Paradise Interrupted

I just can’t help myself.  The cooler weather of autumn already has me thinking of the depths of winter; one of my favorite times of year.  Here’s something I wrote about 8 years ago.  This pond, especially when it is iced over, is still one of my favorite places!

Frozen image.

Biting cold temperatures and a gusting wind make this frozen beaver pond slightly less than hospitable. Layers of clothes keep most of me warm, but I must admit even my bearded face feels the sting of this frigid northwest wind. A dull sun tries to bleed through the high thin clouds but produces little warmth on the February afternoon. The ice, thick with deep cracks that straddle the length of this 20 acre beaver pond, stands rigid to my weight. Only a day ago I had a group of graduate students on this frozen pond to discuss winter beaver ecology. As we toured around the pond we kept an eye out for ice domes formed by warm springs that create circles of raised ice where the frozen water is thin. In general the group was not nervous, but I noticed a few weary eyes as we traversed the ice.

Upturned roots add sculpture to the beaver pond!

On this day I am back to experience the ice as it should be encountered: quiet and alone. The pond is overflowing with life during the warmer months; frogs croaking, damselflies whirring, herons flying overhead, geese honking, and beavers splashing their tail flat against the standing pool of water. Now, there is only the steady howl of this northwest wind.

The ice at the edge of the pond squeezes last years blades of tussock sedge and blue-joint grass. Knobs of fractured tree stumps poke through the flat, glazed ice surface looking like a sea of headstones in a lost cemetery. As I venture further out in the direction of the main beaver lodge I stop by several of these skeletal remains of trees long ravaged by still, flooding waters. Curiously, the ice around the base of each stump is almost perfectly clear. You can get a sense of the ice depth by getting on your hands and knees and looking through the bubbles trapped in ice along the stump’s shaft. Green lichen clings to the smooth surface of the stump trapped in the frozen water, somehow appearing like a scene in one of those snow globes that tourists purchase after visiting a ski lodge.

As I approach the main beaver lodge I can see where coyotes have left their tracks in the snow. There are two sets of prints, both fairly small. This is likely an indicator of two young wild canines. It appears that they tried to dig at the surface of the lodge and gave up quickly when they realized the sticks and mud cemented by the ice was impenetrable. The tracks wander off to the northwest in the direction of a wooded swamp where hunting has far better possibilities.

Heron nests on ice.

The top of the lodge is littered with new debris; sticks with freshly removed bark indicating the lodge is still active. From this vantage point I can see three other, smaller, lodges. This was surprising to discover yesterday with my grad students. Each lodge also has sign that indicate there are beavers utilizing the area. The pond seems far too small for four pairs of beavers but evidently it is not. Ample winter forage is the main indicator as to how many beaver a pond can support. If there is inadequate forage the older beavers will drive off some of their previous years’ offspring.

The beaver pond choked with water lilies in summer is full of life!

This pond is absolutely covered with water lilies in the summer. Although white water lilies dominate, there are significant areas of yellow water lilies gracing the water’s surface. The lilies form a complete mat over the water’s surface in these warmer months making it appear as if there is almost no water at all. This pond is ten feet deep at its deepest location. The pond has a broad perimeter of emergent vegetation; broad and narrow leaf cattails to the east, tussock sedge, wool-grass, dark-green bulrush, blue-joint grass, and fowl meadow grass to the north, south, and east. These broad emergent wetlands surrounding the beaver pond cover an additional ten acres bringing the total size of this beaver created paradise to nearly 30 acres.

As I stand on the ice next to the main lodge I think about its’ inhabitants. Secluded to a dark world of cold water under ice and the chamber in the lodge for a duration of about about five months I imagine when Spring does arrive the beavers are immensely happy. Winter is principally a time of rest for beaver. Each day they exit the lodge through the underwater entrance hole and deposit some of the now naked twig forage from which bark and cambium were consumed the day before. They may swim around the underwater environs for a short while to get a little exercise. Before re-entering the lodge they will gather up some more of the branches that were placed in a cache near the lodge entrance and bring the forage back into the lodge for more nourishment. Knowing how busy they are during the warmer months I wonder if they actually appreciate this “resting” period. In any case I am sure that as the sun rises higher on the southern horizon and the days get longer and yield higher temperatures the beavers appreciate the thinning ice as the vernal equinox approaches.

Empty nest.

I walk over to the heron nests. There are now four. Only a few dead snags remain in open water where the heron’s feel most comfortable. This has limited the heron rookery to just four pairs, down from seven only a few years ago. There is one primary nest that is about four feet in diameter. The other nests, located in less suitable locations, range from two feet to thirty inches in diameter. The habitat, although limited by the nesting few nesting sites, is rife with forage. The herons have more than ample food supply in this pond. Not only is the pond inhabited by pickerel, perch, sunfish, and small brook trout, it has a plethora of bullfrogs, green-back frogs, and pickerel frogs. It is prime forage habitat for the herons that utilize this refuge; all made possible by the tenacity and creativity of the resident beavers.

Near the dam I can see two sets of large parallel tracks that travel along the ice on the downstream of the dam. There are long snow smears where the river otter slides across the ice and into the water. This cheerful predator does not rely on dormancy to survive the long winter; rather it relies on boundless energy and superior hunting skills to help keep its belly full. I have witnessed these prolific hunters up and down this entire watershed in both winter and summer. They are a bundle of non-stop motion and activity. Although they appear to enjoy life, and even seem to be clownish by nature, they are for the most part fierce predators determined to survive another day.

Is there anything more desolate, more beautiful than winter?

As I approach the other side of the beaver pond I enter a hemlock swamp. It is dark; covered with layers and layers of thick evergreen boughs overhead. What little light there is reveals an acre or so of low to medium height hummocks; long lost wind thrown trees decaying slowly in this wetland. On each hummock there is a new tree. The ones near an opening in the canopy have grown more quickly, reaching for the sky like a bystander at a stage coach robbery.

I turn to look back at the beaver pond. The wind is quieting down with the end of day. As dusk begins to shroud this ice covered world the howl of a distant coyote can be heard to the northwest.

Another cold night will create a frozen memory of survival for those that live in this cold world.

Looking forward to the challenges of winter!

  • Jansen

    I love this place! :-) Seriously, I learned a few more tidbits from this post that I didn’t know. Thanks! It’s interesting some of the things that I have changed just over the last few years. At least one beaver lodge abandoned, at least one more built, at least one of the heron nest-trees fallen, plenty of trees on the south shore taken down (a tad worried about that one myself)… Every season, nature brings us new things to discover. Given that you’ve been tramping this place for probably longer than I’ve been alive, I so love and respect your perspective on it. And I have to admit–while I’m not a fan of winter, I do appreciate seeing the pond this way more than many other aspects of the season.

  • Wild_Bill

    It certainly is an immensely precious place. About 30 years ago it was abandoned temporarily, the dam failed (slowly), and the water was almost gone. The beavers magically re-appeared just before it was completely drained. I’d love to ice fish it this winter to see if there are fish still in it. I suspect they may not be because of the immense water lily population that dies, decomposes, and used huge amounts of oxygen as part of the decomposition process making the O2 too limited to support fish populations. We could survey it together if you are interested via one of my favorite activities-ice fishing.

  • Ellen

    OK Bill, I looked at these pics of winter and almost clicked away right back to the crisp, cool, wonderful weather of October 1st, but thanks for sharing the stark beauty of what we need to prepare ourselves for very soon :) Curious, what kind of water lilies are growing on your pond and what percentage of the water surface do they cover? Do fish live there still?

  • Wild_Bill

    Even during the beauty of autumn I think ahead to winter. The pond is nearly 100% covered with Nympaea odorata, white water lily, with a few areas of Nuphar lutea, yellow water lilies. The photo is from another pond and I suspect it is a cultivar of white water lily but there was no human habitation nearby. Not sure about the fish, hope to ice fish it this winter to find out.

  • Jansen

    Consider the ice-fishing a plan. I know a welcoming place right nearby for warmth and refreshment as well. :-)

  • Wild_Bill

    Warmth? What’s that? We’re gonna be ice fishin’ man!

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    An interesting post with some lovely photos. But a little soon for snow for my taste.

    All the best.


  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Guy. Perhaps it is a little early to think about the cold, harsh winter for some. But for those of us who relish the opportunities of a frozen face, open woods, and thick ice just can’t help ourselves. It’s in our dreams 365 days a year, 24 hours a day!

  • Montucky

    You are indeed a true lover of winter! I am too, but not yet…

  • Wild_Bill

    It’s coming Montucky! It’s coming! However, in the meantime I’ll just enjoy these glorious New England colors. Ah, autumn, can’t imagine more beautiful scenery!

  • Wendy

    I love a good deep winter. Your images remind me of winters of my childhood in northern Illinois. Brittle mornings walking to school, skating on frozen ponds in the woods, steamy breath rising to sparkling night stars. Its been a long time since we had snow like that here in Missouri. They’re saying we may this year. We’ll see.

  • Wild_Bill

    There is nothing so stimulating as a deep, cold winter with lots of snow. The daily challenges must be met, but its all the doing that keeps you warm. And the forest, where I wander, is still, quiet, and full of reflection. It is the contrast of warmth and cold that I like the best. Without one you could not appreciate the other.

  • Annie

    That last picture of you just beaming tells it all.

    The beaver are one of the animals the kids love the most and never see as our beaver are only busy during the early morning and evening hours when our little visitors aren’t around. But they can see the beaver lodge and we were even lucky enough to get a picture of one of the beaver bringing willow to the lodge one morning so they can see that and imagine the beaver gathering their favorite food, willow branches, from the edges of the pond. The beaver aren’t appreciated by everyone though. It seems they have a totally different idea of how our wetlands should be managed than the State of California and the farmers that lease land within the wildlife area have and are in constant conflict about the dams they build and where they build them. Regretfully the beaver usually loose the battle but many times give the humans a hard time with their tenacity to rebuild. We also have river otter who have a veritable feast available to them all year long and consequently do well in this area too. We are sometimes lucky and see them playing in one of the irrigation canals or running across the road from one water source to the other. So much fun to watch as they cavort around it’s hard to imagine them as the predators they are. In our wetlands they are one of the top predators and have been known to eat ducks and even beaver kit when they can get one.

    I wish more kids could ponder the wonders of a beaver pond in the wild. They are indeed magical places as you know.

    A friend is in Maine photographing and enjoying the fall color now and says it is incredible.

  • Wild_Bill

    I have always thought that the reason that so many people resent beavers is because the behave so much like humans. They take an environment and change it to suit their own needs. It’s funny that when we do this its progress but when a beaver does this it is considered destructive.

    Of course beavers are marvelous creatures. I’ve spent hours and hours observing them. They are both persistent and bright. Both qualities I admire greatly!

    The foliage in NE this year is the best in years and years.

    Thanks Annie!

  • Annie

    I’ve never really thought about the fact that that could be the reason people resent beaver. Of course, it makes absolute sense.

    Hope to get up into the Sierra this week to see the colors. It’s not the same as what the NE has but it’s beautiful just the same.

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