Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Beavers Changed His Life Forever

Paul Schaefer presents the beaver gavel to Governor Mario M. Cuomo

Paul Schaefer once told me that his mentor, “Forever Wild” advocate and organizer John Apperson, would occasionally dress in fur to be more noticeable when, during lobbying of the state legislature, Apperson opposed threats to Lake George, the Forest Preserve and its constitutional protection. Schaefer learned from Apperson how and when to be most noticed and effective.


For example, as an elder in the wilderness movement Schaefer once stood up (or down) Governor Mario Cuomo. The governor had just signed the Environmental Protection Fund legislation in the summer of 1993. The setting was Split Rock Farm above Lake Champlain. The dignitaries had all spoken and Cuomo was the last to speak. Completing his speech, Cuomo ( like the rest of us in attendance) was completely taken aback when Paul Schaefer rose and moved to the podium. Cuomo was forced to sit in Schaefer’s now unoccupied chair to listen to what Paul had to say. However congratulatory (of the governor) his remarks, Schaefer had the last word.

The next year, 1994, Governor Mario Cuomo was to present Schaefer with an Environmental Achievement Award at Silver Bay above Lake George. Once again, Paul was ready.  At the governor’s invitation, Schaefer stepped up to the podium, but instead of immediately accepting his award from Cuomo Paul held something in his hand. He presented Governor Cuomo with a beaver gavel.


Paul’s friend Ken Rimany had fashioned the gavel for Paul by taking a beaver chew of a birch tree as the gavel’s head and fashioning it to fit tightly onto a thick branch taken from a beaver dam. Then, Ken scribed the words of Article 14, “forever wild,” on the head of the gavel.


Paul handed that beaver gavel to Cuomo and told him and the audience how all his life he had admired the beaver, the state’s official mammal and its finest and sole wilderness engineer. Their populations having been decimated during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, by 1900 only a small number of beaver families survived in the Raquette and St. Regis River drainages. Paul often spoke about his admiration for Harry Radford who, early in the 20th century, helped bring beaver families back to the Adirondacks from Ontario, Canada.


So, Paul Schaefer handed the beaver gavel to the Governor, telling him in a loud voice, so that the entire room could hear, that “only the beavers, meeting in secret, could have engineered this gavel for you, Governor.” Cuomo smiled but, on this occasion, would have the last word: “Any beaver can make a beaver gavel, Paul, but only a Governor can present a Governor’s award.”


The North American beaver today occupies just a small fraction of the wetlands the species once occupied. As Ben Goldfarb makes clear in his 2018 book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, the steep, clear streams of the Adirondacks and throughout the continent were once, before Europeans arrived, slower, muddied, braided, and chock full of sticks from the dams built every hundred yards or so by the mighty beaver. Ours, writes Goldfarb, was once a “beaverscape” so familiar to Native Americans, where land and water blended, and unwary European travelers had their footware sucked off. As they ate out their woody foodstuffs, the beavers moved upstream, and their former ponds transitioned to meadows for all wildlife and, for humans, rich agricultural lands. Then came 250 years of trapping for their fur. Like the bison, the beaver’s silent, karmic retribution for its decimation by humans was a completely altered landscape. During the present great western drought, Goldfarb describes how restoration of beaver has raised groundwater levels and restored riparian vegetation, streams, and their fisheries to health.

Beaver dam

Beaver lodge near North Creek. Photo by D. Gibson.

I was once a canoeing instructor at a summer boys camp in Maine. Out on the lake, the boys and I would duck into the mouth of a stream. Paddling upstream, above the banks of the great silver maples arching overhead, we’d find many sign of beaver, including their amazingly lengthy canals they cut through the woods, extending their reach for food. Their tail slaps and scent markings were constants as we paddled. From that experience I was enamored of beavers, but mine was nothing compared to the fascination beavers held for Paul Schaefer.


Just before the time Schaefer was born in 1908, Adirondack beavers (or VT, NH and MA beavers) could be counted on the fingers of two hands. A few years before, mammalian enthusiast and restorer Harry Radford had convinced the state legislature to prohibit the trapping that had wiped them out for 250 years.  Radford, born in 1880 and raised in New York City, had moved to North Creek. He was self-assigned wildlife enthusiast, restoration advocate (beaver and bison) and editor of Woods and Waters, a Wildlife Magazine. With occasional $500 annual funding from the state legislature during the first decade of the 20th century, beavers from Yellowstone National Park and from the Canadian provinces were brought in crates and released on the Fulton Chain of Lakes and private enclaves like Litchfield Park near Tupper Lake. By the time Paul Schaefer’s family moved part-time to the Adirondacks in 1921, the beaver colonies had grown to an estimated one thousand animals, now perhaps numbering 100,000. Also, by 1921 Harry Radford was dead, having lost his life earlier due to his impulsive behavior and abusive treatment of native Inuit attempting to guide him.


In his 1993 book Adirondack Cabin Country, Paul Schaefer devotes a chapter to “Beaver.” Writing of the area he knew best and hunted annually, the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, Schaefer wrote that “scattered throughout the region are meadows, both large and small where from time immemorial these busy engineers have built their dams, flooding our heavy forest, and leaving a permanent impression upon the country… Every year we saw evidence of this fact. What was a lovely spruce, balsam and tamarack swamp in the heart of the country for decades is now a series of beaver ponds…But a land scattered with beaver ponds vastly improves deer hunting. The open areas created by the ponds are favorite places for deer because they feed from the many plants and shrubs that surround the ponds.”


Schaefer also extolled the influence of beaver colonies on the trout fishery. After a successful day of fishing, Schaefer wrote: “As the sun went down and the campfire lit the surrounding forest with its cheerful light, I could not help but reflect upon the magic wrought upon that valley by the beavers. Not six feet high nor more than one hundred feet long, the beaver’s natural dam had transformed a relatively barren mountain valley into a fisherman’s dream by giving the existing trout more water, more space, and more food.”


Schaefer, the effective wilderness advocate who successfully fought 20th century human dam builders in the Moose River Plains, was also a builder of beautiful homes. In his lifetime Schaefer built at least five hundred homes and camps in his distinctive style. He was a keen designer with nature, knowing where to build to fit the landscape and any nearby source of groundwater. So, he greatly admired this wilderness builder, the beaver.


Writing in 1995, Paul wrote: “The actual construction of the dam is a work of engineering art which properly gauges and understands the stream or water supply being dammed. The dams of course have to be built from the downstream side as well as from upstream, with sticks and brush intricately tied together with clods of earth and mud to form the lining of these dams. Occasionally in the Adirondacks one will see a beaver dam that has long since ceased to be useful to the beaver and has washed out, and one will sometimes find, near the center of the dam, the trunk of a large tree which originally fell across the stream, with the remaining spaces knit together with small sticks to hold back huge volumes of water…It is difficult to conceive of a topography better suited for the beaver’s engineering abilities than that found in the Adirondacks.”


Many Native Americans have respected the beaver as a virtual member of their family, and for the many benefits their colonies have provided to human beings through the centuries. Schaefer had similar feelings of admiration and respect for these creatures, almost familial feelings which the rest of his human family came to know. After Paul died in 1996, brother Carl Schaefer dreamed up a tale about his older brother and recited it for his friend Linda Champagne.


Thanks to Linda, that story hangs at Paul Schaefer’s Adirondack cabin known as Beaver House. The cabin was named by Paul because its great beams came from a structure “older than the hills” being wrecked circa 1960 south of Albany. As he sanded those 300-year-old beams while preparing to build his cabin, Schaefer believed he could smell the musty odor of beavers, once rendered for the Albany fur trade that had almost erased every beaver colony in the Mohawk Valley and the Adirondacks.


Carl Schaefer wrote that one day a young Paul was on snowshoes when he fell through the ice of an Adirondack wilderness pond. Struggling in the water, a family of beavers took him to their lodge and kept him well through the winter. In the spring, Paul helped the beavers repair their dam. Finally, the beavers decided it was time to return Paul to humankind. Regretfully, he left the beaver’s pond, hiked to the Schaefer’s camp near North Creek, and told his anguished family all about the experience. “I think it changed his life forever,” wrote Carl. “I know that’s how my brother became the best dam builder in the state.”


Photo at top: Governor Mario Cuomo accepts the beaver gavel from Paul Schaefer in 1994. Photo courtesy of the Executive Chamber.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

4 Responses

  1. Jim Jordan says:

    I want to learn names and songs and stories.
    To learn on my hands and knees, with all my senses.
    To learn from ferns and frogs, lichens and lilies, maples and monarchs.
    To listen with my whole self to the language of the woods.

    I want to give back to the woods.
    With my words, my actions, my attention.

    I want to live in a culture that supports soul tending on a fallen pine at a beaver meadow.


    Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

    Thanks Dave…

  2. David Gibson says:

    To Jim Jordan, your choice of comment stands tall…and remains. Thank you !

  3. Pat Boomhower says:

    I wonder where the Beaver Gavel is today.

  4. Rob says:

    I just had a family of beavers trapped and removed from my property by the USDA. Streams are now flowing like they should. I’ll be more vigilant on them in the future. Won’t let them build dams like they had where I need help to get rid of them

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