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The beaver is an amazingly adaptable and resourceful rodent - a fitting national symbol. This humble little animal has survived an ice age, major droughts, overhunting to provide beaver felted hats and other competition from predators and humans. If it was cod that attracted Europeans to our east coast, it was the beaver who drew explorers and merchants into Canada's interior.
The beaver adapted to the ice age by building dams, digging channels to increase water depth, building insulated lodges and storing precut stems outside their lodge doors. All that effort and adaptation wasn't enough for its human-related challenges. By the mid-twentieth century, beavers were all but wiped out in our area until their reintroduction in the 1950s and ’60s. A species that had survived all sorts of adversity for 1.9 million years was almost destroyed in a few hundred years.
A beaver prepares to enter the water.
Photo by Dee Patriquin
European furriers discovered that the unusual barbed fibres of the beaver’s undercoat could be fashioned into a lustrous felt. The hats became the height of style and status, selling for half an annual skilled tradesman’s salary. Between 1853 and 1877, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) is estimated to have bought and sold three million beaver pelts. The beaver pelt became the standard of trade with everything valued in terms of a cured adult beaver skin.
The beaver’s scent gland is a source of castoreum which contains acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. This became a profitable sideline for the HBC who shipped tons of castoreum to relieve the European headache.
Thankfully, for the beaver, styles changed by the mid-19th century and hats made from Asian silk velour became all the rage. By that time, the hunt for beaver had pushed fur traders to the Pacific Ocean.
To bring the beaver trade a little closer to home, we have only to look at the Laboucane Metis family. In 1878 they settled southwest of Camrose, about where Highway 21 crosses the Battle River. The Laboucanes travelled throughout Central Alberta purchasing and trading for furs with First Nation and Metis settlements during winter months. In spring they would head off in their Red River carts loaded with furs for the long journey to Winnipeg. The journey there and back took a good six months.
A beaver hat and its travel case - one of many items crafted from beaver pelts.
Painting by Carolyn Cassady
Beavers are now common in the Battle River and its tributaries including the Stoney Creek.
They need fresh water, preferably flowing water, and woody vegetation to thrive. And thrive they do, as you will notice in a walk along Mirror Lake or along Stoney Creek.
Today the threat to the beaver is not the fur trade but rather urban and agricultural expansion and the draining of wetlands.
The threat to the beaver and its ability to establish and maintain wetlands is in turn a threat to our water ecosystem.
The beaver, our national icon, is the largest rodent in Canada, weighing in at between 845 kg and 89-120 cm in length. The fur of the beaver is dark brown with a reddish hue, with short ears and small eyes on its broad head. Only the hind feet are webbed, the source of propulsion underwater. Large incisor teeth, that continuously grow, are used to cut vegetation and strip off bark. The broad, black, scaly tail (29-53 cm) is used to stabilize the beaver while cutting trees, for thermoregulation, as a fat storage area, and are slapped on the ground or water surface as an alarm signal.
Beavers eat the bark of trees, preferring aspen, birch and willow. Each beaver demands up to 200 trees to satisfy its appetite. The higher level of resin in coniferous trees makes them less appealing. In summer they also eat aquatic pond vegetation and may even come ashore in search of grains and grasses.
Beavers use branches and logs to build their dams and lodges. Lodges are built with the entrance underwater to evade predators and maintain access to trees stored under the ice during winter. The lodges are also used to protect beavers from extreme cold and heat. Lodges usually contain three generations of beavers; the parent pair, yearlings, and the current year's kits. Once the youngsters reach two years old, they leave the lodge to find their own territory.
A cut-away view of a beaver lodge.
Painting by Carolyn Cassady
With its engineering skills, the beaver has a huge influence on freshwater ecosystems. The habitats beavers create by their need to maximize water result in a higher diversity of other species - amphibians, invertebrates and waterfowl alike. The deep-water pools and interconnecting channels help maintain water in dry times and reduce flooding in wet times. The beaver's ability to modify the landscape has many positive side effects.
A landscape without beavers is a landscape with a lot less water and the life that water supports.
Beavers are often seen as pests. They de-forest river banks and properties and their dams flood fields and roads. We have not been successful in our efforts to control beavers by trapping and removing their lodges and dams. Perhaps we need to look at new ways of coexisting, of being partners in protecting our water resources.
Even in an ice-covered pond, the beaver lodge is warm and protective.
Photo by Dee Patriquin
Early History of Camrose Alberta and District – published in 1947 by the Camrose Historical Society
The Golden Trail – published in 1955 by the Lions Club of Camrose
Battle River Country, The History of Duhamel and Area – published in 1974 by The Duhamel Historical Society
Four Seasons Environmental Centre material – prepared in 2007 – spearheaded by Ken Duncan; research and writing by Glen Hvenegaard, Chad Winger, Susanna Bruneau, and Kim Macklin.
The Great West Before 1900 – published in 1991 by United West Communications Ltd.
The Beaver Manifesto – by Glynnis Hood, published in 2011 by Rocky Mountain Books. Available in print and as an e-book.
Photo and Illustration credits:
Carolyn Cassady member of the Rotary Club of Camrose.
Dee atroqiom - Community Member
Photo of the Stoney Creek beaver dam by the Plonys. Graduates of the Alberta University of Arts, Darcy and Lea Plony worked as graphic designers for many years under Groundwater Communications while raising their family; they now spend time creating fine art. Darcy has written and published two children’s books and his watercolours have won seven international fine art competitions. Lea paints in acrylics and volunteers her design and marketing abilities to support the Bailey Theatre.