inspector, "killed a darned sight more than the cat.  The owner of that tail is trying to bring one of those ducks within pouncing distance of its jaws by the simple trick of lying flush on his belly and using his brush as a decoy.  Inquisitive things, ducks, especially young ones."

     One of the ducklings was now out of the water perched on one leg, watching the movement of the tail.  Then at  a clumsy waddle it started toward the grass and the predator that lurked there.

     "This," the inspector murmured "we can not allow." And taking a deep breath, he got rid of it in one noisy shout.

     The Coyote heaved upright and for a split second stood broadside to us, ears in our direction.  Then his keen eyes spotted us, and wheeling, he streaked off through the grass.

     Quacking noisily, the inquisitive duckling scrambled for the water and splashed out to the others.  And breasts low to the water the brood moved into a clump of bulrushes out of our sight.
    "Ever see that type of hunting before?" Robertson asked.
     "Only once, I replied.  "that time it was a young goose, and the coyote nailed it."

     "I wonder," he mused "how many ducks and geese have fallen for that shabby trick since coyotes first got on to using it?"

     The divisional inspector spent close to a week riding-out traplines with me.  He fitted into the life as a shoe fits the foot of a well shod horse.  Come time to wash the supper dishes, he was out of his chair with the dish towel drying as Lillian washed.  He fired questions at Veasy, not only those relating to muskrats or mink, or deer and moose, but also may others to do with mathematics and geography and history and other subjects, usually talked of in a schoolroom. 
And to Lillian he said with a wink, "The adage 'spare the rod and spoil the child' doesn't apply here."

      On the final day of his stay with us, while staring thoughtfully out across one of the marshes, he said musingly, "It seems to me you could well use a bit of help in looking after all these dams.  Did it ever occur to you that if one happened to go out, the sudden rush of water would likely take a few others out below?'

     The thought of that had been bothering us for quite some time now.
At the time of spring freshet, or indeed when swollen by summer thundershowers, Meldrum Creek now more resembled a young river than any minor creek.  A river, moreover, that was barricaded here and there by some twenty-five dams lacking any proper spillway.  So far, none of the dams had been badly breached, thanks mainly to the mass of spruce boughs re-enforcing them.  But eventually the boughs must rot, and the dams settle, as some were doing already.  And if one of the major dams were to give, it was a highly debatable question, whether those below it could withstand the sweep of water that would come pressing in on them.

     As if arriving at some major decision within his own mind, but saying nothing of it to me, he repeated, "Yes, you obviously need some help."  But of what such help might consist of or where it was to come from he offered no clue at all.  Nor were we to be enlightened for a little while yet.

     Later in the year, writing in the Report of the Provincial Game Commission, Inspector Robertson had this to say:  "While on a recent patrol of inspection covering the trapline of Eric Collier, of Meldrum Lake, the potentialities of wildlife propagation were amply demonstrated on this trapline.  With use of only a pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow, Mr Collier dammed up some twenty-five of the old disused swamp lands which were once the habitat of beavers, muskrats, and other fur-bearers.  These areas ranged in size from eighty to five hundred acres each.  The runoff of the winter snows were held and the swamps re-flooded.  This was followed by the rapid appearance of muskrats and other fir bearers, waterfowl and big game, as numerous tracks testified.  In fact the whole situation and appearance of the country changed from one of apparent stillness and dearth of life to animation and restoration of its pristine condition.  The irrigation problems of an area contiguous to the Collier Trapline have been largely solved as a result of the above project.  The Collier project on the headwaters of Meldrum Creek is a brilliant example of what can be done in this very fertile field of endeavour."

     These then were the thoughts of Inspector Robertson of the British Columbia Game Department concerning the events that had befallen Meldrum Creek since we came to its headwaters.  But not until early the following September was I again reminded of his suggestion that "you could well do with a bit of help in maintaining all these dams."

     It was 10:30 A.M.  Lillian was busy with her sewing, stitching her winter mittens.  Veasy was hunched over the table, exploring the mysteries of algebra.  And I was checking traps to make sure their triggering was alright before we set them out in the woods.

     Suddenly Veasy's back straightened and he sat bolt upright, listening.  "What's that?" he exclaimed.

     I too listened a moment, then shrugged my shoulders indifferently as the faint hum of a motor came to my ears.  "Only a plane following the Frazer River north." I said.  For Canadian Pacific Airlines was now operating a plane service between Vancouver, B.C. and Whitehorse in the Yukon, and their aircraft often passed high over our cabin.
     "That's no airplane," Veasy insisted.
     "Then what the heck is it?"
     "A car."
     "A car?  Back here in this neck of the woods!"  I shook my head.  It was inconceivable.

     "It is a car," persisted Veasy, now from the open door.  "It's back there in the jack pines yet, but it's a car and it's coming in here."
     Lillian was at my heels as I heaved out through the door, and together we stood there, gawking in amazement.
     "Veasy's right," I said slowly.  "it couldn't be , but it is a car."

     The uneven throb of an automobile motor, hauling its chassis over a track that was far more suited to steel-tired wheels than one moving on rubber, was now certainly no trick of imagination.  A car was out there on our road, still perhaps a half -mile or more from the cabin but getting closer by the minute.  Soon we caught a flash of its blue body among the jack pines, moving very slowly and cautiously but moving just the same.  And we stood there, blinking and wondering.

     The automobile eased to a stop alongside us, and its driver lurched out of the seat, staggering a little as one is likely to stagger who suddenly finds his legs after being seated far too long.  He was lean and tall, between forty-five and fifty, his eyes for want of sleep, and yesterday's stubble still on his chin.  But who was he, and what was he doing back here?

     The stranger himself quickly answered that question.  "Game Warden Mottishaw, Quesnel Detachment, B.C. Game Department," he introduced himself crisply.  "You're Eric Collier --- right?"
     I inclined my head.  "Himself.  And this is my wife and son -- Lillian and Veasy."

     The game warden touched his cap, smiled a little and said.  "I've already heard about Lillian and Veasy."  Then his eyes went to his car.  He frowned.  "What a road!  Two blowouts, a broken spring, a buckled fender and a leak in the radiator.  I stopped that with chewing gum.  Why in heck don't you move some of those rocks and roots out of the right-of-way?" he barked.
     We've only been back here ten years," I grinned.  "Never got around to fixing up the road yet.  Hope to someday, though."

     The game warden dropped down on a block of wood and pushed back his cap with a slow, tired movement.  He wasn't wearing any uniform, just an old pair of tweed  pants and a coat of a similar material.  "Never mind," he said.  "I got here even if I did have to drive all night to do it.  But they're still breathing, and that's all that counts."

     Veasy's every attention was being devoted to the automobile.  he was fascinated by it.  He walked slowly around it, examining its tires, fenders and springs.  then he went down on his hands and knees, looking at its underbelly.  He peeked into the cab, at the instrument panel and the gearshift.  Then he stepped away, nodding his head, as if all that he'd seen was good.

     Making wild guesses as to who "was still breathing," I said to our visitor. "Step inside; it'll only take Lillian a jiffy to brew a pot of coffee and to get you a bite to eat."  He certainly seemed in need of food and drink.

     But apparently he didn't hear me.  He was at the rear of the car, fiddling with the handle of the trunk.  "Well, where are you going to put them? he asked sharply.
     I looked at him in bewilderment.  "Put what?"
     "Haven't got the faintest idea, eh?"  he said.  "Here, maybe that'll explain."  And he tossed a somewhat soiled envelope over to me.
     I tore open the flap and unfolded the single sheet of paper inside.  The words danced at me as I slowly read them, and their full meaning sank in.

     "Guard them and care for them as if they were children.  They're worth their weight in gold and if anything happens to these, you'll not be getting any more from us."

That's what the paper said and the brief note was signed R.M. Robertson, I/C C Game Division.
     I dropped down on a fender of the car, trying to steady my voice and my thoughts.  You mean they are----"  I began falteringly.  Then I broke off trying to collect my wits, eyes glued on the open trunk of the car.  "Beavers?" I gulped, scarce daring to utter the work.

     "Two pairs,"  the game warden affirmed crisply.  "Live trapped at the Bowron Lake Game Reserve for liberation on Meldrum Creek.  And I'd have you know that game reserve is two hundred and fifty miles north of here, and those beavers have been cooped up in the trunk of the car too long now.  We've got to get them into the water, and the sooner the better.  Where are you going to liberate them?"

     The irrigation dam was the closest and most logical spot in which to set the beavers free.  Each beaver had an oblong tin box all to itself,and one at a time we carried the boxes onto the dam.

     "One pair are two-year olds, the other three," the game warden informed us as he opened the drop doors of the cages.  Each box had to be tilted on end before its prisoners would come out.

     One at a time the beavers were coaxed away from their containers, and one by one they crouched low to the ground, eyes blinking stupidly at the sudden light, nostrils working.  Then the largest one of the lot, a male, I judged, went erect on the webbing of its hind feet, fore-paws doubled against its chest, as if in prayer.

     Smells mighty good, doesn't it big boy?" chuckled the game warden.  "And it'll feel a darned sight better than it smells.  So get going."
     Now that he winded the nearby water, the buck beaver waddled clumsily along the dam a few feet and then slid into the pond.  And with scarcely a telltale ripple vanished into its depths.  One at a time the others took to the water at the selfsame spot, and in  a few seconds, not a trace of them was to be seen.

If you want to read about the effect those beavers had on the area, you will have to get the book but let me assure you the effects were profound.  Another chapter that I find particularly amazing, chapter 27ff,  describes the flood of 1948 which inundated the Frazer Delta -  Every steam in the area added it's water to the river (Except for Meldrum Creek) but I don't want to spoil the story for you.

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