Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Sleeps With Beavers
I've remodeled and inhabited a few abandoned beaver lodges, but I actually lived with beavers in their unimproved lodges only on and off for a few years, and never for a whole winter. Even so, my short time as the so called "Beaver Boy" will probably always be my main claim to fame, and I've mentioned it so often here that a lot of you have asked me to tell about it before I choke on a stick and die.........or as is more likely, before I have the Ark hauled down the hill to Cayuga Lake and head North to the Barge canal and the Great Lakes, never to be heard from again.
Fair enough then, and thank you for asking.
The beavers were only just beginning to return by the nineteen fifties when I was a kid paging through the old New York State Conservationist magazines by the fireplace at Loon Island.
There I learned that the last beavers in New York State had been trapped out of the upper Oswegatche in the late nineteenth century by Cannadian Algonquins on contract.
I had still never even seen a beaver lodge or dam before the day Herb, Davey, our dog Binker, and I went across the lake to put out trot lines for bullheads in Hidden pond.
Hidden pond is out of sight, but less than a hundred yards from the West shore of Bonaparte. That shore is the border of the Fort Drum military reservation, then called Pine Camp: a huge wilderness, most of which is not used by the military, although the shore line was posted with signs saying,
Do Not Enter"
Up on the curving, cirque-like bluff just behind the pond, there is an old mica mine. It's just an open pit which was probably not worked for more than a season, but Grandpa Failing or Daddy Ernie would lead a family expedition up there once a summer so that we could bring back a few more chunks of mica for the flower bed border and mantel piece.
Old Irv Priest, who ran the store and informal post office at his marina, had a little printing press on which he produced a series of booklets on the lake history, and also local post cards , one of which was a simple map he drew of the lake and surroundings, including Hidden Pond with an X on the west shore and one on the northwest, which were both labeled "mica mine."
Herb and Davey had noticed the second X on the post card but nobody seemed to know anything about the second mine.
So Herb and Davey decided that while our set lines were fishing for bullheads, we would just mosey over to that second X and check out the other mine.
Those woods had burned over in the eighteen nineties, leaving some low places nearly untouched and burning the trees and soil right off of the long granite ridges, so by the nineteen fifties, the slopes were coming up with thick second growth but the ridge tops were still like broad and bare or mossy roads which suddenly dive into swamps and bogs. It was an easy mistake to follow these false roads, and even on our adult guided trips to the known mine, we sometimes got disoriented. Usually, all we had to do then was listen for an outboard motor or just get up high enough that we could see a piece of the lake..
As you've already guessed, we boys didn't find the lost mine, and we very soon lost ourselves. We realized it ourselves when Herb e found a fishing lure which he didn't know
he had dropped.
Either there were no boats on the lake, or we were out of range of motor sounds. The day was overcast, with no sun to give us a sense of direction, moss grrows on all sides of trees, and Herb the Boy Scout was not prepared with a compass.
We tried to walk straight by following the false roads of the burnt ridge tops but were frustrated when the roads ended suddenly in swamps.
They sent me up a ridge back pine e to look for the lake, but the largest pine up there , rooted in moss on the rock, was no thicker in the trunk than me, and so bushy I could hardly see out of it, no matter how much the brothers shouted at me from below. It was cool up there though and I stayed until they got mad and told me never to come down.
Each time we came down into the flats with nothing to follow or to force us one way or another, so that we could try to follow Herb's nose, we proceeded in unconscious circles, diverted now and then by deeper swamps and ponds.
We saw no beavers that day but where there was a narrow neck between swamps, there was usually a small beaver dam ponding the former swamp. and domed, stick- built beaver lodges in the open water, just like in the magazines. The ponds were ringed by the stumps of Aspens which appeared to have been cut by cub scouts with stone axes.
Some of the dams were in disrepair and the ponds had become meadows, their bottom level raised by the accumulation of forest silt and pond debris grown over with grass, with shrubs growing on the abandoned lodges. To me, this was better than finding ten lost mica mines.
We found Burnt Pond, which we had visited in other years on family blueberry expeditions, but it seemed to be in a different place that day; we found Indian Lake, which we had never seen before and is long way from Bonaparte, and then, three hours into our wanderings, an hour or so after the first time we found Burnt Pond, we were coming down another false highway, ramping down into a large meadow of tall grass and ferns.
From the ridge, we could see at the center of the meadow, a beaver lodge, so big that even Herb probably could have stood up inside. The meadow would have been a pond maybe three or four years previously. Here and there we could see a silver bend of the brook winding through it. We could have walked right up to the lodge on dry ground.
Despite being lost and desperate, we came down the ridge and headed right for the beaver lodge as if it were home.
But the grass and Ostrich ferns were so high that as soon as we were in the meadow, we couldn't see the beaver house any more.
And we didn't see it again that day.
We were no more than a few yards out into the meadow when a deer exploded from the grass right in front of us, and then it was gone......as if it really had exploded.
But about where the deer had been was what seemed to be a Giant Bullet ,as if somewhere there was a Giant Six Gun and a Giant Cowboy.
The effect was to blind us all to the obvious fact that this was simply an unexploded artillery shell, like we had been warned about......a thing to be touched at risk of life and limb. Danger Duds, etc.
I myself was not as intrigued by the magic bullet as by my after image of the big beaver house which I still wanted to explore, but Herb and Davey were so inspired by the dud that they forgot about the beaver lodge, forgot they ever had been lost, forgot they hadn't just stepped away from hidden pond to fetch this magic bullet.
Herb picked it up and set off y as if he knew where he was going and, though it wasn't exactly a bee line, we did march more or less straight to Burnt Pond, which of course was not the goal, but once we were there again, Herb was even more sure of his directions. He handed the dud to Davey, said to follow him, then five minutes later Davey handed it to me, and within another hour we were back at Bonaparte's shore.
Herb set the dud in the boat and we all walked right into Bonaparte and drank from it like dogs, including the dog, who would never again get into the boat with any of us, and who died in Ithaca the next summer.
Davey wrote and published a wandering story about the danger dud and his grandfather and what he called the Rhinoceros Hills where we were lost. If you read his exagerations in a magazine or went to his father's memorial service where he read it aloud, you will remember that we were halfway across the lake on our way home and just about over the second shoal when sister Delight met us in the other boat, having been sent by the worried parents, because we had been gone for six hours and were already late for dinner.
And you might remember how she pointed out that what my brothers were calling " the Giant Bullet" was actually a dangerous explosive, as in Danger Duds, etc. and she convinced us to dump it overboard which we did.
But in reality, as opposed to Davey's version, the thing did not then explode under the presusre of the lake depths, killing the huge Walleyed Pike Davey found on the beach a few days later - the giant Walleye which had broken Grempa Failing's line near his boat earlier that summer........ and so on: A cracking good yarn maybe, but a dud is a dud.
And as long as that story was, it fell pretty far short of the whole truth, seeing as I , who carried the dud for the last hour of the struggle out, was totally left out of the whole account.
So, how do you forget your own brother?
This is a question I have often asked myself, but it has happened to me repeatedly, and I have decided that the answer is simple: it is easy, if you only want to. You don't even need to try.
But that doesn't matter in my memory and neither does the dud stuff. For me, the big discovery that day was the land of hills and flows dotted with beaver lodges, and particularly that one big green meadow with a brook curling through it and the big lodge in the middle.. Walking down the moss road into that vision was like discovering a place I had dreamed of. Once in a lullaby or something.
Although I didn't get back there that summer, I had decided before we had even found ourselves back at Lake Bonaparte after being lost, that some day I would live in that meadow, in that lodge, and that winter in the bath tub, I dreamed it again and again.
The next summer, I had my first contact with beavers and it was right at Lake Bonaparte.
I liked to go swimming out on my own, without my short-winded Warren brothers, and without a boat....who needs a boat to swim? But Momma Dot and Daddy Ernie insisted that I always dive near the anchored row boat or the canoe so that I would not be run over by motor boats, especially as this was the early water ski era when people operating the towing boats were likely as not looking backwards. The folks also wanted me to use the snorkel with a flag on it, but I don't need a snorkel and I usually left it in the boat if I was far enough away that they wouldn't know. .
Mostly I took the canoe, which suits my body better than a row boat. With the row boat, I had nothing near enough to brace my feet against, but in the canoe, I could stand where others had to kneel to get the best leverage. I can out paddle any fool who just sits there using nothing but his arms.
I liked to head out for the west shore in the morning before the wind was up, and I usually took along a creel full of of raw potatoes to eat like apples. My taste for raw potatoes isn't something I share with many other people, but it turned out to be one I share with beavers.
I was swimming off the canoe near Plow Point, when all of a sudden the water began errupting around me as if someone were throwing boulders, or as if the Pine Camp artillery, which had been known to hit a barn and kill a cow, was wildly off again.
I got back into the canoe in a big hurry and was about to paddle off as fast as I could, when I noticed the two beavers circling the canoe.
I knew that they probably wouldn't harm me, and I had wanted for a long time to make contact with the creatures, but my unconsidered reaction was to start bombarding them with potatoes.
Each of the thrown potatoes plunged and then rose slowly to the surface to bob gently until one of the beavers appeared and blasted it with his tail. This happened again and again until one of the beavers bit into one.
I don't know if the first bite was an attack or a taste test, but the tail slapping stopped completely and before the potatoes were half eaten, the beavers began diving with them, swimming off underwater toward the near shore, and then returning for more.
There was no beaver house near.....there were none at all on the lake shore at that time, so it was a mystery to me just where they were going with the potatoes or where they lodged.
When I was out of potatoes, the beavers did a few more turns around me, then dove and were gone.
I returned the next day with more potatoes, anchored in the same place, and began chunking quartered spuds into the water. Before long the beavers appeared and I actually saw one as it exited an underwater opening in the rocky shore. One of the many caves, large and small in the Adirondack borderlands , where acid waters off the pine lands had disolved veins of limestone.
By the end of the day, I was swimming with the beavers, trailing a mesh bag nearly out of potato chunks.
Later that week, I entered their cave and got as far as the second air chamber, but not to any living quarters. it was completely dark and stony.... not really where I wanted to be. Anyway, I had discovered the potato way to the hearts of the beavers.
Many days that summer when I was thought to be swimming from the canoe, I was actually tromping pond to pond on the reservation flow lands. It didn't take long for me to learn my way around back in there well enough that the distances seemed a lot shorter than they had on day of wandering lost with the boys. Bearing potatoes, I found and befriended two active beaver colonies. I made my way back to the big abandoned lodge in the dreamy meadow of tall grass, and sat there on top of the lodge for hours at a time whistling and singing non-tunes. I built a few little dams in the brook that wound through the rich bottom and I excavated the floor of the lodge to gain another foot and a half or so of overhead. I brought along a hack saw and spent a day cutting a small window on the east and glazed it with a clear glass mixing bowl.
I told noone about the beavers and my back country wanderings, not even Aunt Sammy.
It wasn't until several years later, after I had been to Florida and Alaska, and the family had gotten used to not knowing where I was days or nights, and to not thinking of me as living with them, in fact to more or less forgetting about me for lengthening periods of time, that I really moved in with one of the beaver colonies, spent day and night with them, and got to be accepted as a member of the household , if not exactly as a beaver.
I got to know the beavers as individuals, and I can assure you that they have personalities as various as chickens, dogs, or people, and I could write a book about them (as some people have suggested I do) but I will be damned if I am going to. I would sooner build twenty dams across the Oswegatchie River than write a book. It would be too damn much work with a lot less result. That much I figured out from just doing this blog.
But those of you have written to prod me into these recollections, were curious about some very specific aspects of my life with beavers....and I will be happy enough to answer briefly your most frequently asked questions:
1.) Did I take a beaver wife?
2.)Did I have sex with beavers?
3.) Did I sleep with beavers?
4.) Where did I go to the bathroom?
5.) How did I keep dry and warm?
6.) Did I eat beaver food?
7.) How did I first meet and become accepted by the beavers?
8.) Was I originally raised by beavers?
9.) Can I tell one beaver from another?
10.) Do I still have friends among the beavers?
I think I have already fully answered question number seven, about how I met the beavers, and, from the way the first three questions were asked, I interptet them to be all essentially all the same purient inquiry, posed with different degrees of delicacy.
The short answer is, No,
However, I did literally sleep with beavers.
Until there began to be a certain amount of attempted juvenile screwing around which lead to the annual expulsion of adolescents, at age two or three , there was not much that goes on in a beaver lodge other than eating, playing, and sleeping.
Of course it is not that other people would want to sleep with beavers, or that it is a real option for you regular, long-legged people, but sleeping with the beavers is the best, cheapest, and greenest way I can think of to keep warm in winter.
A sleep group of beavers makes an electric blanket seem to me about as appealing as an electric chair. And it sure would beat sleeping in a pile of sticky humans....... like the rural peasantry in medieval times who often slept through the winter in communal heaps, and got up only occasionally to eat and defficate. That is true. I know about it because I found it on the internet. On the internet you can even find groups of people who claim to be interested in joining human sleep piles. Not for me.
But sleeping through cold weather with the beavers, besides the furry comfort of it, saved me a lot of calories which I would have otherwise expended foraging when there wasn't much to be found.
In sleep season my metabolism slowed way down and my body clock was reset to about a three day schedule. Ordinarily each beaver, as needed, would leave the lodge by the two underwater entrance/exits, to shit, piss, on about the same three day rotation as me. If it was remotely warm or sunny, the beavers would exit the pond through a hole kept in the ice . Out there they would chew winter buds I guess, but if they didn't go out and about they would maybe pull some aspen stock or lily roots from the underwater storage area pile to carry back to the lodge so they could eat a bit.
Although I am something of a bark eater myself, and am known for my iron stomach, I haven't quite got the gut for digesting straight cellulose.
I like the yellow jelly that forms on spring cut birch stumps, I like cattail stalk hearts and root, and I can deal with fresh cambium, but you can have your aspen twigs and raw lilly roots; I meat and potatoes are what get me through winter. Beavers have something in their guts that ferments the wood. They fart a lot from that , and the smell is kind of like bread rising, not too bad actually. I bet you could run an engine on beaver farts. Beavers are pure herbivores, and there aren't many herbivores in the North Woods.....not chipmunks and not humming birds.....it's generally not a good way to sustain yourself up there, but beavers have their special guts, plus a sophisticated agricultural business plan they work hard at, and that gets them through.
The trouble with my own food supplements is that is the beavers would immediately eat any potatoes I tried to store in our quarters and if I were to try keeping meat anywhere in the lodge or nearby, they would drag it away and bury it like a dead realtive.
About the only thing I was able to keep for my own use was a metal canteen holding a kind of gravy I made I made from milk, vegetable oil, and mashed potato, flour, or bread crumbs, all borrowed from camp cupboards and refrigerators. I can't say I liked it, but I needed it.
Contrary to what you might expect, I myself slept naked in cold weather. Otherwise my wet clothes would freeze on me or dry very slowly in the beaver pile, which would annoy the beavers.
My skin got all greasy from the oil which waterproofs their fur. This in itself was insulating. The oil comes from a gland near the base of the beaver's tail and I sometimes used my hands to extract a bit to apply , and at other times some Big Mothers would groom me, but in all of this close contact, I never once got bitten by a beaver, at least not so as to break the skin. I was slapped a few times, and often enough clacked or snapped at, but never really hurt.
My three years spent mostly with the beavers was all with one colony back on the reservation. It was a large family with an uncle and two aunts (which I don't think is typical) in a bigger than average lodge , but since a few new kits were born each season, a few of the older ones had to move on each Spring.
I mostly ran around with the adolescents, making superfluous little dams and individual mud piles which the beavers marked with their sent, while I modled my mud piles to resemble something I didn't consciously intend as mud women, but which I found myself humping like a dog. Maybe the resulting mud puppies are running around back there now.
And for the information of the person who asked ( and those who just wondered) : no I did not suck beaver milk. It is too rich for my taste and would have been too much of a drain on the resources.
Drain, strain, or not, after I had been more or less a constant presence for those three years, the big Buck, father of most in the colony, began to snap and slap at me, as he did the others who had been around that long, which was the message that we had to go out into the world to make our fortunes in a new valley.
Any way, I am just not a beaver. Greased up or not, hairless quadraped that I am, I could not go out in the open air and wander about in winter like my beaver companions , so in the depths of winter I found it easier , like the raccoons, to move closer to civilization and live in its border areas and off its excess ....in fact, I lived with the raccoons at times, particularly at Bridge house later on. But that's another story.
After the expulsion, some more wandering, and my stint in Alaska, I lived often in abandoned lodges. The first was that same grand lodge on the Fort Drum reservation we found on our day lost. Then I moved to one handier to a road , in the Bonaparte Cave State Forest, and later on I fixed up a lodge on the mid reaches of Cascadilla Creek above Ithaca.
In all of those places I banked soil against the lodges and grew potatoes and squash, Indian tobacco, sometimes broccoli , and always peas or beans up over the lodge, protecting it all with a stockade of bramble canes or buck thorn brush. I got the best crops down in Ithaca were the summer was a little longer and the soil sweeter.
I am sure that the pleistocene aboriginies who lived with the four hundred pound beavers of that era had similiar operations. It seems like a lot better system than the more modern Iroquois practice of burning woodlands to create openings in which to plant and then posting women and dogs to sleep by the crops in order to protect them from predators. In the old way, beavers do the clearing, the pond fertilizes and build loose tillable soil, and the abandoned lodges provide housing on site.
I was never so happy as I was alone in my green valleys, and I would have stayed a lot longer if it weren't for women. I got a couple to visit, but none wanted to live there.
Stuck here on Davey's farm for now, I am no longer farming beaver meadows. My old lodges are no longer kept up, and none of the beavers I knew in the old days are living now .
Beavers in general have changed. Now days beavers are more likely to move in with us, In fact they seem to be everywhere now. They have built a lodge right in the Loon Island boathouse, which is o.k. since the boat house has been pushed off its cribbing by the ice and is beyond repair. But I have not been feeding these beavers or attempting to befriend them. There are enough beavers now that, though their hides are not worth a whole lot anymore, people are trapping them again, and there are those who would not be above dispatching one with an oar or a gun if it came around panhandling. So you should please not feed the beavers.