Thursday, January 13, 2011

Beaver: Bushwhacker’s Boon or Bane?

Beaver are one of the very few mammals in the Adirondacks to transform their physical environment to meet their own needs (man being another more extreme example). These transforms can prove to be either a boon or a bane to a bushwhacker exploring the backcountry without the aid of a trail or path.

The most famous behavior of beavers is their propensity to build dams to pond water for protection from predators and to float wood, their chief source of sustenance. These dams offer the bushwhacker an unmatched resource for crossing wet area with a greatly reduced risk of soaked feet. These structures are so valuable that I have traveled a significant distance out of my way to cross one on more than a few occasions rather than ford across a bone-chilling cold, mucky stream.



After building a dam and flooding an adjacent area, beavers tend to clear most of the hardwood trees in the vicinity of their new home. Often this results in areas clear of most of the understory vegetation since beavers appear to prefer the succulent younger trees. Bushwhacking through these areas is often a welcome relief from fighting one’s way through thick coniferous vegetation.

Additional benefits from these beaver ponds results from the quest these large rodents participate in just to obtain a good meal. Often they journey far from the pond to find the exact type of trees they prefer and in the process they leave significant paths throughout the forest. Although these trails prove of little value within mature forests, they provide unmatched assistance to a backcountry explorer in blow down areas adjacent to beaver constructed water bodies. For such industrious animals the beaver finds the path of least resistance through even the most disorganized jumble of downed trees.

Another benefit these mammals provide to the bushwhacker is the channels of water they often produce at the point where they exit from their beaver ponds. These areas usually provide a narrow and deep canal of undisturbed water ideal for filtering. This is often a great benefit around water bodies with indistinct shorelines where finding a deep enough spot close to shore is virtually impossible.

Not all of the habits of the beaver produce conditions helpful to a backcountry adventurer. When these adverse conditions are encountered the backcountry explorer might very well conclude the beaver is more foe than friend.

The most dangerous of these buck-toothed mammal’s habits is its tendency to leave behind the remnants of the saplings it feasted upon. These Punji sticks are often covered in leaf sprouts and thus difficult to detect until one of these spikes has been embedded into an unprotected knee. And heaven forbid if one should slip and fall backwards in such an area. Now THAT would be a million to one shot, Doc!

Although the area around a recently formed beaver pond can be cleared of a significant amount of woody hardwood vegetation (making it easier to travel through), over time this can result in an area thick in conifers many years after the pond has been long abandoned. For anyone who has ever struggled through these young coniferous forests can attest to the painfully slow progress these areas afford. The scratches, scrapes and nearly poked out eyes hurt too!

Unfortunately beaver dams often result in flooding that is not represented on a bushwhacker’s map or personal GPS. This may require an explorer to make significant changes to their plans when they encounter a flooded area where once their favorite campsite was located.

Finally, one of the beaver’s most shocking habits is its mode of announcing its annoyance with one’s presence. This tail slapping on the surface of the water can be so loud and unsuspecting that it has startled me on more than a single condition even when I knew the beaver was near. Only an air horn could possibly be more disturbing or unsettling.

The beaver by the nature of its habits has shown itself to be both boon and bane to backcountry explorers regardless whether they are a hiker finding his/her favorite trail flooded, a backcountry enthusiast crossing a stream on a dam or a bushwhacker doing his/her best to avoid Punji sticks surrounding the shore of a beaver pond. So depending on your circumstances you may find yourself calling the beaver a friend or foe on your next jaunt into the Adirondack backcountry.

Photos: Beaver dam, beaver activity and beaver tail splash by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Dan Crane

Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.


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