At a recent barbecue during a breezy Sunday afternoon on the South Fork of the Shoshone River, near Cody, Wyo., I saw the largest beaver I’ve ever seen. It was floating in the river’s current like a big dog.
The beaver looked to be about three feet long from nose to flat tail, and must have weighed 40 pounds. It had a huge, whiskered head that reminded me of a Scottish terrier’s. Our host, one of those modem cowboys who makes a living thanks to a computer and high-speed Internet service, called us over to look, and we stood around with our beers and watched in amazement. My friend, whose place sports some big cottonwoods bordering a stretch of the river, took lots of pictures, but also studied the beaver with some alarm.
As the animal slowly swam upriver, it seemed to scan the jumble of trembling young willows and cottonwoods on the opposite bank. Our host suddenly mentioned that he’d had a crabapple tree ransacked by a grizzly last year, the bear even tearing off some limbs.
A beaver isn’t a grizzly, of course, but you get the idea: It can do a lot of rearranging of the scenery. All this got me thinking about the role this durable aquatic rat — Castor canadensis — played in the history of the American West. After all, the beavers started it, our relentless moving into the country’s interior. We wouldn’t be here without them.
Beaver was the material of choice for hats, and in pursuit of pelts in the 17th century, the French methodically worked their way west from eastern Canada, thus exploring half a continent. By the 1790s, British traders were probing the Pacific Northwest coast by sea in search of furs.
Though Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their legendary journey of discovery in 1804 for a myriad of reasons, a major object was to counter British influence and open the region to American trappers. One of those trappers, John Colter, was the first white man to discover what is now Yellowstone National Park, in 1807. Three years later, John Jacob Astor sent the ship Tonquin and its crew to establish Astoria, the first city in Oregon, a place originally devoted to the fur trade. From the mountain men who brought in beaver and other furs to the settlers who followed in wagon trains, the West’s population boom was under way.
Today, the beaver is seen as a nuisance across much of the subdivided West. This totemic animal and its engineering machinations are responsible for flooded subdivisions and chewed-down ornamental trees.
It’s a typical story in the New West: People love wildlife until it eats the pets, shreds the shrubbery or floods the basement. As for the beaver, it’s spawned a new breed of trapper: Politically correct newcomers want problem wildlife trapped alive and unharmed, then relocated to more natural — and convenient — surroundings.
Just type "Live Trapping Services" into Google or some other search engine, and listings will pour in from across America. What would Jim Bridger and Kit Carson make of these modern-day mountain men who make a living returning beavers to the wild?
Occasional nuisance or not, we have to give Castor canadensis credit for possessing a quality that writer Wallace Stegner said was lacking in many of us. Stegner said if the West were to become a society that matched its scenery, it needed "stickers" willing to commit to a place, to weather its busts as well as its booms, and to work to create durable Western institutions.
That’s what the beavers did, building dams that tamed floods. For thanks, we’ve subjected them to trapping and destroyed their lodges with dynamite. Yet, given a chance, the beaver or its progeny gets right back to work. The same might be said for my friend and his entrepreneurial adventures in cyberspace. I assume his virtual occupation will keep him in the West, but then again, you never know what people will do, and you certainly never know about the economy.
A bunch of us stood watching that big beaver swim upstream. It looked as if its periscope nose made the wide wake in the water all by itself. I wondered if the beaver would return some night to have a go at my friend’s luscious cottonwood trees. My friend was already talking about putting heavy chicken wire or some other barrier around them. I was thinking that the drama might play out as a struggle between two determined Westerners.
Meanwhile, those young willows across the river trembled in the breeze.