Working with Beavers: Though our national animal can be a nuisance, their rewards outweigh their faults

Working with Beavers: Though our national animal can be a nuisance, their rewards outweigh their faults

My brother frequently wanders the dense forest at our cottage to explore and appreciate wildlife. One day, a few years ago, just before dusk, he followed the sound of trickling water leading to a 3-acre clearing with a beaver dam, pond and beaver lodge.

"I saw three beavers," he reported to us later that evening. "Two were swimming while dragging branches on the surface of the water, and the other was adding mud to the dam. I made a move to get a better look, but stepped on a twig and the largest beaver slapped his tail on the water. All three beavers dove down, a chipmunk squeaked and two mallard ducks flew away. I felt like an intruder."

My 10 and six-year-old daughters, Amanda and Emily, listened wide-eyed and then begged to see the dam, so the next day (after reading up on beavers), my husband and I took our daughters on an educational adventure. Dressed in dull-coloured, long-sleeved clothing, rubber boots, net hats and citronella bracelets, we slowly navigated through the marshy, stump-filled land to the clearing. We explained to the kids that a beaver family consists of parents that stay together for life and their two litters. We pointed to the dam they built to collect stream water to flood the area to a depth that wouldn't completely freeze to the bottom, ensuring winter water access to their lodge. They built the foundation with sticks in the mud, and then added bark, rocks, twigs, mud, grass, leaves, masses of plants and anything else available.

They use the pond as a defensive moat against predators (most mid-to-large mammalian carnivores, including humans), to float larger branches too difficult to drag over land, and as an underwater storage cache for winter food ( shrubs, saplings, branches and leaves).

Once the dam was built and the pond created, the beavers had constructed the lodge using the same technique as the dam, but in the shape of a dome. The beavers then chewed and dug one or two tunnels from below the waterline, two chambers and an air hole in the roof. The first chamber is a few inches above the waterline and it's their dining room and mudroom. The second chamber, their bedroom, is higher up.

The yearlings babysit the younger kits in the bedroom when they're not helping their parents with daily inspections and maintenance of the dam and lodge. 

Later we learned the wetlands they create are home to numerous animals including fish, ducks, frogs, turtles (that explains the snapping turtle crossing the road close to the dam), insects and larvae. Almost half of all endangered species rely on wetlands.

Though sometimes beavers can be a nuisance to humans, we taught the girls, their contribution to the ecosystem they inhabit is invaluable, and we should learn to live with them. So, the following summer, my husband  had an idea--we would create things for the cottage out of the gnarled pieces left by the beavers. These woodcarvings projects required only a few common tools, a little imagination and perhaps a beaver family. (The same technique can be applied to any beautiful and/or significant deadwood on your cottage property.)


Wooden Bowl

My  husband chose a large tree stump with plans to make a bowl. He chainsawed it at 8 inches from the gnawed top. The gently tapered top would become the bottom of the piece. Once he had it back at the cottage, he carefully chainsawed the bottom so it wouldn't wobble on the table. 

Then he hollowed out the other end of the beaver-gnawed side by repeatedly chainsawing the interior of the wood in a crisscross motion. He tore off the bark, then sanded the entire bowl and varnished it.

Candlesticks

The piece I chose was especially lovely because the beaver was half-way through the tree when he stopped. He killed the tree, but he didn't fell it. We had to cut down the dead tree to remove the piece I wanted. Back at the cottage, we chainsawed the bottom so it would stand flat, and then drilled out a hole in the top with a 40-millimetre boring bit so the tea light could fit. I tore off the bark, sanded it down and varnished it. 

After I finished my project, placed it on our table, lit the candle and proudly stood back to admire it, ants scampered out of the hole in the wood! I quickly put the candlestick on the grass outside and spooned out the ants, eggs and their nesting material.

(Ants don't like cinnamon, cayenne pepper, vinegar, petroleum jelly or rubbing alcohol, so while the candlestick was still outside, I poured cinnamon all over it. I left it there for an hour before bringing it inside. The candlestick smells nice and my ant problem is over.)


Dog Bowl

Our elder daughter, Amanda, choose a beaver-gnawed tree trunk thick enough to make a dog feeder. My husband chainsawed the bottoms so it stood flat, and then he chainsawed one side a the proper height for the dog food. Amanda tore off the bark, sanded and varnished it.

The finished products are symbolic of the hard work, loyalty and capability of our national anthem, and the importance, significance and beauty of working with nature. 

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