Volume VIII, No. 3, Spring 1981
Written and illustrated by Jill Splan
My dog and I watched quietly from our weed covered perch as the slow moving animal glided across the water, glancing up occasionally for a look at the now darkened shore around us. Then, with a loud, disturbing slap on the moonlit water, a noise I had heard so often before, he disappeared into the cool depths of the Niangua. Terribly frustrated, Tippy, my English springer spaniel, and I trudged through the summer-tall milkweed toward the house. The same thing seemed to happen every time. "Where did he go?" I'd ask myself over and over, wanting to dive in after him and follow to his destination. I'd often wait in wonder for him to surface, but he never did.
I had just turned eight years old and I wondered about everything. My family had recently moved to a 200 acre farm, most of which lays in a beautiful rich valley almost circled by the Niangua River and its high bluffs. This stretch held one of the longest eddies on the river, Kahler Eddy, named after one of the first settlers in the Ozark region.
The river held much for my two sisters and me, who, in the warm summer months, were always water-logged. Our swimming hole was the best. It lay at the bottom of Kahler Eddy as it turned eastward and ran into the fast riffle that we'd often innertube down. There are always drawbacks about swimming in a river, but we chose our river friends over the chlorinated city pools crowded with people. We'd much rather share our swimming hole with temperamental crawdads nipping at us if we wandered too close, a territorial snake with his own bank he napped on in the warm sun, sunfish guarding their shining nests, water bugs and spiders we chased and threw in each other's hair, and our own family of beaver. These beaver especially fascinated me. What could an eight-year-old want more than a beaver for a pet?
This pet somewhat less fascinated my father, who being a farmer, was more concerned with saving the hayfield and trees on the edge of the field which protected the river bank. This one family was slowly cutting down a good number of trees and saplings, causing a considerable amount of erosion to Dad's main harvest field.
On one of July's hot humid days, my oldest sister and I headed down for the swimming hole. As usual, the beaver were close to the shore, but visible. They continued with their daily routine as if we weren't there. With us swimming every day, they soon got used to our playing around in the chest high water, and they almost ignored us with a look every now and then if we ventured too close.
They seemed to glide over the water, partly submerged, resembling a big brown wet rat, my dad would say. When startled, they move extremely fast. The beaver chose a good home in the water. Their bodies are streamlined like a bullet, making it easy to out swim predators, and their large, flat, scaled tail up to a foot in length, which they pull from left to right, serves much like a rudder or paddle, and in many cases, a sound of alarm. They also kick their webbed feet under the water for more motivation, giving them a graceful swan-like stride on the water.
I was always trying to steal a closer look, sneaking up behind them in hopes of grabbing one and taking the prize home to Mom. I'd get close enough to see the color of their eyes, which were always brown, before they plunged back into the stream. They have transparent eyelids so when they're under water, they can close their first eyelids and still see. This ability explains the old wives tale of beaver seeing with their eyes closed. They see very well in water, but not as well on land which is one reason why they don't roam too far from the safe shores of the stream. Their nostrils can close under water and their ears have flaps that close as they submerge. They can stay under water for as long as fifteen minutes.
They have a very good sense of smell and hearing. Sometimes if I stood real still on the bank, they'd come up from the water and know something was out there, but they couldn't see over the brush. I'd hear them sniffing while they were swimming around, before they'd perceive I was there, and with a warning slap of their tail, down they'd go under the water.
The beaver's fur is very dense with a lot of fine hair and occasionally coarse hair. These coarse hairs are the guard hairs which protect the fine hairs that don't wear well. The fine hair lying close to the body, causes it to be streamlined when it is wet for less resistance. When a beaver gets out of the water, his fur looks greased.
Our beaver would swim to the shore and immediately after surfacing, they would start grooming, using their closely lying toes much like a comb. They have oil glands they use to oil their fur.
Watching them eat is much like watching rabbits. Their lips close behind their front teeth, allowing them to chew under water without swallowing a lot of water. The teeth close and then the lips close behind them.
Being rodents, beaver have paired incisors in their jaws. Since these teeth grow continually, they have to constantly gnaw to keep them trimmed down. If a beaver gets hit by a car or a falling tree, causing a fracture of his jawbone which knocks his teeth off center, he is in trouble, for his teeth will keep growing. With no way to gnaw them down, eventually he'll either starve to death or his lower teeth will continue to grow, and when he closes his jaw hard, his teeth will puncture his brain and he'll die. It is very important that his jaw and teeth are occluded properly so they always wear.
Seldom during the day would our beaver venture far from shore. They waddled up the slopes occasionally for a look into the field, hunching down in their characteristic land posture, not to be seen by any dangers the dry river bottom held. One bark from Tippy and off they'd go, sliding down their runs to the safety of the water.
The beaver is very territorial. A beaver crossing into another's territory can be in for a fierce fight, especially during mating season. Doug Ladd, Naturalist at Bennett Spring State Park which is a mile downstream from our farm, explained. "Wherever beavers are, you'll see piles of round and flat mud on the shores, and if you smell them, they smell like beaver scent, if you know what a beaver smells like. It smells funny. If you're not familiar with it, you won't notice it till you get right down and get your nose in it. A beaver builds these stations like a dog urinating on his territory. He builds these platforms with mud from the bottom of the river and when he decides it is right, he smears his scent glands on it."
In late summer the beaver shift their eating habits, foraging on river vegetation--grasses, water lilies and tubers. They love corn when they can get it. I used to set out corn for them, and they'd eat it up. They like it best just before it is ripe, at the milky juice stage. They can go through a field of corn pretty fast, causing excessive damage to farmers where beaver population is high.
Comer Owens, lifelong farmer and trapper on the James River, observed almost the same characteristics. "When beavers go storing for winter, that's when they really start cutting. See all of those sprouts there?" he asked pointing up the bank. "They're all from timber the beavers have cut. That tail braces them, and they stand up on their hind feet and cut. They cut down everything. Some people claim they cut just the soft wood, but they cut everything, oak, red oak, maple, ash, willow. They're all just crazy about those big willow trees in front of everybody's houses around here. People wrap the trunks in black plastic up just as high as they come, but those beaver still get to them. On the river they dig in the banks and cut out from under i c. Directly a tree will fall and down she'll go. I can't see no good in it."
Beaver take mostly white oak around our swimming hole, but sometimes they climb the near slopes for flowering dogwood, maple and elm. Doug said, "What they use here for food is totally different from what they use in the north. The trees they use here are much harder trees than the willow, aspen and alder they use in the north country. They don't eat the wood, they eat the inner bark called the cambium. If you go out to any tree, and you peel the coarse outer bark that's dead, underneath you'll see a greenish layer around the inside just above the wood. That's what they eat. They chop down trees either to get the cambium on all the branches or to get the wood as a source of building dams."
That fall at Thanksgiving, after a full meal, Tippy and I headed down for the river just above Kahler Eddy. Dusk was falling and so was the nippy fall temperature as we followed the old abandoned road next to a tree-bordered hollow which split a large walnut grove as it ran toward the river. The road ended in a secluded gravel bar protected by trees which swayed over the flowing river. We reached the river slopes, and near the bottom was a big beaver attacking a tree. I had never seen a beaver above the eddy, and this beaver was much larger than the average beaver which usually measured three feet and weighed fifty pounds. I pushed Tippy back and told her to hush while we watched the beaver brace his top teeth against the tree for leverage and pull up with the bottom teeth. He was breaking chips off, moving circularly around the tree. He wasn't biting chips out. He'd pull them off using the grain of the wood and the leverage of his top teeth to get the chips. We were there less than five minutes and the fifteen foot sapling fell to the ground disturbing the silence.
Apparently he could feel when the tree started to fall as there must have been some stress below where he was chipping. The minute he realized the tree was falling, he turned and ran. Since he has poor eyesight out of water, and he didn't know where the tree was going to fall, he took off toward the safety of the water.
"Once in a while one gets killed by a falling tree," Doug once told me, "or a tree falling on its tail or paw will catch it, causing starvation over a period of days. The other beaver don't help. The odds are he has a whole circle to run in, and hopefully, the way he runs won't be the way the tree falls.
"They don't seem to have control of the direction in which the tree falls either. You'll hear stories that they do, that they always try to get the tree to fall in the water. The reason for that is because trees are usually hanging over water, and that's the way they're going to fall.
"Beaver can take a yellow birch that has about a two and one-half foot diameter stump. That takes several nights for them to cut it. They have been known to return to the same tree night after night. Some have done studies and have found that an adult beaver averages one tree per night during the summer."
Tippy and I stayed in place. It was darker now but the moon was full and bright as we waited for the beaver to make his next move. After several minutes when he thought the coast was clear, he, his mate and two little ones headed for the tree. They took selected branches to the river and swam out of sight. They repeated their trips till just the main part of the log was left. Then they lined up along the log, and fed, sometimes not gnawing but just stripping the bark off.
One thing most people closely associate with beavers are dams. On the Niangua I've never seen any dams because of the plentiful supply of water. Doug explained, "On the spring branch and the Niangua River you've got a fast flowing river. So first of all the beaver here are sure of an adequate supply of water, and secondly, the floods on the Niangua and the spring branch wash out any dams they build, so they don't even try to build dams. The only reason they build dams is when there's not enough water. When they build a dam, they're making a habitat for more food for themselves and creating a better hiding place. It also drives out their competitors.
"When they're building a dam, they use branches up to four inches in diameter. They cut them, take the bark to eat and then take the branches out in the water. They take all these pretty big branches which branch again, so it's like carrying a miniature tree. They line them up across the stream with the heavy end pointing upstream. Then they do it again. They pack silt, sod, mud, stone or whatever they can carry in all the spaces between the logs. Apparently what guides them is the flowing water through the leaks in the dam. They put it wherever water is moving fast through the dam. It really works pretty well. With everything pointing upstream, it streamlines the tree. If you held a branch upstream it would push, but if you held it with the cut end upstream, it wouldn't give away as easily. And everything gets tangled together. It makes a pretty good dam. Oftentimes a dam will arch upstream to counteract the pressure of the water. But the beavers are not infallible. Dams wash out in time of floods a lot. Beaver just rebuild them."
The beaver on Comer's land do try to build dams. "They're natural mechanics," Comer said. "They never could build a dam across the James River though they've tried. They start their pier right on the gravel bar. They'll pile sticks and stuff up so high and build a dam. The river will wash that dam out and maybe a little bit of that pier. He'll come right back and rebuild it again. The next time it washes out, it'll either be unlucky as it did before or the next time the water may go around it.
"I had a field planted in corn--about forty-five acres. The beavers went in there, took the corn and built a dam out of it. Made the dam out of corn! They get that dam at a certain stage and water will wash every little thing down into the dam. They'll start with mud just like we'll pour concrete. That's what's interesting is to watch them starting and seeing them finish out."
Canoeing comes second to swimming when living on a river. As soon as we kids could swim, Dad had us out in his canoe paddling up and down the stream. I viewed things differently from atop the water. This was a perfect way to outmaneuver our beaver, or so I thought.
I was out practicing one morning while my beaver was swimming in midstream. I turned the canoe around to head after him. He swam for a mound of sticks near the bank. This had to be his lodge, I thought. I beached the canoe below it and tore into his home. To my dismay his lodge turned out to be just a mound of sticks.
Doug explained to me why. "Where they build a lodge and dam, they build a food cache during the fall for the winter by cutting down all these choice branches of their favorite food. They pile it in the water, and as they pile it up, it sinks down into the water and looks just like a lodge, if you're not looking carefully. What that is is the food store they are going to use for the winter."
I must have frightened the beaver when I tore into his cache. He surfaced and swam near the shore upstream. I followed him as best I could, and then he seemed to disappear into the bank. With a closer look I could see now where my beaver had always disappeared. There was an opening under the water--the lead in where the beaver had burrowed in to their den. On the Niangua beaver do not lodge for the same reasons they do not dam--the water is too fast and the spring floods wash the lodges and dams away. They make their homes in burrows back in the soft river banks.
Where beaver build dams they live in lodges near their dams. Usually it's one family per lodge. The entrance to the lodge is always under water so they don't have to expose themselves, and sometimes there is another entrance. Inside the lodge there is a feeding platform above water level, because they stay above water when they're in the lodge. There's a vent hole in top of the lodge for air.
As fall closed and winter arrived with my tenth christmas, my trips down to the river lessened. When I did go, I could see that beaver were still active. There were lots of beaver paths across the snow and iced over eddy water, and I could see holes in the ice near the banks leading to their dens. Beaver don't hibernate. They are active all year long. During the winter even when water freezes over the surface, they either breathe through air holes in the ice, or when the ice gets too thick, they breathe air from trapped air bubbles under the ice. "If you walk out on the ice," Doug said, "you can see air bubbles underneath. Sometimes beaver do drown if they can't find an air bubble. It makes it rough on them."
Beaver don't fight among themselves except possibly during mating season. Usually by January when they start to breed, they are separated in the individual lodges and isolated by the winter weather.
Beavers usually breed from January to February. The mated pair stays together through the winter, and when the usually three to four kits are born about April, the males are either driven out of the lodge or leave of their own free will to go somewhere else. Baby beaver are not as helpless as a lot of animals when they are born. They can see and have fur. For the first two years of its life, the young beaver is called a kit. It is an adult after two years. The kits and mother stay together for the first year, though the male often comes back at the end of the summer when the kits are somewhat larger. Yearlings will also stay in the home den or lodge with their parents through the second year. But as they approach two years old, the adults drive them out before the start of the breeding season. Doug explained, "In captivity where they can't go off or sometimes they don't want to leave, they will be killed by the adults. There is no way that a two-year-old is tolerated around the lodge of the parents. The reason for this is probably because there is only a limited supply of food. It's apparently a mechanism to insure the parent colony doesn't become over-populated and die because they keep driving off the offspring after two years. Usually the beaver will go downstream because upstream is usually where the beaver started. They start upstream and colonize downstream."
I used to sit for hours by the river in the spring when it was still too cool to swim and watch the young beaver learn new things, much like Comer has. "What I've studied is just what I've seen." He said, "Beaver are born early and they're fed good. You take a pair of coyotes, big family, they have to rustle to support their young. They raise their families much better than we do. That old dog or coyote will kill to raise his family. That mother will die raising them. They teach them to kill. The young do what they're taught to do. Not like what some kids do today. Sometimes they do just the opposite.
"Nature is a funny thing. I had an old dog and she had seven pups in the barn. I was out there one morning and mommy was down on the ground rolling and rolling and rolling. Them pups were just setting there watching her. Then she got up and them little ole pups, everyone of them did the same thing. And a little ole beaver had seen his mommy or daddy cut a tree, and he'd try it too and make his first cut. Beaver learn the same way.
"I was out one morning. Trapping season had opened, and out in the stream was a chunk of wood a beaver had cut just floating around. Now the bark was still on the wood--in other words, he didn't need it for food. I couldn't figure out why they cut it and never used it. But I finally figured it out. It's a little ole beaver. That little ole beaver had seen his mother and daddy do this. That's his first cut he had ever cut in his life Just like when you were a little girl and had seen your dad do something or your mother do something and you'd go try to do it. He's just learning how. He was just practicing."
Beavers have very definite behavior patterns throughout the species, but like people, individuals sometimes behave differently and have different personalities. Most beavers live in family groups, but some are bachelors. Comer was one of the first I had heard talk about bachelor beavers.
"A bachelor beaver is one who has lost his mate, I'd say, I'm not sure. You take the wild goose, they mate for life. If he looses his mate, he doesn't remate. I'm thinking beaver do. You find bachelor beavers off in lakes somewhere. The bachelor beaver, he goes and eats and that's all he does. He works different than a pair of beaver. There's no way I can explain how it is, but it's just the way he does it. Two beaver, they work different, and if they're two years old, they'll go out on their own, but about all they do is store food for the winter. Bachelor beaver are hard to catch because they just stay close to the banks."
Not everything beavers do is for practical use. They sometimes cut trees just for practice as Comer thinks, or just because they want to. Doug said, "Beavers are like people. They may just want to get a tree down and take all their spare time to do it. It's really hard to understand sometimes what they do. You have to realize that not everything they do is a food, life, shelter thing. In spare moments they have strange personalities just like people."
The beaver on our river certainly convinced me that they have different personalities. Our beavers at the swimming hole were quiet-minding and tolerated my sisters and me and even Tippy. Up farther, before the bend of the eddy were the big mean beavers--mean in our eyes. They were the same family Tippy and I had watched cut down the sapling months earlier.
Easter dinner was always at the cabin on the upper gravel bar, near these beavers' home. We were all excited getting ready for a day of Easter egg hunting and goodies when Tippy started yip-ping furiously. We ran toward her bark, yelling for her as we reached the edge of the bank. In mid-stream was Tippy and the same fat beaver who had tackled the tree, fighting it out With her. The beaver being bigger and stronger than Tippy had a firm grip on her and was about to submerge with her when we all ran up yelling and shouting. In all the excitement, the beaver disappeared in the water, leaving Tippy exhausted and half-drowned.
In the water beaver can be very fierce. They have been known to drown dogs. Since they can hold their breath for up to fifteen minutes, they just hold on with their teeth and go under. A dog can't fight under water. If we had not arrived when we did, Tippy would probably have been drowned. Another tactic they use for protection is to let the animal chase them into the water where they splash water with their tail into the predator's eyes. They slap the water just like they're slapping their alarm sound, but aim the water at the attacker, discouraging further chase.
It seems to me that beaver also slap their tail on the water when they're playing around. Every now and then when one of our beavers would slap his tail, we could see no sign of danger. Instead of the other beavers staying away, they all came to see what was happening. It doesn't seem to always be the greatest protection.
Doug remembered an incident. "They're very playful. They play with each other sometimes. I can remember once when I lived in Vermont, I was walking along the river bank, and a young beaver, probably a yearling, saw me, came up and smacked his tail and went under. That isn't uncommon, but then he came back up, and as I was walking along the river bank, he'd swim circles about every fifteen seconds slapping his tail. But he'd never go under then. This happened for over an hour. He obviously had to be playing. He wasn't afraid of me. He didn't come right up to me, but he followed me wherever I went. He kept the pace with me and every time I'd go back, he'd go back, swimming in slow circles."
Though they're really at home in the water and feel secure with lots of water around them, the beaver is a very awkward animal on land. It can run fairly fast but can't turn fast. I have almost outrun one except they stay too close to the river and dive in before I can get close.
One of their main predators on land is the wolf, though not in Missouri. If a wolf, bobcat, coyote, dog or wolverine gets between a beaver and the water, it is just about all over for the beaver. Beaver can fight, but they are not a match for big land predators. But in the water they're pretty secure and allow me to watch them because they know they can easily get away from me.
Their main predator in the water is the river otter which can destroy a beaver population quickly. Otters probably don't bother the older beaver because an adult beaver can put up a fierce fight, but otters can easily out swim beavers. They swim right up into the lodge and take the young ones.
Another safety feature a beaver sometimes fixes for himself on land is an escape hole. Doug said, "Up north beaver have what is called a plunge hole where maybe fifty or sixty feet from the shore you'll see a hole. Usually you don't see it, but you step in it and get knee high in water. If there's a lot of brush where it would slow beavers down if they were running to shore, and if the ground was easy to dig in, he'd build a tunnel through the plunge hole to the water. It's a safety valve. If they're out on the land foraging for food, and all of a sudden a predator appeared between the shore and him, he can just dive into the hole."
But since there are no wolves in Missouri and very few otters, beaver populations have grown from lack of predators. About the only predator today is man, both legally during the trapping season and illegally. Doug said, "Some beaver are killed in trapping. In areas of over-population there is some live trapping, but that's hard. Beaver are really suspicious of traps, but there's a lot of transplanting done.
"You hear stories about beaver carrying sticks and poking them in live traps to trip the trap, then taking the trap and building a dam with it. So you'd lose a pretty expensive trap. It could be. They're very wary. They just might be poking around afraid to go in there. Those live traps are usually either a cage or a wire trap which looks like two halves of a big clam shell which close together, and the beaver is sort of squeezed in there. He's not hurt but he can't go anywhere. There's just enough room to go up for air. From a beaver's point of view that trap would make a great dam building thing. It would be neat to stick twigs and such in. He'd probably wish people would leave a few more out for him!"
The present big population of beaver in Missouri is a fairly recent phenomena. For a long time in Missouri all the beaver were trapped out and became almost extinct. "At one time beavers ranged almost all over the whole eastern two-thirds of the United Staes and Canada," Doug explained. "They were almost wiped out by the turn of the century. There were next to none if any left in the state, but they are increasing now."
During the last century a lone trapper would take as many as five hundred beaver skins a year. Beaver fur was in great demand for robes, trimmings and beaver hats. Beaver pelts were used as a medium of exchange in many parts of the western territories. St. Louis was one of the main markets for beaver fur.
There came a change just before the turn of the century and the fur was no longer in fashion. Doug continued, "Around that time there developed an awareness that the exploitation of our fur bearing animals that had gone on for the first hundred years could not continue. Apparently in the Missouri River valley and mouth, beaver migrated back from the west or the north, coming in on their own. In 1928 the state bought six pair of beaver from other states and transferred them down here to try to reintroduce beaver to the Ozarks. Probably our beaver are descendants of those original six, or maybe some migrated on their own.
"The beaver we have here on the Niangua and spring branch are the same beaver as anywhere else, but their habitats are a little different. In the north in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New England or Canada they have real shallow, constant-flowing streams, and the stream bed is pretty flat in a lot of areas, so they build dams across the streams to increase the water volume to give them more cover because there will be more water behind the dam.
"If you took a beaver from Minnesota and brought him down here, he'd immediately start eating other kinds of trees from what he ate up there and wouldn't try to build a dam. When they transplant a beaver from around here up there, they immediately start building dams and lodges. It's instinct. Obviously there's a decision-making mechanism somewhere in the beaver allowing him to differentiate between whether his habitat will require a dam to insure his survival or not, or whether it is subject to flooding so a lodge could be washed out. But the point is, that all beaver have this ability. It's not like those up there are any different from ones down here. It's just these are in a different environment, so they respond differently."
When I was eleven we seemed to have beavers coming out of our ears. We kids didn't mind, but Father did. Since there were just too many for the land to support, something had to be done. We hired a trapper and within a week's time he cleared our shores of beaver, including our family at the swimming hole whose offspring were populating farther downstream. Even the mean beavers were either frightened or trapped out. The trapper took six beaver, leaving, I'm sure, plenty to repopulate in the future. The trapper offered us their tails, "The prettiest meat you'd ever seen," he said. We weren't much on beaver meat and refused it politely, for it seemed like eating a calf we had hand raised and loved as a pet.
Comer has trapped for the most part of his years. I learned a lot about trapping from him. "There are two crops which I always done that's done me a lot of good. That's trapping and shearing sheep. There's no taxes paid. I have traps I've had since I was a kid, and I ain't never had to pay no taxes on it. I've got sheep shearing equipment. If you go buy it new, it would cost you hundreds of dollars. There ain't no taxes on it, and it comes every year wet or dry. It's work, but if you work at both of them, they'll pay off.
"Nobody catches beaver now. For one thing, they ain't got the kind of traps to catch them, and most don't want to catch them. A trapper traps for the money. Now the guy who says he traps for the sport, he's nuts, 'cause trapping is hard work. Now last year when the river was down, I pulled my traps and there was five big ole beavers. We had to drag them a quarter of a mile. You put five big ole beavers in your tote sack and you got quite a bit of weight there. Make a feller tired.
"You can make money with muskrat and with mink, but not on beaver. Beaver is a heavy fur and will last a long time. They're so hot you can't wear them, though. It ain't cold enough here. Mink fur will come back. They're light. If you put money in a fur coat, put it in a mink. You can work them over and over for your grandkids, even your great-grandkids."
"There's no limit on beaver during the trapping season. The best thing to catch them with is a conibear trap, but it's outlawed. You can't get them anymore. They're dangerous. You catch a dog in one and he's dead."
We walked from Comer's house toward the James River as he told me of his trapping trips and experience he's had over the years. "There's a gravel bar out there, just under the water, shining like a fish nest. Have you ever seen a fish nest? They shine. I set that trap there, put some plants and bushes, and I caught eleven beavers right there on that bank in that shallow place one right after another. Most people want to set their traps at the end of the slides a beaver makes to get in the river. If you set your trap there, when he comes down, he throws so much dirt down he sets off the trap and throws it before he gets there.
"Beaver aren't hard to trap. They're dumb. You don't bait the trap or nothing. They just go through the trap. But most traps you get them by the leg. Beavers are big, and it breaks their leg, but doesn't kill him. The correct traps will kill him instantly. It's a quick death. There ain't no pain."
I asked Comer why he carried a gun with him. "Well, just in case something goes wrong. You may run across a rabid animal or anything. I don't carry it to hunt. I'm trapping. You don't have to kill nothing. It gets killed when you catch him. The trap kills him right quick.
"The best way to catch something is with a clean trap and work under the ground. You can't catch anything on top of the ground for they'll step over it. All I can tell a man is to have confidence. Just make up your mind you can catch them, and you'll catch him. Like everything, to be successful, you got to want to.
"Skinning's another thing. You've just got to do it right. A beaver's fur is heavy, one of the heaviest. To get the most out of it, you have to stretch them flat on the floor. You don't hang them up. I take a plywood board and stretch them out right on the floor, just as round as a silver dollar."
By the time I was almost fifteen, memories of our family of beavers faded with the shifts and strides of the river. What was once our swimming hole had shal\-lowed to some extent and the current was faster now. We moved a quarter of a mile upstream, far above the eddy where the larger beaver had once lived, and we swam only once in a while. The beaver hadn't yet populated back from the trapping three years before, but the scars from the beaver were very evident.
Where they cut the brushes and trees which had held the banks against the face of the river current, there was now gullies, ditches and in places, whole sections of rich river bottom land which had fallen into the river.
Beavers action on our river produces a different effect from some other places. Where our beavers caused loss of soil, in some places their dams increase the soil. Doug explains why.
"When they have to go farther and farther for food each day, then finally they'll abandon the whole site. For years afterwards if it's a good dam it will stay a pond, but there will be no beaver in it. Gradually the dam will rot and break and it will go back to a normal stream. When the stream washes into the pond the sediment settles because of the slow-moving water and it will build up of sediment, this sediment will make a nice field. Then woody vegetation comes back in. Down south the field carrying capacity of a lot of the broad river valleys has been enhanced by beaver action. They really play an important part in changing the land form a lot faster than natural forces which take centuries.
"Despite what man is doing with his growth and institutions, there are more beaver now than at the turn of the century. With sportsmen wanting them and conservation awareness, beavers have been reintroduced and have become a problem in some areas like here.
"Bennett Spring is an ideal habitat. The only problem for beaver is a lot of fishermen. Sometimes we get clashes between beavers and trout fishermen because a beaver will be determined to swim out in the stream during daytime and gets awful mad when a fisherman comes wading out there. We have reports that they charge the fishermen. An adult beaver can be pretty mean.
"Beaver have got all the food they need here in this valley. I've counted at least ten walking along the spring branch on a single night. With that large number in this small area, they're just denuding the forested slopes. That's going to cause really bad erosion in the future. Their tunnels into the stream-bank wreak havoc with the nature paths. There are places where you could fall through and break a leg.
"We have problems now with stuff washing into the path and then washing into the stream. If this forest is denuded, we'll lose the trout in the stream because the erosion would wash in silt that would lower the oxygen content causing the trout and vegetation to die. Beaver are an integral part of the Ozark environment, as long as they are kept in balance with their natural environment."
The damage our beaver initiated is still tearing into our hay field. Erosion on the banks continues as the river swallows up to ten feet a year, especially a wet year with periodical floods.
What to do about beavers, especially the damage they cause is a question to farmers like Comer. "Well, myself, I don't know. We're losing a lot of trees. Beaver cause lots of damage. A fifty pound beaver is just like a fifty pound hog going in and out of the banks, and the trees they cut fall from the banks. Beaver are destructive and I don't mean maybe. There ain't no money in them for nobody. Sometimes I think what good have they done here in our country, but I guess there's a place for everything."
It has been several years since I was eight and usually it is just at holidays that I ever venture to the banks of the Niangua. But in the last year I've seen fresh cut saplings and have heard the familiar old sound which intrigued me so much at eight.
Last spring Tippy and I walked the old path to the river. She followed me much more slowly and seldom chased after rabbits and squirrels as she used to do on our jaunts around the farm, but she still had that adventurous look of a puppy set loose in the chicken pen when we reached the river.
Curiosity led us back down to the old swimming hole which in the last few years had deepened again. As we reached its banks, the familiar welcome sound I had longed to hear, slapped loud through the warm air, and I turned eight again. We trudged forward and lay on the dirt bank just above the water. We anxiously parted the milkweed to look right in the face of the biggest beaver I ever saw. Nothing else was on my mind but the thought of at last touching his deep rich fur coat. I leaned forward and grabbed for my treasure, falling face first and clothed into the still cool water. Frustrated once again, I pulled myself together and started for the shore. There a few feet in front of me was my beaver who seemed to smirk saying, "You can look but you can't touch." As he sank under the water, I realized that though the river moved differently and I was older, nothing had really changed at all.
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