I start this short journey on a hill above a 40 acre beaver pond. It is the top of a watershed. The water on one side of the hill flows west to a large river in the valley known as the Deerfield River. The water on the east flows into the same river but about five miles downstream.
Today I will be travelling along a short section of the watershed that drains to the east. From where I stand at the beginning of my journey there is a great view. I can see a range of tall hills on the other side of the Connecticut River about 25 miles, as the crow flies, to the east. The hills at that distance appear as a purple outline. It is too far to see much detail on these distant peaks and hillsides. In stark contrast I can see another set of hills in the foreground about 5 miles away where the bronze colored foliage of the oaks and chestnut colors of beech foliage are still evident. These hills are largely forested save a transmission line that cuts up the face of the small mountain. It is true that from this vantage point the view looks completely wild. Other than the power lines there is hardly a human structure in sight. Although this is a very rural area, truth be known, there are villages, houses, people and automobiles scattered about here and there, all having some story or another and all tucked out of sight from this vantage point.
The beaver pond at the base of the hill is quite large. I have been coming to it for more than 30 years and it likely existed at least 30 years before that. It has been inhabited by beavers for the entire 30 years witnessed by me save 2 years in mid 1980’s. I’m not sure if the beavers were trapped out of their environment or there wasn’t enough winter food to support them for those few years. It doesn’t really matter now. They returned quickly and have maintained this year in it’s present state for the decades since their brief disappearance.
The beaver pond is situated in a large flat area that is nestled between hills on the north, south, and west sides. It is a large plateau for these parts. It is likely one of the largest flat areas in this hilliest of all hill towns. The beaver pond is rife with standing dead trees, mostly hemlock, that have been present for decades in the deep water that now covers the terrain. Some of the old hemlocks have now begun to topple over much to the chagrin of the great blue Heron population. Nests used for years have been recently relegated to the murky depths in the dark waters of this pond filled with water lilies.
I slowly descend to the pond along an old deer trail that leads to a watering hole on the western edge of the pond. As I near the bottom of the hill I notice beaver canals covered with peat moss where years and years of moving branches from fallen trees to deep waters has made its mark on this side of the pond. Shallow canals, any where from a foot and a half to two feet deep, run perpendicular to the beaver pond. These canals are transport areas where beavers will gather branches off of downed trees and store them at the bottom of the pond at the base of their lodge to be used as winter forage.
The peat moss in the canals is crimson red from the freezing night time temperatures. It is truly a sight to behold and I take a moment to appreciate these spirit moving colors.
As I approach the edge of the pond I hear the tell-tale whack and splash of a beaver tail warning others of my presence. I laugh out loud. I almost jumped right out of my boots at the shock of this loud silence interrupting sound. My laugh echoes across the pond. I am pleased to hear my laugh hovering over this watery habitat.
Despite the last three weeks of cold weather the pond still is mostly covered with water lilies. The white flowers are long gone but the large round leaves still float on the dark waters keeping what little sunlight is left in our short days from reaching the pond bottom.
On the other side of the pond, several hundred yards away, there is a large flock of Canada geese floating about the quiet waters, resting from a long night of flying in their annual journey south. The geese are completely still and reflect the quiet of the beaver pond on this late October morning.
This is the perfect place to sit and think; something I like to do while rambling about the woods. I find a tree laying on the ground at the edge of the pond where I can rest my feet. My mind immediately turns to a news story that I heard on the radio the previous evening. A national poll was conducted about climate change and global warming as a follow-up to the same poll that had been conducted two years earlier. The first question asked if climate change/global warming is a real event. The second question asked if it is a serious problem. In 2007 77% of those polled believed climate change and global warming were occurring and 44% thought is was a serious problem that could impact their lives. In the 2009 poll only 57% of those polled believed that climate change and global warming were a real event and only 33% believed that it was a serious problem that would affect their lives. I was deeply upset and saddened by the result of this poll. As the ice caps melt at the north and south poles, as mountain glaciers that have existed for thousands of years are lost, as inland areas heat up and rainfall decreases in many regions of the world, and as sea levels rise it is hard to fathom how so many Americans deny the existence of climate change. As polar bears lose their habitat and perhaps their very existence, as worldwide droughts and increased human starvation persist, as mountain glacial waters stop flowing to the millions who depend on this water supply, and as the oceans erode and wreak havoc on our coastal resources it is impossible for me to imagine how the citizens of our country do not think it will seriously impact their lives.
I look about and see all of the beauty that surrounds me; the forested side slopes of the western hill, the quiet waters that are full of life before me, the bright blue skies above me and all the mysteries of the great beyond. I am saddened that people do not take the time to realize that we could loose all of this. I suspect that the corporate news media, economics, and greed all play a role in this imminent crisis being deemphasized. And I recognize that in reality how large the climate change dragon is and how difficult it will be to defeat. I believe with all my heart that we must try, for we are not only battling a monster that has the potential to debilitate the human species but much of the earth as we now know it. I am so discouraged that I know I cannot focus on this at the moment and must get back to my simple journey.
I stand and start walking my way around the southern edge of the beaver pond towards the dam built by these industrious creatures on the eastern edge of these still waters. The southern edge of the beaver pond is covered sporadically with trees felled by beavers. Most trees were skillfully felled into the pond and the top branches removed for winter forage. The favorite seems to be white birch, but a few red maples and poplars have fallen victim to the beaver’s expert skill.
As I approach the outlet of the pond I can hear moving water. There are two dams, the one further upstream is the dam that serves to hold back the 40 acres of water. The downstream dam seems to be a secondary dam that was built to retain a smaller pool of water for some unknown reason. The dam is a work of skill. Branches, mud, and vegetation have been woven into a very strong structure that has withstood several very large rain storms in the last couple of decades, two of which were 100 year storms. The dam is about 7 feet high from the downstream side and from this vantage point I can really appreciate the effort it took to build this structure which is about 140 feet long from end to end. Beavers are more than industrious, they are down right intelligent. I marvel at the care it took to build this massive dam. I know it was built a little at a time but is still an incredible masterpiece. It is clear the beavers have skills that I do not. I could not have constructed anything close to equal this sturdy, artful structure.
As I stand here I am reminded of what humans have in common with the beaver. We both take a natural setting and change it radically to suit our own needs. Often it is an improvement, but just as often it interferes with another natural process. We both take risks with our structures and sometimes this risk does not pan out. Failed impoundments near New Orleans after hurricane Katrina comes to mind as does a recent road washed out by a failed beaver dam on a nearby road in this same town. One thing is clear to me, the beaver limits their intervention to a degree where the natural setting still appears wild. Humans do not have that skill or desire.
The downstream area of the beaver dam holds a small meandering stream. The winding stream soon intersects a road, aptly names Swamp Road, where a “beaver deceiver” has been installed on the upstream of a road culvert to prevent the beavers from blocking the conduit and flooding the road. This clever device has likely saved a few beavers from elimination and has saved the town a lot of aggravation and money. The “beaver deceiver” is designed to separate the beaver from the road culvert. Water flows into a conduit that is surrounded by heavy metal wire fencing. The small culvert is angled so the downstream end is higher than the upstream end so it only works during high water events. The culvert drains into a trapezoidal area of wire fencing that is placed upstream of the large road culvert and keeps the beavers away from plugging the void up with sticks and mud. This device has been in place for more than five years, allows free flows, and has eliminated the road flooding problem. It is a peaceful resolution to a conflict between man and beaver; two competing species that ironically both shape environments to meet their own needs.
The stream draining through the road culvert feeds a man made pond. This small water body is shaped like a bent horse shoe and is perhaps 15-20 acres in area. It was originally another beaver pond, but some industrious humans replaced the dam made of mud and sticks with two large dams made of concrete and established a summer camping area in the vicinity about 40 years ago. The pond shore is dotted with camping trailers, small cabins, a few houses, and even some tenting sites. This hodge podge of human activity is an escape primarily for city dwellers who want to vacation in a rural setting. In the summers the pond is buzzing with activity and supports human recreation; primarily swimming, non-motorized boating, and fishing. The pond is shallow and is relatively good habitat for water fowl, warm water fish species, reptiles, and amphibians. The pond is intersected by a road, often referred to as the “causeway”. Some find this short drive scenic and worthy of a stop along the way to take in the view.
The water moves through the pond slowly, dropping any sediment it may be carrying in this huge stilling basin. Little deltas have formed where the several small streams that feed this pond have dropped silt, sand, and gravel. The pond has one large island that consists mainly of wetland vegetation. This area is used by waterfowl for nesting. This pond is mainly devoid of vegetation; evidence that the vegetation is being managed through some sort of program designed to keep the pond as open water.
As I walk around the edge of the pond on the causeway I realize that this is escape habitat for those that come from the city to seek salvation from the urban ways. It likely serves a very important function for those who normally live in a hustling suburban or urban environment. Perhaps it is necessary for their sanity. I am happy for those that enjoy this pond. I hope they treat this ecosystem with love and care and in turn it will take care of those who utilize this resource.
The brook downstream from the pond runs down steep slopes. The water falls over ledge and fallen logs and is full of pools and riffles. The brook is white and frothy with bubbles created by the water mixing with the air as it tumbles through this steep drainage.
I stop along the way and reach into the water’s edge. I overturn a rock and collect a few bugs that are using this environment for the aquatic part of their life cycle. In my hand are some caddis fly casings made of little pebbles, a stone fly larvae, and a large hellgrammite, perhaps 2 and half inches in length. The hellgrammite is segmented, has two legs per segment, and pinchers near the head that look as if they could tear your finger off. This critter is the larvae of a dobsonfly and a favorite food of brook trout.
All of these insects are indicators of clean water. They prefer the cool, highly oxygenated waters of clean streams. They are an excellent bio-indicator and I am very happy to see they grace this brook with their presence.
I move downstream to a long pool that is formed in bedrock worn to the shape of a deep channel with a natural rock dam on the downstream end. I look into the dark waters of this the pool and it doesn’t take too long to see a flash of movement moving from one shadow to another. This shy creature darting back and forth is the elusive brook trout. This prime is habitat for this member of the char family.
Autumn is the breeding season for brook trout so it is not a good time to fish for them. Their future populations depend upon the success of the breeding season. These fresh waters provide ample habitat for this marvel of cold water environments and should be a good host to this wily predator of these streams.
I continue my journey downstream. The banks are difficult to navigate as they are rife with tree tops fallen from last years ice storm. As I near the end of my journey as I approach my homestead which is situated on this beautiful water course I find another fallen tree on which I can sit and collect my thoughts.
I look up through the leafless branches above me and the bright blue sky looks limitless and without bounds. My mind feels free to wander. I think of the beaver pond and all the life cycles contained within its perimeters. I think of the beaver dam and the artful construction that has created this wonderful environment. I think of the man-made pond and those who seem to enjoy it. I wonder if they will make the connection between the natural world and the joy that I hope they feel when they are experiencing this world. And I wonder if this could translate to hope and make people not only more appreciative of the natural world, but more attentive and more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure long term for this fragile vessel we know as the planet earth.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in November of 2009.