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.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Beaver Restoration in New York

In the early 1900s the State of New York began restoring beavers in the Adirondacks, the state's principal wilderness area that fills most of the northeast section of the state. In 1910 the Adirondacks included between 5000 and 6000 square miles of mostly forested mountains, lakes, plateaus, but villages, sawmills and mines as well. By then it had been settled with about 100,000 permanent residence and timber and mineral resources had been tapped for a century. Most of the report just pinpoints where beavers have been seen. I hope to include maps soon so better sense can be made out of the spread of the beavers from 1905 to 1914, but there is a poetry in all the names of lakes and streams, for anyone who likes beavers.

from State of New York

Fourth Annual Report of the Conservation Commission 1914

Return of Beavers to the Adirondacks

The beaver has been restored to his favorite haunts, the Adirondacks, by means of restocking and effective protection, according to the reports of systematic observations of protectors and others received by the Conservation Commission. These investigations show that there are to-day between 1,500 and 2,000 beaver in the wilds, which the Iroquois Indians called "Koh-sa-ra-ga," "The Beaver-Hunting-Country," and whose ownership was challenged by the Canadian tribe, styled in derision by the Mohawks, the "Adirondacks," the "Tree Eaters."

The Adirondacks to-day are again entitled to their old Iroquois name, for they are rapidly becoming the country of the Beaver, although this favorite fur bearing animal is no longer persecuted by the trapper and hunter.

The Legislature of 1903 appropriated $500 to begin the restocking of the Adirondacks with beaver and in 1905 three pairs were liberated. One pair were given their liberty on a small stream entering the south branch of Moose river, where another beaver which had escaped from the Woodruff preserve had built a dam. The other four were liberated on the northeast inlet of Big Moose Lake, but moved over into Beaver river, twenty miles ot the northeaast, to being housekeeping. During 1905 Edward H. Litchfield liberated about a dozen beavers in his preserve near Big Tupper Lake, and several of these escaped into adjoining preserves.

In 1905 there was reported to the Fish and Game Commission the existence of a "small native colony of beavers, the last of the remnants of the original stock, inhabiting the waters northwest of upper Saranac Lake." That year the Commission placed a "conservation estimate of the beaver in the Adirondacks" at "about forty." (p 252)

In 1906 the Legislature appropriated $1,000 for continuing the restocking of the Adirondacks with beaver and the following year seventeen were obtained from Yellowstone Park and distributed. The Commission gave the beaver census that year at 100.

In 1904, about the time the State of New York began its work of restoring the beaver to his native habitat, an authority on "American Animals" recorded in his book the sad fact that "the beaver is now nearly extinct in the United States." Much general interest has been displayed in the work of restoration in this State and the Conservation Commission is happy to say that popular co-operation has made the task of protecting Castor canadensis a comparatively easy one .

The reports received by the Conservation Commission show that beaver are multiplying rapidly and are taking possession of their ancient heritage in many different sections of the Adirondacks.

Colton District. Protector Smith of Colton reports three colonies in his territory of the Raquette river country.

Cranberry Lake District. Protector Hand of Cranberyy Lake records 1 colony on Grasse river below the reservoir; 1 colony on Cranberry Lake Inlet; 1 colony on Bog river; and "signs in the Town of Webb."

Croghan District. Protector Andre of Croghan reports 2 colonies at Sunday Lake; 1 at Stillwater, Beaver river; 1 at Francis Lake; 1 at upper end of Watertown Light and Power dam; 2 on west branch of Oswegatchie river. All "good sized colonies with large houses." Also a few beaver scattered in various places, without permanent habitat as yet.

Forestport District. Protector Bellinger of Forestport reports 3 colonies on the Black river; 1 at Kayuta pond; 1 three miles above Enos where they have built a dam; 1 on the Stillwater below North Lake; 1 colony on north branch of North Lake; 1 colony on second Stillwater above Honondaga Lake on West Canada Creek; several colonies on Indian river. Also reported by protector Ball, 1 colony on Wintime pond; 1 on Little Black Creek; 2 on Twin Lakes streams; 3 on Big Woodhull streams.

Fulton Chain District. Protector Ball of Old Forge enumerates and locates no less than 79 colonies, with 76 dams, inhabited by 223 beaver. The beaver locations in Ball's district are: Old Forge Pond, Big Spring Creek, First Lake and marshes, Second Lake, Third Lake, Fourth Lake, Fifth Lake, Sixth Lake, Seventh Lake, Eighth Lake, Cedar Creek, Black Mt. Creek, Eagle Creek, Limekiln Creek, Red river, Indian river (mostly bank beaver), Nick's Lake, Dry Lake (not dry now, flooded by beaver), Moose river (bank beaver), Hellgate Creek, Indian Spring Creek, Inlet of Big Otter, North Branch above Fulton Chain, Rondax Lake, Snake Pond, Chub Pond, Constable Pond, Queer Lake, south and west branches Beaver river.

J. Gilbert Hoffman, of Fulton Chain, finds that the beaver are increasing rapidly in various sections he has visited. He found a colony at Red Horse Chain and others reported by protectors. In that territory the intelligent animals have apparently lost most of their natural fear of man. A beaver dam on Eagle Creek which caused the flooding of the highway, was torn down under the direction of Protector Ball. The beaver reconstructed the dam over night. In another interesting case, the beaver insisted on invading Dr. Nicholl's property on First Lake. Protector Ball placed a lighted lantern in a lodge of the intruders, but they refused to take the hint to move on and, industriously extended their lodge over and around the warning beacon. Then in order to circumvent the trespassing beaver, the men put up a wire fence so the beaver could not get into Nicholl's yard where they were cutting poplars for food. Thereupon the wily animals vindicated the assertion of a scientist who said that "beaver apparently (sic) depend more upon reason and less upon instinct than do the majority of the forest folk." They piled wood against the fence and easily climed (sic) over into the forbidden territory.

Mr. Hoffman says the Brown's Tract Lumber Company is glad to see the beaver restored to the Adirondacks. In his opinion they do no great damage except in rare cases where they become so tame as to invade summer camp groves.

Glenfield District. Protector VerSnyder of Glenfield reports the beaver numerous in his section: 1 colony at Mud Hole Pond; 1 at Little Pine Lake; 1 on Pine Creek; 1 on Crawford's Fish Pond. Protector Quirk of Pulaski reports that he has not learned of any beaver in Oswego County. He has information of 1 colony on Crooked Creek, Lewis County, one mile from the south end of Stoney Lake, and 1 colony east of the north end of Stoney Lake in Independence river.

Gloversville District. Protector Masten reports that "the beaver made several visits to Fulton County," but founded no permanent colonies. It is possible that the few beaver in that section are "bank dwellers," as the animals, when disturbed by or not yet accustomed to civilization, do not build lodges.

Keene District. Protector Seckington, Elizabethtown, reports in September a beaver colony at Hull's Falls, town of Keene. On December 10 he reported discovering a new colony which has constructed a dam about 75 feet long, and flooding about 25 acres, on Gates Brook. The animals have built a lodge 15 feet in diameter accommodating 10 to 12 beaver.

Lake Pleasant District. Protector Howland of Speculator, reports very numerous in his territory: On Miami river, two dams with at least 20 beaver at each, and a third dam building in September on that river; 1 colony on Mill Brook; 2 large dams on Whitney Creek. To support the first dam, the beaver have built a dam half a mile below, backing up the water to it that distance. The first dam floods the stream one mile. One small colony on Mosey Fly stream. One large dam on outlet of Spencer Lake, with back water of two miles, inhabited by at least 200 beaver. Large colony and dam on north branch of Sacandaga river, with 30 to 40 inhabitants. Beaver in September were building a new dam on Samson Lake outlet and colony is established there.

Long Lake District. Protector Butler of Long Lake reports at least 30 beaver in his section. He makes this observation of special interest to the trout anglers: "The people living in this section think the beaver are doing fine and are glad to see them back. They tell me the beaver are a protection to our small streams containing trout, because the beaver builds dams and flood the marshes back of the dams. This makes it hard for the fishermen to fish all the pools and gives the trout a chance to grow."

Newcomb District. Protector Bissell of Newcomb reports 2 large colonies in the town of North Hudson; 1 colony in the town at Minerva and 4 colonies in the town of Newcomb.

Plattsburgh District. Protectors North and Kirby report from Plattsburgh that they found a "good sized colony" of beaver on Smith's Kiln Brook, town of Saranac, Clinton country. The animals have built a dam 35 feet long, flooding an acre.

Protector Riley of Plattsburg learned that the colony which had established itself near the mouth of the Ausable river last spring had moved up near Ausable Forks.
Protector Kirby of Brainardsville makes report of a colony on Redford Brook.

Raquette Lake District. Protector Lynn of Raquette Lake makes a detailed report of numerous colonies in his territory, showing over 250 beaver inhabitants. His record of locations is as follows: In Township 40, colonies on Bowlder Brook; 1 on Beaver Brook; 1 on Otter Brook; 2 on Brown's Tract Inlet; 1 on Brandeth Lake stream; 1 on Marion river. In Township 41, 1 colony on Cascade Lake stream; 1 on Shallow Lake stream; 1 on Cranberry Pond; 1 on Eagle Creek; 2 on Two Sisters Pond. In Township 39, 2 colonies on north branch of Shingle Shanty stream; 1 on East Pond. In Township 36, 1 colony on Big Salmon Lake; 1 on Carey Pond; 1 on Rack Pond stream; 1 on Flat Fish Pond; one on Bottle Pond stream. In Township 35, 1 colony on Loose Pond stream; 2 on North Bay Brook, Forked Lake; 1 on Upper Sargeant Pond. In Township 34, 2 colonies on Utawanta Lake; 1 on Loon Brook. In Township 6, 1 colony on Marion river; 2 on South Inlet; 1 on Bear Brook. In Township 5, 1 colony on Brown's Tract Pond. In Township 3, 2 colonies on Hess Pond; 1 colony on Fifth Lake; 1 colony on Seventh Lake; 2 colonies on Red river. In Township 4, 2 colonies on Falls Pond; 2 colonies on Mitchell Pond; 1 on Summer Creek; 2 on Indian river.

St. Regis District. William Bump, a caretaker of the Brooklyn Cooperage Company's tract on the St. Regis river, reports the beaver becoming quite numerous around the Ten Mile. Henry House of the Five Mile Camp, St. Regis river, found several families of beaver on Alder Brook.