THE BORDER LIFE
Beaver Sticks
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 2/7/99

One of my favorite wafting activities is to collect and examine the art work of Castor canadensis, the American beaver.

With its highly energetic, aquatic locomotion, this animal is limited in what it can teach us about the art of wafting. It well lives up to its reputation as an industrious animal, constantly milling about the Eno River with its logging activities, startling moonlight wafters as it dives with the sudden slap of its flat, hairless tail on the surface of the river.

However, as a result of its unusual foraging habits, the beaver does leave behind a sculptured item that wafts my way almost every time I am out on the water.

Most of us envision the beaver lodge to be a large, domed structure in the middle of a pond, positioned behind its celebrated dam. On the Eno River, more commonly the lodge is built into a cavity in the riverbank with an underwater entrance.

The site is marked by a pile of carefully placed, crisscrossed sticks. These sticks serve more as a territorial marker than a significant roof for the parents and their three to four kits that are typically born in the spring and raised safely inside the bank cavity above the waterline.

The red wolf may have been the historic predator of the beaver, but today, except for humans who continue to exact a heavy toll on the wetland habitats of this furry mammal, the beaver has few natural predators. Only an occasional kit may be vulnerable.

During the warm seasons, the beaver's diet consists primarily of the leaves and stems of herbaceous plants that grow along the shore. In winter, the soft, vascular tissue of trees is their favorite target. They are vegetarians and do not build dams to trap fish as many people think.

Beavers are capable of scouting the dark river bottom with goggle-like membranes that cover their eyes. Being curious about their diet, I have surveyed stumps left by beavers along the riverbank with results showing that by far their favorite tree is the sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua). This is a large tree that grows off the riverbank in the surrounding floodplain. The beaver will often girdle the sweet gum by stripping the bark off the tree to a height of three feet, leaving it to slowly die from exposure or infestation.

On one occasion I began an all-day hike along the river with friends. We paused in front of a sweet gum that had been freshly girdled by a beaver and was oozing with sticky sap. Curious about the taste of the sap, I took my finger, made a big swipe and placed it in my mouth. To my horror, I discovered that its taste was what I would have imagined if I had swallowed a teaspoon of gasoline! I had to beg chewing gum and candy from my group for the rest of our day long outing, and the petroleum taste of the sap still persisted for several days! I later learned from wiser naturalists that it is only the dried and hardened sap of the sweet gum that is edible for humans.

The second most popular tree for the beaver along the Eno is the river maple (Acer negundo). This is a medium-sized tree that often grows right out of the riverbank and drapes itself in the canopy over the water.  When cut down by beavers, the river maple often will grow back with multiple shoots extending from the original stump. These maple stumps are often right at the waterline and are easily recognized. The young saplings are usually a dark red.

The beaver's management of the river maple produces another of its favorite treats. These clustered, regrowth saplings seldom grow back into full-sized trees because they are soon harvested by the beaver as tasty morsels in its vegetarian diet.

The tender, red bark of these three foot saplings is stripped away by the hungry beaver. The animal then discards the bare, yellow-white stick that reveals on its surface its tooth marks. I often find these faceted sticks wafting right down the middle of the river, or several of them stuck together in a cluster by a log near the shore. I enjoy collecting these maple sticks as examples of tangible art that we can gather and admire, produced by the non human part of the animal kingdom.

The larger ones can serve as hiking sticks, while the smallest ones make excellent chop sticks. They can be further enhanced with human art. One innovative art teacher in the Durham public schools has her classes paint them, producing an array of what she calls "magical spirit sticks."

It is distressing that in the southeastern part of the United States, we totally extirpated this sixty pound, semi aquatic mammal from our region by 1900. The beaver was hunted for its pelt and its ponds were drained for agricultural land. There was a period in the first half of the 20th century when there were no beavers on the Eno River. It has only been with their recent reintroduction, along with careful wildlife management, that we have grown accustomed to seeing the beaver again.

The fact that beavers are capable of changing the surface of the earth more than any other animal, except humans, makes it inevitable that a major confrontation between these two species should arise. As the beaver was reintroduced, its damming and ponding created habitats for a fuller component of aquatic wildlife. But beavers also have dammed and ponded in places where they were not welcome -- farmland, timberland and around urban drainage systems.

These days, more often it is negative publicity that the beaver receives. We seldom hear of the benefits of their ponding, such as the creation of catch basins for sediment and to prevent downstream flooding and erosion after heavy rains.

On one recent wafting expedition we were huddled together in our boats studying a beaver lodge that was built into the bank of the Eno. One member of our group whined, "But the beavers in Chapel Hill are such a problem!''

That may be true from one perspective, but we must remember who was here first. The beavers were damming and ponding waterways long before we arrived on the scene in North Carolina. So, from the beaver's perspective, it is the HUMANS, with their need to rapidly and recklessly develop natural areas, that have become "such a problem!''

These two aggressively engineering species will have to patiently and creatively learn how to give each other space for living.

Some experts have estimated that as much as twenty percent of eastern North Carolina was covered with beaver ponds before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century.

This animal was truly the most aggressive shaper of our pre-Columbian state and the creator of extensive wetlands supporting thousands of species of native plants and animals.

As humans, we are reminded by the wafting spirit stick of the beaver that we share this planet with a host of other ancient and intelligent species that are vital to the well being of our region as a whole.

photo by Laurie Devereaux: pile of beaver sticks