One evening last week I was sitting on the bench which overlooks the river beside the cottage, watching the last of the day's light fade into shades of gold and vermillion and amethyst. The vultures were long on their roost in the sycamores on the island.
A dark, bulky shape caught my eye along the far side of the channel and a bit downstream. At first I thought it was a short chunk of drifting log being carried along on the still-high water. Then the "log" began to angle towards my side of the stream, keeping its place against the flow.
The conscious portion of my mind was apparently having a hard time accepting what the sub-conscious had already figured out—logs don't move laterally across current. The mystery thing had power, natural power. Ergo, I was watching a living creature.
But what? Well, too big for a muskrat. Too Ohio for an alligator or nutria. And unless it was a hirsute catfish, that left only one choice…beaver!
As I said, it was almost dark and I never could see the thing well enough to tell for sure during its crossing. But when the dark bulk reached my side of the river it began to move upstream, just out from the bank. I sat quietly and readied my camera. In a moment the swimmer reached the portion of stream directly out from the bench—beaver, indeed! I took its portrait.
A couple of years ago I found a beaver lodge in an old gravel pit pond about a mile up from here, yet this is only the second time I've seen a beaver in the river. And not many years ago, even these limited sighting would have been impossible.
The story of Ohio beaver is a tale of comeback, a chronicle of how what was once lost is now slowly managing to reestablish itself. Beaver were historically abundant throughout the rich, forested land which later became Ohio—as they were all over the Great Lakes and the Midwest regions. Estimates of the pre-European population is at least 400 million beaver in North America. Prehistoric Indians killed beaver for food and their thick, warm pelts. Here in Ohio, archaeologists excavating Hopewell mounds have unearthed pipes depicting the image of beaver.
Ohio beaver trapping reached its peak between 1750 and 1800. Even then, things were already going downhill. David Zeisberger, a Moravian Missionary, writing in the 1770s about the Ohio country, noted: “The beaver was formerly found in great numbers in this region, but since the Indians have learned from the whites to catch them in steel traps, they are more rarely found.…”
By 1830, the state’s once teeming beaver population had been been totally extirpated. Their absence lasted for more than a hundred years. It wasn’t until 1936 that beavers were again seen in Ohio, when they reappeared in Belmont and Ashtabula counties. A survey made a decade later still found only 100 beaver scattered over eleven Ohio counties.
Beavers are the largest rodents in North America and the second-largest in the world. Only the South American capybara is bigger. Strictly vegetarians, they’ll eat a wide variety of plants, including cattail shoots, lily tubers, sedges, clover, water weeds, even field corn. A favorite food is the cambium layer (the soft tissue of wood, just below the outer bark) of such Ohio hardwood trees as maple, willow, and cottonwood.
An adult beaver averages between 30 and 60 pounds, though they infrequently exceed 100 pounds. A typical beaver colony is really a multi-generational family unit consisting of parental adults, yearling offspring, and offspring of the current year. The beaver which swam by the cottage might have been a two-year-old, off to find a mate and start its own family—though it appeared rather large to my untrained eye.
First it was bald eagles, now a beaver. I'm getting really excited at the prospects of a bear!