By Liz Blackman, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.
As I slide over the edge of the raceway and landed knee-deep in water I can barely see the almond-colored nose of the buoyant beaver as he floats beneath his cinderblock temporary home behind a large pile of aspen cuttings. He seems minimally threated by my presence, exhibiting none of the displays one would expect from a recently captured wild animal. No tailslapping or aggressive presentations as I slop through the water toward him, awkward and weighed down by the oversized boots and waders protecting me from the cool water. The closer I get the more aware I become of just how gentle this creature must be. We make eye contact before he dips his torpedo-shaped head beneath the water and begins to swim smoothly away from me toward the wall of the raceway. His waffle-pattered leathery tail is smaller than I expect and moves both vertically and horizontally as he alternately propels and rudders himself through the water. It takes only a few minutes of following Chuck around the raceway for him to swim directly into the cage being held in the water ahead of him. No wonder these animals were trapped nearly to extinction. In less than five minutes and with no struggle whatsoever the young male is securely caged and ready to give some third-graders an unrivaled first-hand experience with the country’s largest rodent. The musky smell of castor is unmistakable in the morning air and although entirely new to me, the scent quickly becomes familiar. I am hooked.
Beavers are nature’s most misunderstood rodents. Docile, diligent, tidy and familiar, Castor Canadensis does more to shape waterways and landscapes than any of their mammalian relatives and plays an integral role in the delicate riparian balance of Washington’s diverse ecosystems. Beavers have an ancient history with damns dating back over 10 million years and there are estimates of more than two hundred million beavers historically residing in the continental US. Indigenous American stories describe the beaver as co-creator of the land and sea alongside Great Sprit. Beaver appears in countless ancestral stories of Eastern Washington including the Confederated Tribes of the Coleville Reservation Upper Columbia River Book of Legends. Published in March 2007, the Coleville Book of Legends is full of references to the Beaver Tribe. Beaver is credited with a variety of great feats including stealing fire from the Sky People and bringing firewood to the tribes (How Beaver Stole the Fire) as well as marrying Coyote at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River and becoming the salmon chief (Why Coyote Changed the Course of the Columbia River).