The historical lifetime of the beaver

Explaining our complex relationship with North America’s largest rodent.


With up to 23,000 hairs packed into each square centimeter of fur, it’s no wonder that beaver pelts make the finest felted hats. And it’s not surprising that pieces of wood gnawed by prehistoric beaver have been mistaken for human-made artifacts. But it does seem odd that medieval church authorities actually considered the beaver’s tail as a kind of fish that could be served as acceptable Lenten fare. And it’s equally strange to recall that in the 1940s, the state of Idaho relocated nuisance beavers by packing them into boxes, loading them onto planes and dropping them by parachute — yes, parachute — to beaver-less places, where they helped to prevent erosion by damming wild streams above farms.

Our relationship with North America’s largest rodent is so complex that we can no longer classify beavers as simply as Horace T. Martin did in Castorologia, an 1892 zoological monograph written when beavers hovered on the brink of extinction. Frances Backhouse — formerly a seabird and grizzly biologist, now a University of Victoria-based writer/teacher — takes a new look at this landscape-changing critter in her book, Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. The book was a finalist for the Lane Anderson award for the best Canadian science book of 2015.

Gentlemen in beaver top hats in Boise City, Idaho, c. 1866.
Kingsley Studio. CC via Wikipedia

In Backhouse’s book, “search” is an operative word. The evolutionary scope of her saga may be its greatest strength: She takes us from the beaver’s origins, 24 million years ago, to its relevance today, deftly putting the earth-changing feats of Castor canadensis on par with those of Homo sapiens. At one moment Backhouse is with paleobiologist Natalia Rybczynski at the Canadian Museum of Nature, pondering angled dental impressions in a petrified stick. At another she is bound for the “Beaver Capital of Canada” to ground-truth a Google Earth lead from Jean Thie, an Ottawa-based consultant who uses the latest geospatial technologies to study changes like permafrost melt and forest cover. And beaver dams. Indeed, “cruising virtually over the continent in search of beaver dams is his private obsession.”

Backhouse is a perceptive observer and listener, ever alert to the subtle ways the beaver’s story entwines with individual people. She has the knack of a documentary filmmaker, especially in her extended conversation with Ida Calmegane, an 88-year-old Tlingit for whose clan, the beaver — s’igèdí — is the crest animal.

In stories like Calmegane’s, we see that beavers literally helped name this continent; every American state (except Hawaii) and Canadian province bears at least one beaver toponym, more than 2,000 in all. So many that “you can’t swing a beaver on this continent — if you could even manage to heft one by its flat, scaly tail — without hitting one of its namesakes.” We rarely give thought to the roots of these names, yet Backhouse brings us to several in the course of her quest, upending assumptions at every turn. Take one of the many places named Beaver Lodge, for example — this one a cabin, on a remote lake in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park, where an eccentric Englishman named Archibald Stansfeld Belaney reinvented himself as the beaver trapper “Grey Owl” in the 1930s. Controversial self-promoting faux-Indian that he was, Grey Owl lived with two orphaned beavers named Jelly Roll and Rawhide, and his writings helped Canadians think of beavers as something more than a pelt.

This is not to say that Backhouse shuns beaver traps, or the tough economic, ethical and ecological questions that they spring. Knife in hand, she learns the art of skinning through Pete Wise’s “animal damage control” work in British Columbia’s Lower Fraser Valley; she joins Paddy Hall, a beaver fur grader, at the North American Fur Auction; she even meets with folks at the Smithbilt factory in Calgary, Alberta, where beavers are still made into hats. Backhouse avoids moral judgments; what she does offer is a wide assortment of reasons to value the beaver’s utterly unique lifestyle, while helping us understand how it has shaped — and still shapes — our own.

For last few centuries, we’ve regarded beavers as either nuisances or commodities. Now, we’re increasingly learning how they make our landscapes livable: not only by clearing a path for settled lands and farms, but by filtering, diversifying and storing the water on which we depend. Backhouse identifies beavers as “a classic keystone species — that is, the indispensable creator of ecosystems that support entire ecological communities; an unwitting faunal philanthropist.” As a Canadian, she surely has a particular affinity for her national animal, but the beavers’ watershed stewardship blurs political borders. In her final chapter, “Détente,” Backhouse shows that countries that once fought over fur are finding promising ways of beaver coexistence. And as we face climate change together, she suggests that partnerships between beavers and humans can help provide a cooler future, too.

Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver
Frances Backhouse
261 pages: $16.95.
ECW Press, 2015

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