There was one animal in the Boundary Waters that wasn’t shy – the beaver.
Go ahead, make your jokes. We did. And so did everyone else in the vicinity of Ely, which contains at least one retail establishment called “Beaver’s Liquor.” (I thought using the possessive form was an unforgivable punt, but not everyone is as vulgar as I am.)
I had one good photographic opportunity of a beaver during this trip, and it was on the first night when my body was screaming from the effort of propelling 150 pounds of gear down a river and into our campsite. That night was the only good light of the trip, and the local beaver was busy paddling to whatever wood it had in mind to chew that evening, its wake silhouetted gracefully in the orange light of sunset. My mind seized on the possible photograph as soon as I saw it, but my arms had taken the evening off. I eyed my camera’s dry box across the campsite from a reclined position, unwilling to get up and retrieve it.
I justified my laziness by insisting to myself that I would have other opportunities when I wasn’t completely bonked. Of course, that never happened. Clouds set in the next day, and while there was always a resident beaver at our campsites, any photo of them would have been useless.
So every day I lamented my inability to capture my “beaver shot.” Har har.
Even though the Boundary Waters is home to all kinds of charismatic megafauna like wolves and moose and bears, the truth is that no other animal had a greater impact on both the landscape and our ability to navigate it than the beaver. From the moment we put our boats in, our route was dotted with dome-like beaver lodges, and often obstructed by their dams.
Work on these dams proceeded rapidly; several of the dams we had no trouble getting our boats over on the way out were nearly unmanageable on the way back. Fred, at all times the very soul of empathy for the world’s wild creatures, declared one day that the beavers were overdoing it. “Come on,” he exclaimed as we surveyed yet another freshly fortified dam we would be required to cross. “I’m starting to think this is a hobby.” I imagined the beavers peering out of their lodges, snickering as I stepped gingerly onto the wobbling web of sticks and tried to haul the boat over without falling on my ass.
But a hobby it is not. As maddening as beaver dams are for the paddler who wishes to keep her feet dry, dams are a matter of life and death for the beaver. Beavers build dams in order to provide an enclosed pond for their homes that both deters predators and allows for a supply of protected food.
And even if beavers could taunt people with their dam-building skills, I don’t think they would. Beavers are among the most diplomatic of animals. They mate for life and live as a family in their lodges, but do not allow unrelated beavers to invade their territory. They will occasionally attack intruders who attempt to do so. But before they resort to violence, beavers take every measure to avoid it, by extensively marking their territory with scent mounds made of mud and their own personal secretions.
The message is clear: This is our territory, and we have spent a lot of time and energy creating it. We will defend it, so kindly look elsewhere. Thank you for your consideration. The customary response is for the other beavers to respect the warning, and find other territory. It is all a very peaceful enterprise.
I witnessed a bit of beaver cooperation in action one night as I sat on a sloped rock very near the water, watching night fall. The evening was quiet, and the atmosphere serious and meditative. I was watching tiny waves lap gently up on the rock, caught up in their peaceful rhythm, when suddenly the water immediately in front of me roiled and sloshed and burped up a lake monster at my feet. I yelled and tried to scramble to my feet, but before I could, the creature slapped its tail on the surface of the lake, dousing me in a shower of cold water.
Beavers slap their tails as a kind of warning to other beavers of danger in the area. This seemed like a slight overreaction. I didn’t think I appeared that threatening, a motionless paddler on a rock. This beaver seemed like a rodent version of a cable news channel talking head, shrieking hysterical warnings at every turn, while the other beavers rolled their eyes and thought Christ, there goes Bill again, freaking out about some paddler.
But it wasn’t the last time we heard the warning. Every morning at about 4:30 or 5:00, a beaver would swim by our camp – no matter where it was situated – and slap its tail on the water several times. So not only was Bill not an outlier, there was apparently a unanimity of opinion among beavers that, even asleep, we were unacceptably suspicious characters. It was hard not to feel judged.
Still, I like beavers – even if they don’t like me – and I’ve become curious about them. One thing I’ve learned is that beavers have moved back into urban waterways, and all the major cities – New York, San Francisco, and Chicago – now boast at least one family of urban beavers.
But I don’t think I’ll google that.