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The Beaver


The Beaver of North America has now a world-wide reputation for

its wonderful instinct and sagacity. The general appearance of

this animal is that of a very large muskrat with a broad flattened

tail, and the habits of both these animals are in many respects

alike. The beaver is an amphibious creature and social in its habits

of living, large numbers congregating together and forming little

villages, and erecting their
ome-like huts like little Esquimaux.

The muskrat has this same propensity, but the habitation of the

beaver is on a much more extensive scale. These huts or Beaver

lodges, are generally made in rivers and brooks; although sometimes

in lakes or large ponds. They are chiefly composed of branches,

moss, grass and mud, and are large enough to accommodate a family

of five or six. The form of the lodges is dome-like, and it varies

considerably in size. The foundation is made on the bottom of the

river, and the hut is built up like a mound, often twenty feet

in diameter and projecting several feet above the surface of the

water. The walls of this structure are often five or six feet thick,

and the roofs are all finished off with a thick layer of mud laid on

with marvellous smoothness. These huts form the winter habitations

of the beavers, and as this compost of mud, grass and branches

becomes congealed into a solid mass by the severe frosts of our

northern winter, it can easily be seen that they afford a safe

shelter against any intruder and particularly the wolverine, which

is a most deadly enemy to the beaver. So hard does this frozen mass

become as to defy even the edges of iron tools, and the breaking

open of the Beaver houses is at no time an easy task. Beavers

work almost entirely in the dark; and a pond which is calm and

placid in the day time will be found in the night to be full of

life and motion, and the squealing and splashing in the water will

bear evidence of their industry. Lest the beavers should not have

a sufficient depth of water at all seasons, they are in the habit

of constructing veritable dams to ensure that result. These dams

display a wonderful amount of reason and skill, and, together with

the huts, have won for the beaver a reputation

for engineering skill which the creature truly deserves. In constructing

these ingenious dams the beavers, by the aid of their powerful teeth,

gnaw down trees sometimes of large size, and after cutting them into

smaller pieces float them on the water to the spot selected for

the embankment. In swift streams this embankment is built so as

to arch against the current, thus securing additional strength,

and evincing an instinct on the part of the animal which amounts

almost to reason. In cutting down the trees the beaver gnaws a

circular cut around the trunk, cutting deepest on the side toward

the water, thus causing the trunk to fall into the stream. The

first step in constructing the embankment is to lay the logs down

cautiously in the required line of the dam, afterwards weighting

them with heavy stones, which the beavers by their united efforts

roll upon them. The foundation of the embankment is often ten feet

in width, and is built up by continued heaping of branches, stones

and mud, until it forms a barrier of immense strength and resisting

power. In many cases, through a lapse of years, and through a

consequent accumulation of floating leaves, twigs, and seeds of plants,

these embankments become thickly covered with vegetation, and, in many

cases in the Hudson Bay country, have even been known to nurture trees

of considerable dimensions. The broad flat tail of the animal serves a

most excellent purpose, in carrying the mud to the dams or huts, and

in matting and smoothing it into a solidity.

The entrances to the various huts are all beneath the water, and

they all open into one common ditch, which is purposely dug in

the bed of the river, and is too deep to be entirely frozen. In

the summer time the huts are vacated, and the beavers make their

abode in burrows on the banks of the stream, which serve as a secure

retreat at all times, and particularly in winter when their houses

are molested. The Indians of the Northwest are aware of this fact,

and turn it to good account in the capture of the animals.

When the beaver's village is in a small creek, or brook, it is

first necessary to stake the water across both above and below

the huts. The next thing is to ascertain the exact spots of the

burrows in the banks, and when we consider the river is covered

with ice, this seems a rather difficult problem. But this is where

the Indian shows his skill. He starts upon the ice, provided with

an ice chisel secured to a long, stout handle. With this he strikes

upon the ice, following the edge of the stream. The sound of the

blow determines to his practiced ear the direct spot opposite the

opening of the burrows, and at this point a hole a foot in diameter

is made through the ice. Following the edge of the bank he continues

his search, and in like manner cuts the holes through the ice until

all the retreats are discovered. While the expert Indians are thus

engaged, the squaws are occupied in the more laborious work of

breaking open the houses, and the beavers, alarmed at the invasion of

their sanctums, make for the banks, and the ready huntsmen stationed

at the various holes, watch for their victims beneath the openings,

until a violent motion or discoloration of the water betrays their

passage beneath. The entrance to the holes in the bank are then

instantly closed with stakes and the beaver is made prisoner in

his burrow. When the depth of the burrow will admit, the arm of

the hunter is introduced, and the animal pulled out, but otherwise

a long hook lashed to a pole is employed for this purpose. Scores

of beavers are sometimes taken in this way in a few hours. Spearing

is also often successfully resorted to, and when the ice is thin

and transparent the beavers may be clearly observed as they come

to the surface, beneath the ice, for air.

The general color of the animal is reddish brown, this tint being

imparted principally by the long hairs of the fur. There is an

inner and softer down of a grey color, which lies next the skin,

and which is the valuable growth of the fur. The total length of

the animal is about three feet and a half, the flat, paddle-shaped,

scale-covered tail being about a foot in length.

The young are brought forth in April or May, from three to seven

at a litter, and take to the water when a month old. The first

four years in the beaver's life is spent under the maternal roof,

after which period they shift for themselves. To trap the beaver

successfully, requires the utmost caution, as the senses of the

animal are so keen, and he is so sagacious withal, that he will detect

the recent presence of the trapper from the slightest evidences.

The traps should be washed clean and soaked in ley, before using,

and thereafter handled with gloves, as a mere touch of the finger

will leave a scent which the acute sense of the beaver will easily

perceive. All footprints should be carefully obliterated by throwing

water upon them, and some trappers say that the mere act of spitting

on the ground in the neighborhood of the traps has been known to

thwart success.

Almost the only bait used in trapping the beaver is the preparation

called barkstone by the trappers, or castoreum in commerce.

This substance is fully described on page 150 under the head of

Scent Baits.

To the barkstone the trapper is mostly indebted for his success,

and the effect of its odor on the beaver is something surprising.

Our best trappers inform us that these animals will scent this

odor for a great distance, and will fairly squeal with delight,

not being easy until the savory bait is discovered, which almost

invariably results in capture.

Taking advantage of this curious propensity, the trapper always

carries a supply of castoreum in a closed vessel.

There are various ways of trapping the beaver, of which we shall

present the best. An examination of the river bank will easily

disclose the feeding place of the beavers, as evinced by the absence

of the bark on the branches and trunks of trees. At this spot,

in about four inches of water, set your trap, which should be a

Newhouse No. 4. Weight the end of the chain with a stone as large

as your head, and, if possible, rest it on the edge of some rock

projecting into deep water, having a smaller rope or chain leading

from the stone to the shore. A small twig, the size of your little

finger, should then be stripped of its bark, and after chewing or

mashing one end, it should be dipped in the castoreum. Insert this

stick in the mud, between the jaws of the trap, letting it project

about six inches above the water. The beaver is soon attracted by the

odor of the bait, and in reaching for it, his foot is caught in the

trap. In his fright he will immediately jump for deep water, thus

dislodging the stone, which will sink him to the bottom, and thus

drown him. The smaller chain or rope will serve as a guide to the

trap, and the victim may be drawn to the surface. Another plan is

to set the trap in about a foot of water, chaining it fast to a stout

pole securely driven in the mud further out in the stream, and

near deep water. Bait as before. The trap being thus fastened will

prevent the efforts of the animal to drag it ashore, where he would

be certain to amputate his leg and walk off. There is another method,

which is said to work excellently. The chain is secured to a very

heavy stone, and sunk in deep water, and the trap set and baited

near shore, in about a foot of water. This accomplishes the same

purpose as the pole first described, and is even surer, as the animal

will sometimes use his teeth in severing the wood, and thereby make

his escape. In the case of the stone a duplicate rope or chain

will be required to lift it in case of capture.

The trap may be set at the entrance to the holes in the banks,

two or three inches under water, implanting the stick with the

castoreum bait directly over the pan, a few inches above the water.

If the water should be deep near this spot, it is an excellent plan

to weight the end of the chain with a large stone with a leader

from it also, as already described. Insert two or three sticks in

the bank beneath the water, and rest the stone upon them.

When the beaver is caught he will turn a somersault into deep water,

at the same time dislodging the stone, which will sink him. No sooner

is a break ascertained in the dam than all the beavers unite in

fixing it, and this peculiarity of habit may be turned to account in

trapping them. Make a slight break in the dam, five inches across,

beneath the water. On the under side of the break, and of course,

on the inside of the dam, the trap should be set. The beavers will

soon discover the leak and the capture of at least one is certain.

The trap may be also set where the beavers are wont to crawl on

shore, being placed several inches below the water in such a position

that they will step on it when in the act of ascending the banks.

Where the weighted stone is not used, the sliding pole page 145

should always be employed, as it is necessary to drown the animal,

to prevent amputation and escape.

The food of the beaver consists chiefly of the bark of various

trees, together with aquatic plants. The fur is valuable only in

the late fall, winter, and early spring.

In skinning the beaver, a slit is made from the under jaw to the

vent, after which it is easily removed. It should be tacked to a flat

board, fur side in, or stretched by means of a hoop, as described

on page 275.