Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Beavers at the Lachine Rapids

The man who controlled the west end of the Island of Montreal should have become the richest man in New France. The rapids there challenged the canoes and boats bringing furs down the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers so selling them just before the rapids was prudent. However, the man who bought that end of the island, La Salle, thought of it as a base for further exploration for the glory of France. He had no head for business and in effect mortgaged his sweet set up to finance his discoveries. But why did he need a head for business when from his talks with Indians he knew just the river to take west (what became the Ohio) to reach the Pacific Ocean and consequently easy passage through North America to the riches of China?

Some of the men he recruited for his explorations decided playing the middle man in the fur trade was easier than going down the Ohio and Mississippi, and LaSalle let them return to the west end of the Island of Montreal. Wags in Montreal called the returnees Les Chinois, the Chinese, and their settlement was called Lachine (pronounced La-Shin) and the nearby rapids were called the Lachine Rapids. The importance of Lachine in the fur trade is memorialized by the Lachine Fur Trade Museum in an old stone warehouse along the canal eventually built to get around the rapids.

Last time I visited in 2010 it was a goofy little museum geared to 5th graders, Lachine Fur Trade Museum, so one can only speculate how many pelts from dead beavers passed through Lachine.

My son who grew up along on Wellesley Island in the middle of the St. Lawrence about 15 miles downstream from its source, Lake Ontario, has been a Ph. D. candidate in engineering in Montreal for almost 4 years and he keeps an eye on the river, principally for fish, but he knows my interest in beavers. He reported that he saw beaver gnawed trees and a huge lodge along the river near the Lachine Rapids.

This May I went to check it out. Hiking along the north shore of the river, I saw the lodge nestled on a low bank of a spit of land in a quiet part of the river.

The rapids are on the other side of the small island in the background of the photo above. You can see the extent of the east end of the small islands in the photo below.

Looking downstream, I could see the huge expanse of the St. Lawrence as it flowed down to Montreal. My photo just captured a few tall buildings in the east end of that metropolis.

A causeway with a few small bridges gives access to the south side of the far island where the rapids roar. At the entrance to the causeway and park, there is a kiosk and on the Saturday I was there, it was manned by a park ranger gesturing over a small pile of animal pelts, bones, antlers and a stuffed bird on a table.

The dead beaver was draped near some gnawed logs. My son had been surprised to see evidence that beavers were here and to know that beavers were living so close to the city that had been the headquarters of the fur trade that almost consigned beavers to extinction excited me, but Parks Canada saw the return of beavers to Lachine as an opportunity to once again misconstrue the importance of beavers in Canadian life and history.

The French and British exploration of North America was primarily motivated by the desire to rival the earlier conquests of Spain. The fervent hope was that the northern lands would yield as much gold as Spain stole to the south, or at least find a passage to China. A secondary motivation was religious. The French simply sought souls to convert and sent only good Catholics to do it. The British were more interested in driving Indians off land, and they didn’t have the scruples the French had about letting religious dissidents loose in the “virgin” land. The dissidents created successful colonies.

The fur trade was not essential to successful colonization. The 19 century American Francis Parkman made the case that it distracted from it.  As Parkman pointed out, Canadians who should have domesticated the land, instead gallivanted across it leading dissolute hope-to-strike-it-rich lives, though no one mistook beaver pelts as the equivalent of gold. Unlike modern historians, Parkman apologized to the beavers.

"One cannot repress a feeling of indignation,” Parkman wrote, “at the fate of the interesting and unfortunate animals uselessly sacrificed to a false economic system."

The Puritans did send beaver pelts back to England, but the cows they brought from England were more important to them.

Historians since Parkman have been so assiduous in assigning economic and cultural importance to the fur trade, which was and remains a rather nasty murdering business, that I think its glorification serves to repress consideration of the religious controversies of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the near genocide of North American aboriginals. The fur trade was the key to corrupting them. Yet modern scholars can argue that Indians gained from it and Indians today claim killing beavers as a cherished part of their heritage.

After a glance at the dead beaver on the kiosk table, I continued along the causeway, and soon could gauge the level of concern about the beavers. Many trees were wrapped around their lower trunk with chicken wire.

There were a half dozen men with fancy cameras walking along the causeway. I don’t think they were angling for photos of beavers. There was a great white egret fishing in the shallows. I took a photo of it too.

There were also humans fishing in a large lagoon on the west side of the causeway. It was easy to see why beavers came to this area. The causeway for the park served as a dam, backing up waters into what was in effect a pond. While many trees were protected with chicken wire, the scrubby willows along all the placid shores of the pond weren’t. Civilization was near. I could see houses from the causeway, but they weren’t too close so that people and vehicles got in the way of the beavers.

I kept looking for and not seeing fresh beaver gnawing, but in May beavers embrace the green grass and green leaves that they have been without for months. In May, the river is also brimming with water. This year, 2013, the St. Lawrence was lower than usual but the Ottawa was fully charged so the rumble and roar of the rapids was impressive. Many of the trees along the shore of the rapids were protected with chicken wire.

But I found an angle that showed where beavers had cut trees just a few feet from the rapids.

On my way back, no one was talking with the ranger in the kiosk so I learned from him that beavers have been here for 10 to 15 years and that they thought there were about 18 of them in three lodges.

He claimed that no one within 200 miles would have any interest in trapping these beavers. Only the Cree Indians up north were trappers. I have my doubts about that. Up river where I live, trapping is popular in both New York and Ontario. Perhaps in Quebec sportsmen distinguish themselves from Indians by not trapping in the southern part of the province, reserving their energies for the bear hunt up north.

I didn’t argue about Canada’s unfortunate association of the fur trade with its history, and the ubiquitous dead beaver at so many portals to Canadian history. The irony is that while the beaver’s fur, like the fur of most mammals, is quite beautiful, the preservation of the beaver’s fur for clothing and accessories was not what the fur trade was about. The fur was boiled into felt; the felt pressed into hats; the hats sold for high price for men to exhibit their wealth and status; until fashions changed and it’s usually the grubbiest characters in a Dickens’ novel who wear an old beaver hat.