It was a wind chill advisory day in Maine and I was a mile from the truck standing in front of a beaver house with my friend Peter. Wind chill advisories are issued when the temperature with the wind chill is expected to fall between approximately -15 to -24 degrees farenheight. I’m not sure if the wind chill had frosted my brain a little that day, for I knew better than to be standing in front of an active beaver house. Beaver movement in and out of the entrance, creates weak ice or even worse, shell ice which does not have much strength, and as luck would have it I was standing directly over the channel of the entrance. The ice gave way with really little warning at all, and I looked down to see the black of the water coming at me. I reached out and caught myself with my hands leaving me very briefly waist deep in the frigid water, before I leaned back and rolled out of the hole, and rolled on the ice to Peter. We rubbed snow, which absorbs moisture, all over my legs and I stood up and brushed it off. It was so cold that the outer layer I was wearing quickly froze solid. So quickly in fact that the other three layers I was wearing never even got wet from the whole experience. I was able to finish out the day, and it wasn’t until I got into the truck with the heater on, that my pants began to melt and I got wet and cold for the ride home.
Beavers flourish in Maine for a a number of reasons, foremost being because there is a lot of habitat for them here – in fact there are 37,000 linear miles of beaver habitat here in the state which has the capacity to support 45,000 to 68,000 beavers, of which annually about 10,000 are harvested. A few years ago due to an increased number of landowner complaints, the state made the season more liberal in hopes that more beavers would be harvested. A fair amount of Maine is covered by dirt roads, and they are easily washed out by beaver activity on the myriad of streams and rivers that criss cross the state. Maine at least gets it – I find it hard to fathom other states that have reduced or severely restricted methods of trapping, or trapping altogether. For example, in the years since Massachusetts banned almost all trapping in ’05, their budget for beaver problems has grown to $1,208,000 which is paid for by taxpayer dollars. Why on earth would you do that when there are people that will do it for free? I did some damage control trapping for a while and I always asked if the client could wait until the fur was marketable (about late October thru April) for me to do the job, and I would do it for free. When they would profusely thank me for fixing their problem I would tell them to remember it if there was ever a vote here to ban trapping. There is an in depth Beaver Assessment of Maine paper which you can see here. There is a really interesting chart in the paper showing the average price per pelt, number harvested, and number of license holders. Trapping and the beaver used to be so tied to our society and way of life it is amazing to me. Beaver pelts or plews, were as good as currency, Manhatten Island is what it is today because it used to be the place where furs were traded, bought, and sold, and the canoe races here in Maine I believe had there start with the fur trade – the faster you could get your fur to market, the more you got paid. Beaver trapping here in the state is quite regulated and the Commissioner can and does close areas to the taking of beaver. Each pelt has to be tagged by a Game Warden, who sends the information of where and when it was caught to the State, so that populations can be monitored.
Over the years I’ve noticed that bobcats love to stand on beaver houses, and I’ve often imagined what a beaver must feel like hearing the cat walk on the house, and hearing it sniff at the top. Beaver do have a distinctive smell from their castor which was used for earaches, deafness, headaches, and loss of memory back in the day and the beavers use it for territorial purposes using castor mounds, which are large globs of mud deposited on the stream bank with castor deposited on it. Apparently it all smells uniquely different for them , as it’s an effective method to use castor from another colony to illicit a territorial response in the beaver. It’s often possible to smell a well established colony on a stream long before you get there. One year walking down the fragile ice of a stream, Peter and I came across blood on the ice, followed by a blood smear on the snow into some evergreens. After poking around some, we found where a patient cat had laid in wait overlooking a patch of open water, melting the snow some where it waited. It appeared that a beaver had came up into the open water and the cat had killed him, dragging him across the ice and into some privacy to enjoy his meal. ‘Cats seem to love beaver meat, and we had one following us one year – investigating all of the sets, and getting a free meal when we had a catch. One time after it had snowed just enough to show a print, I realized when I got back to the truck that I had forgotten something on the beaver flowage, we had been gone maybe 15 minutes, and when we got back to the ice the cat had been there, and visited all the places we did. It was a bit eerie to know that he had likely been in a position to be watching us while we were there.
During one winter there was a railroad line I had to walk several miles on, and along the way a red squirrel had dug a hole under the tracks and I would stop and talk to him, which of course he wasn’t very happy with and would scold me from inside his hole. Then one day it had snowed just a dusting, and as I walked by the squirrel hole, he was no longer scolding me, and there were no tracks on the snow like there always were previous. I then noticed the track on the rail itself. It was a bobcat track, and it extended as far as I could see – just on the rail – ending at the squirrel hole. He must have stood waiting for the squirrel to come out and grabbed a quick meal. I followed his track on the rail for just over a mile, where they came from, and went back to, a dense thicket of fur and spruce. On the way back through later that day, all the evidence had disappeared – the sun had melted the snow off the tracks.
We had discovered a small flowage near an abandoned bridge which had an old culvert running underneath of it. The beavers had plugged both ends of the culvert and created a pond for themselves behind it, with a decent size house, and we decided to come back the following weekend. It rained for the next few days, and then turned off cold again, and upon returning to the house, the ice had collapsed. The large amount of rain had pushed through the stuff in the culvert, and the beavers would be unable to fix it from under the ice, the water drained from the pond, and the ice collapsed, leaving the beavers without water or access to their food supply. I returned that spring to look things over, and it didn’t appear they made it through the winter.
It is common practice not catch all the beavers out of a particular house to leave some for the following year, and trappers generally leave subtle clues for others that the particular flowage has been trapped. Maine law says that you have to be a certain distance from the house, and generally the further away you are is the best way to just take the older and bigger ones. I missed my opportunity to take a great picture one year, I was checking sets one cold night, about 10 degrees or so and the air was very still. Coming over the rise to look onto the flowage the moon was hanging in the air behind the house and the conditions were just right to see the steam from the house rising across the moon into the cold night air, and I didn’t have the camera. Maybe someday I’ll be able to paint a picture of what it was like, which was beautiful, as are all the sights and memories of the times I spent in the woods of Maine on the trapline.