Monday, May 6, 2013

Some Beaver Dams I Have Known

BeaverDam WLate last week, I found myself gazing into the woods as we headed down the Northway, en route to the Crandall Library Folk Life Center for a pleasant evening of entertainment. It was partially a business trip, but after listening to Dan Berggren and friends sing, alternating with readings by Carol Gregson from her first book (Leaky Boots) and her new release (Wet Socks), it sure didn’t feel like business. A good time was had by all, as evidenced by a very appreciative crowd.

During the ride south from the Plattsburgh area, my partner, Jill, handled the driving, which allowed me to enjoy uninterrupted views of the scenery. Included were some roadside marshes with beaver dams and lodges, prompting a flood of memories tied to my history with beaver dams.

My earlier recollections involved trout fishing by following tiny rills that passed beneath roadways. Sometimes they led into the woods, revealing ponds or extensive marshes created by beaver dams. If you’re a trout fisherman or have ever been one, you can imagine the possibilities for catching brookies.

My favorite of these featured a substantial dam that seemed to twist and stretch in every direction, forming an expansive beaver meadow. It was loaded with brook trout but hellish to navigate, and I never did see where the dam ended. But for me, the place was perfect. My love of solitude in nature often took me to places that were seldom accessed, leading to some great experiences.

As much as I visited beaver dams for trout fishing, it’s their role in decades of canoeing that stands out the most. Long before I was old enough to own a canoe, I craved one that could take me as far upstream as possible on the smallest of waterways. I can confirm that dreams do come true, sometimes much to the chagrin of my canoeing companions. My day was only complete if I could travel upstream until the opposite shores closed in and physically stopped the canoe. Otherwise, I felt unfulfilled, as if the adventure had been cut short.

But it got worse. On one such trip, the banks of a stream nearly joined just below a beaver dam. Climbing the 4-foot-high dam revealed some open water and the potential to continue. What else could I do but go on? Adventure, the unknown―all sorts of possibilities compelled me to persevere.

When I was alone, that was fine, but a partner didn’t necessarily share the same compulsion to exit the canoe, drag it across shallows and over dams, and climb back in again. By the third or fourth dam, the tension in the air was fairly palpable. Still, “Just one more, I promise, just one more” worked at least a few more times, at which point I had a choice: acquiesce, or suffer unspoken, unknown, but unavoidable consequences. I deserted the quest and chose to live another day.

At the risk of digging myself an even deeper hole here, let’s just say “the beaver-dam thing” has happened more than once. Among the most memorable were two trips that had it all: beautiful scenery; twisted, winding streams filling us with anticipation at each bend; and close encounters with turtles, fish, snakes, eagles, otters, beavers, deer, and just about every critter imaginable.

A 1998 excursion was on the Salmon River, southeast of Malone. We paddled upstream until strong rapids finally turned us away. Heading downstream, we arrived at the mouth of Hatch Brook, where, years earlier, with three children aboard, I was forced to turn back at the first beaver dam. This would be my “I shall return” redemption.

As we paddled south, the channel became a familiar, ribbon-candy path, nearly doubling back onto itself repeatedly. Farther upstream, it narrowed drastically. Alders and other brush began dragging against the sides of the canoe, making it hard to even dip a paddle. But exploring was fun, so I assumed the scratches and bruises from being brush-slapped were a bonus. And the bugs … at times it seemed as if the entire northern fleet of deerflies was attacking us.

The current grew stronger, making us work harder. The bends became so sharp and frequent that we had to turn, stop, straighten, and paddle strong to the next one just ahead. This didn’t bode well for my “let’s cross the beaver dams” plan. We were fortunate that fishermen had chain-sawed through several deadfall blockages created by debris from the famous ice storm of January 1998.

The beaver dams weren’t exactly a joy, but we crossed several until the brush finally squeezed us to a halt. It was time to go back. Actually, it was time to go backward. Turning around was impossible until we reached the small open area at the nearest beaver dam. You really haven’t partied until you’ve paddled backwards through a gnarled stream, especially under the conditions I just described. Where else, I ask, can you get that kind of fun?

By the time we arrived back at the car, the sun had set. We had been on the water for 9 hours, battling stiff currents for half the time. At least the bugs were well fed.

It was another nine months before the charm of that trip had worn off and I dared risk a similar venture. At Speculator in June 1999, we launched on the Sacandaga and eventually made our way up the Kunjamuk River. Beyond Elm Lake, the Kunjamuk continues in much the same fashion as Hatch Brook, though not nearly as narrow. It was a familiar type of scenery except for one thing: I had never seen so many beaver dams.

I enjoyed exploring, and my partner was like-minded to a point. That point, I soon discovered, was a half dozen dams. (After all, someone has to use common sense.) I talked my way through a few more, but it became tougher when the next dam was in sight from the one we were dragging the canoe over.

My partner can paddle with anyone, but she wasn’t new to this game. Memories of Hatch Brook surfaced, and I knew my time was limited. I swear it was 14 dams we crossed that day, but my journal says 12, so 12 it is. But really, it was 24. In my zeal to continue, I was ignoring the reality that awaited: repeating all 12 stop-disembark-drag-carry points on the way back. (And that’s not counting the occasional deadfall blocking the way.)

Still, for both of us, it was a fantastic trip filled with many highlights: great views, beautiful flowers, and seemingly endless nature encounters. Fortunately, the best of those encounters was near day’s end when we returned to the Sacandaga. Near Kunjamuk Bay, a pair of otters mirrored our progress, alternately barking at us and undulating alongside the canoe. They cavorted like playful puppies and put on quite a show. We had to laugh aloud at what can only be described as antics.

Since that time, I guess you could say we’ve crossed our share of obstructions, but the Kunjamuk holds my personal one-day record. For that reason and several others, it’s a trip that remains dam memorable.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. mark f says:

    Hi, thanks for the article very nice.

    There is a very interesting documentary at CBC “the nature of things”:

    “A growing number of scientists, conservationists and grass-roots environmentalists see the beaver as a much overlooked tool when it comes to reversing the disastrous effects of global warming and world-wide water shortages. The Beaver Whisperers will revisit the industrious rodent and see it through the eyes of people like the University of Alberta’s, Dr. Glynnis Hood, whose astonishing scientific research findings are presented in her new book, “The Beaver Manifesto, ” and former trapper, Michel Leclair, who today “employs” an army of beavers to help him control flooding in Quebec’s Gatineau Park.”

  2. Mark’s comment is right on target. Last year the U.S. suffered the worst drought since the 1930’s, according to NOAA. Hydrologists have been explaining for years how the decimation of beavers by the fur trade lowered our land’s water table by a few feet, and that restoring a small percent of former beaver wetlands would alleviate both disastrous floods and droughts. For more about this, visit
    Now that “global weirding” is bringing us more extreme weather, why not make Nature’s Engineer—who works for free—our ally?

    • Mark f says:

      Sharon Brown,

      In the CBC documentary, there is a demonstration project, in the North Western United States, (I can’t remember the state) a degraded wetland area, suffering from drought, was restored, by Beavers that were introduced.

      The difference is quite remarkable.

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