NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Gold is where you find it. Coronado never reached Cibola. Onate died in dishonour, de Soto in despair and de Leon in Florida. Meanwhile, Jacques Cartier claimed for France a vast chunk of the New World with no gold in it at all, he thought.
That's how much Cartier knew.
About 1640, beaver fur and felt suddenly became fashionable. The rush was on. Huge companies fought for fur sources. By 1830, the eastern beavers nearly gone, fur seekers were swarming over the Rockies and our Pacific Northwest. Behind them came the farmers, industrialists, tax collectors-settlers who made the land their own. The beaver is the only rodent in the world to precipitate a land rush that would forge two great nations.
Land rush maybe, but gold rush? Surely there weren't that many beavers worth that much. Ah, yes. In November alone, 1743, the Hudsons Bay Company sold 26,750 beaver pelts in London. That same year 127,080 passed through the French port of Rochelle. One year. Finally, barely in time, beaver hats fell from fashion. On the brink of extinction a hundred years ago, the beaver has made a rousing come-back. Today the toothy old curmudgeon plugs away at his own business, Oblivious to the glory history bestowed upon his fur-bearing forebears.
A humourless rodent with a work ethic that makes Puritans seem like slackers, the beaver occupies itself in constant busyness, and his efforts can completely alter an area. By drowning vegetation, a beaver dam clears acres of forest. The pond eventually silts in and the beavers move on. Grass invades to form a meadow. Trees encroach as the forest tiptoes in to reclaim its lost acreage. In the centuries-long interim a host of plants and animals play out their lives in habitats that would never have been there at all without beavers.
The pond is a defense moat for home sweet home. Outside, the lodge looks like a haphazard hump of soggy sticks. Inside, a smooth, plastered dome arches gracefully over a slightly elevated mud floor served by several underwater entrances. Never quite satisfied, the beavers continually remodel and add on. An old lodge may be 40 feet in diameter. Rental tenants, muskrats in particular, might attach a gazebo or two.
The pond is larder also. Beavers eat green bark, twigs, leaves and such. The prudent rodents jam green branches into underwater stockpiles near the lodge.
Even when ice seals the pond, the beavers can slip out for a bite. They do not hibernate.
Only love can make the old sobersides act like a ninny. When a gentleman beaver's thoughts turn to the ladies, he makes...mud pies. Here and there he leaves little patties of mud perfumed with his personal scent--a sure-fire lady-grabber.
The 2 to 6 kits arrive in May and hang around the family lodge until well into their second year. These days, beaver kits can grow up in relative security. Their safety isn't in speed, heaven knows; 2 mph on land is gangbusters. It's not in their swift, skilled swimming, either; rather, it's in the change in men's attitudes toward beavers.
Today beavers are protected and encouraged (and emulated in late summer as all the local folks gather in a winter supply of stovewood). As a result, beavers are returning to places that hadn't seen a gnawed tree in a century. They come and go here in the park also, most conspicuously at Longmire. They are welcome for good reason--their natural reclamation projects prevent floods better than do men's. They create perfect habitat for mink, muskrats, and other unique animals and plants.
If nothing else, beavers are an attractive conversation piece around the old park here. After all, at one time their fur was very nearly worth its weight in gold. It adds a touch of class to the place.
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