Thursday, March 24, 2011

Audubon and the Beaver That Got Away

In 1843 John James Audubon went up the Missouri River to collect specimens and make notes for his book on North America's four legged mammals. The image above captures his take on beavers, although the beavers depicted weren't collected on his trip up the Missouri. While he did collect the skins of other mammals and made sketches of wolves, bisons and pronghorns, he couldn't trap a beaver, even with the help of a vaunted Mountain Man. It makes a good story, at least from the beaver's point of view.

When he went up the river his Portfolio on birds had already made him famous. So he was highly regarded by the traders, trappers, and military officers who were able to ease his way. Fifty-eight years old, his long hair was white, he had a beard, and not quite the energy he once had.

He was still a good shot, though it's hard to imagine that he wore that fur-trimmed jacket when he was out hunting. Going up the Missouri, he and his associates shot whatever they could, birds as well as mammals. Audubon went up the river a decade or so after the peak of the fur trade in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. So for much of the trip Audubon could only make notes of where beavers had been, more to show their commercial importance, than to inform an essay on their habits and habitat. For example on May 20 he noted "we have passed today Jacques River, or, as I should call it, La Riviere a Jacques, named after a man who some twenty or more years ago settled on its banks, and made some money collecting Beavers, etc."

On June 4, they passed an old Riccaree Indian village where Gen. William Ashley, the famous organizer of trapping expeditions, had lost 18 men in a battle with Indians, who used weapons Ashley traded with them. But, as Ashley had told Audubon, it "proved fortunate for him" because nearby he "procured one hundred packs of Beaver skins for a mere song." (Audubon seemed to delight in relating trades in which the Indians got the worst of the bargain.) That night one of Audubon's men went out to hunt and when he crossed Beaver Creek on a raft, he saw "traces" of otter and beaver.

On June 12, their river boat reached Fort Union there Audubon learned from a son of the famous trapper Chouteau that beavers were "very scarce" in the mountains, which didn't prevent Audubon from wanting to trap a beaver. In his Journal he worried about the fate of the bison, even as he and his hunters killed many. Audubon gained 25 pounds on the trip. But he didn't express any concern about over-trapping beavers.

He didn't especially like trappers. At Fort Union all the trappers on board left and headed for the wilderness. Audubon noted that, "the filth they have left below has been scraped and washed off." There is no evidence in his Journal that he quizzed any of those trappers on the ways of the beaver, nor that he enjoyed their company. But while he didn't think much of trappers as traveling companions, he respected their bravery, and saw nothing wrong with their killing as many beavers as they could.

He met one at the Fort who had left on April 1 with three other men. They were made prisoner by 400 Sioux Indians; they kept him a day and a half; he had had no food to speak of for the last 11 days; he was "filthy beyond description and having only one very keen, bright eye which looked as if he were both proud and brave"

The trapper he finally talked to about beavers was Etienne Provost. Audubon always called him "Old Provost." He was born in Chambly, Quebec, in 1785,according to notes in the modern edition of Audubon's Missouri Journal. So he was 58, the same age as Audubon, who, by the way, was born in Haiti. Audubon wrote:

"Old Provost has been telling me much of interest about Beavers, once so plentiful, but now very scarce. It takes about 70 Beavers skins to make a pack of 100 pounds; in a good market this pack is worth 500 dollars, and in fortunate seasons a trapper sometimes makes the large sum of 4 thousand dollars. Formerly, when Beavers were abundant, companies were sent with as many as 30 and 40 men, each with from 8 to a dozen traps, and two horses. When at a propitious spot, they erected a camp, and every man sought his own game; the skins alone were brought to the camp, where a certain number of men always remained to stretch them dry."

Audubon, or his co-author John Bachman, put that passage more or less verbatim in their book on mammals. In that book, Provost is credited with being the authors' principal source of information about beavers, although there his name is spelled "Prevost." He's described as trapper for the American Fur Company for "upwards of twenty years." He was more famous than that and is well remembered in Utah because the city of Provo and Provo River are named after him. There you will find a statue of him.

One Utah history web site notes that he was "considered by his contemporaries as one of the most knowledgeable, skillful, and successful of the mountain men." Another source gives 1782 as his birth date.

What Provost told Audubon about beavers must have been pretty accurate, because Audubon's book gives a creditable account of beavers. (See: )

The book also tells how beavers are trapped and suggests that a trap baited with castoreum, a scented fluid a beaver squirts from a sac at the base of its tail, rarely fails to catch a beaver. "The Beaver can smell the castoreum at least one hundred yards, makes towards it at once, and is generally caught.... Where beavers have not been disturbed or hunted, and are abundant, they nearly half raise out of the water at the first smell of castoreum, and become so excited that they are heard to cry aloud, and breath hard to catch the odor as it floats on the air." The book doesn't note that twice Provost set out to trap a beaver for Audubon, and failed.

On July 16 Provost took Audubon's young assistant artist, Isaac Sprague and another hunter "down river to Charbonneau, and there try their luck at Otters and Beavers...." They returned three days later and in his Journal, Audubon quotes from the journal Sprague kept.

The three men went down the Yellowstone River to Charbonneau creek, "issuing from a clump of willows" 10 feet wide and "so shallow we were obliged to push our boat over the slippery mud for about 40 feet." They found a "pond" 50 feet wide and 6 or 8 feet deep extending a mile up the crooked fiver lined with willows with prairie beyond. "About a quarter mile from the mouth of the river we discovered what what we were in search of, the Beaver lodge. To measure it was impossible as it was not perfect, in the first place, in the next it was so muddy that we could not get ashore, but as well as I can, I will describe it. The lodge is what is called the summer lodge; it was composed wholly of brush, willow chiefly, with a single hole for the entrance and exit of the beaver. The pile resembled as much as anything I can compare it, a brush heap about 6 feet high, and about 10 or 15 feet base, and standing 7 or 8 feet from the water. There were a few Beaver tracks about which gave us encouragement."

They set two traps where they saw the most tracks. "The end of a willow twig is then chewed and dipped in the Medicine Horn which contains the bait; this consists of castoreum mixed with spices; a quantity is collected on the chewed end of the twig, the stick is then placed in or at the edge of water leaving the part with the bait about two inches above the surface and in front of the trap; on edge side the bait and about 6 inches from it, two dried twigs are placed in the ground.... Before we were asleep we heard a Beaver dive, and slap his tail, which sounded like the falling of a round stone in the water; here was encouragement again."

But they had no luck and moved the traps, but had no luck the next night either. Provost decided there was only one beaver, a male. The hunters ate buffalo meet, and shot a doe. The water in the river had fallen so much in two days, that they had to strip, get in the mud and push their boat. It's been many years since I've been out west, and I was not interested in beavers then. But a real estate agency has a photo of a beaver dam on the Yellowstone River which gives some idea of where Provost was looking for beavers.

The three men rejoined Audubon who noted in his Journal that "Provost was discomfited and crestfallen at the failure of the Beaver hunt." It had been show time for the Mountain Man and he came up short.

They all continued up the Yellowstone with Audubon relishing more trapper's tales rather than the actual animal. He heard that beavers shot swimming "sink at once to the bottom, but their bodies rise again in from 20 to 30 minutes. Hunters, who frequently shoot and kill them by moonlight, return in the morning from their camping-places, and find them on the margins of the shore where they had shot." He didn't put that un-romantic image of trappers in his essay on the beaver.

He did put Provost's description of "Paresseux" beavers, unattached males who refused to work and were expelled by the beavers that do. They often live together in river banks, and are easy to trap. (They sound a bit like the men who trap them.)

When the boat reached Beaver Creek, which doesn't look that commodious today,

Provost led a group on another Beaver hunt and Audubon went with them. Provost led them to a lodge and opined that "vagrant" beavers were about. A persistent myth about beavers is that otters are their worst enemy and will attack them. Provost showed how that might have taken root. As he set two traps in shallow water, he explained that beavers trapped there wouldn't drown and otters might come and attack them, which hardly describes otter predation of beavers. It describes otters taking a bite out the trappers' profits. But that day, no otters were in sight, and the odor of castoreum filled the air. Audubon closed the day's Journal with a wish: "I hope I may have a large Beaver tomorrow."

He didn't. People back in the boat down river saw the beaver swim by them and away. Audubon had to be content with just taking apart the lodge. Three men climbed inside it. Audubon and Provost were too plump to even try that. Audubon "secured some large specimens of the cuttings used to build the lodge and a pocketful of chips." He gave no report on Provost's feelings. The Mountain Man hurried off to hunt an elk. Audubon headed back to St. Louis a few days later.