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The War Against the Beavers

The War Against the Beavers: Learning to Be Wild in the North Woods

Verena Andermatt Conley
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv2z2
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  • Book Info
    The War Against the Beavers
    Book Description:

    The War Against the Beavers is a wry and funny account of two people’s ten-year apprenticeship in backwoods living. Juxtaposing idyllic descriptions—hiking and cross-country skiing, swimming and canoeing in clear waters—with the intensive labor of maintaining a wilderness homestead, Conley draws a beguiling picture of the ups and downs of backwoods living.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9523-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PROLOGUE: A Cabin in the Wilderness
    (pp. xi-xx)

    Growing up in europe, I dreamed for many years of the great American wilderness. My childhood was spent reading romantic tales of Native American cultures, of life in the forest, of hunting and gathering, of traveling on mighty rivers in birch bark canoes or of braving winds and waves on stormy lakes while trying to escape from humans or wild animals. Many nights I huddled under the covers with a flashlight, devouring books by Karl May, a popular late-nineteenth-century German author whose colorful stories about life in the American West with Chief Winnetou, Old Shatterhand, and Old Surehand fired up...

  5. Part I. Babes in the Woods

    • Heading for the Wilderness
      (pp. 3-8)

      One sunny afternoon in early july, we drove through the North Woods with the help of the same detailed map that had guided us in the winter. After crossing the river and passing the house at the foot of the hill where lived a local couple, Mike and Lonnie, we reached the steep hill with the mossy “Vermont road,” lined by aspen, spruce, and some pine and maple trees. The place was unrecognizable on this balmy summer evening. Where slender tree trunks had swayed in the cold wind on snow-covered ground, all was now lush green. Thick underbrush was everywhere,...

    • Home Alone at the Cabin
      (pp. 9-11)

      On the third day of bliss, Tom decided to drive to the nearest town, twenty or so miles away, to replenish our stock of groceries. I was reluctant to sacrifice a sunny day to be on the road, and in spite of being terrified at the idea, got up my courage to stay behind by myself with Jo, our faithful old cat. Defiantly, I declared that I would be able to “keep a lid on things” until Tom’s return from his expedition.

      Tom left, proudly sporting his dark brown fedora, buffalo plaid shirt, and work boots, while I treated myself...

    • Summer Pleasures
      (pp. 12-16)

      Warm weather mixed with rains made the ashes and aspens look lush green that summer. Flowering bushes covered the landscape with pink and white splotches; the birds sang all morning long. It was an intense period of renewal that relegated to oblivion lingering memories of stress and city life. We tried to emulate Rob and Louise by keeping the cabins looking as if they were fashioned after photographs inCountry Living. To sustain the illusion, I put out some bright red geraniums; Tom’s efforts to be faithful to Rob’s legacy consisted in caring for our “lawn,” that is, the small...

    • Forest Paths
      (pp. 17-19)

      After our forays around the cabin, as well as on and in the river, we were more than eager to begin exploring the rest of our surroundings, so we decided to blaze a trail through the forest. We set out from the lower cabin and made our way across the roughly sixty square feet of Tom’s “lawn.” We walked by the three weeping willows, nostalgic signs of domesticity from the homesteading era, before we ambled down the gently sloping meadow that, in early August, was covered with the first goldenrod as well as myriad asters that shone in white and...

    • The Art of Ricing
      (pp. 20-25)

      The small north woods communities still followed the seasons. In addition to national and family holidays, the fishing opener, blueberry season, the wild rice harvest, and various hunting seasons punctuated the year. Late August or early September was the time for harvesting the wild rice that grew in lakes and rivers. For more than a century now, ricing had been reserved for Native Americans, who often harvested it to sell. Lately, commercial paddy growers in California had so deflated the market that harvesting rice manually was no longer profitable. But the ritual survived, and many still took pleasure in it...

    • Winter Pleasures
      (pp. 26-33)

      That year, from thanksgiving on, the snow accumulated, and we discovered the North Woods anew on skis. With the leaves fallen from the trees, and the lower brush covered with snow, the open forest offered new vistas. We became avid skiers and indulged in our new sport whenever we could.

      We developed the habit of setting out shortly after a copious breakfast. More so than other meals at the cabin, the breakfast ritual had a special flavor that was enhanced in the winter. It began when Tom rose from the hand-hewn log bed left us by Rob and Louise. He...

    • Of Mice and Men
      (pp. 34-36)

      That evening, pleasantly tired from our skiing, we retired early. In the beginning, I found the quiet at night eerie. Tom was a sound sleeper, but I would wake up and hear all the unfamiliar noises. In the city there were sirens and airplanes taking off and landing, accelerating and decelerating on the flight path directly over our house. I was used to the incessant rumble, the tension, and the so-called nerve-racking pace of urban life. But in the North Woods, at first I was disquieted by the uncanny sounds of nature. I lay awake listening, not without anguish, to...

    • Round-robin with the Weasels
      (pp. 37-40)

      Beavers, bears, and mice were not our only companions at the cabin. Late in summer Tom had found a dead weasel on the little path to our reluctant garden. The tiny animal, so cherished as ermine in earlier times by kings and queens, both as pet and adornment, bore no marks of violent death. It was in its summer phase, brown with a lighter belly. Our book about mammals, consulted on the occasion, informed us that weasels turned white only in the winter, and that even if transported to a warm climate, their coats would still turn white.

      Our weasel...

    • Icy Roads
      (pp. 41-45)

      The local snowplow operators had offered to clear what we, faithful to the Morrows’ tradition, called the Vermont road and what they irreverently referred to as the two-mile-long dirt pathway that connected us with the paved county road. “Yeah, just let us know,” one of them said proudly, “and we’ll do it for you. You betcha.”

      Thanking them, we declined. We preferred to keep the path closed to winter traffic, although I, especially, loathed hauling in the supplies that, based on our recent experience, were at risk of getting lost, and always urged Tom to “try the hill” with our...

    • Cabin Opener
      (pp. 46-51)

      The anxious and meticulous rob had left us with ample instructions on how to “open” and “close” the two cabins. In the fall we carried out the closing ceremony in reverential fashion. We had drained the oil from the Jari and the generator. The spark plugs were removed so that a few drops of penetrating oil would keep the cylinder and piston from locking in the winter freeze. We had taken off the screens and put in the storm windows. We carefully emptied the pipes of any remaining water. At the end of the day, we would crawl into bed...

    • Tree–Planting Ceremony
      (pp. 52-57)

      Tree planting was to become another major ritual. Rob had left us a thick report on forest management drawn up by the state Department of Natural Resources. As a purist (or “eco-freak,” in the local idiom), Rob had wanted to “restore the wilderness” by introducing more diversity. An agent of the DNR had prepared a complete “inventory” of the property, with illustrations, maps, and recommendations, one of which was that the Morrows create more habitat for different kinds of wildlife by planting bushes and diversifying the species of trees. Because of two successive clear cuttings, aspens were beginning to outnumber...

    • Bruno the Bear
      (pp. 58-62)

      He first appeared during tree planting. we were just lingering on the porch with our would-be helpers—Allan, Ingrid, Tim, and Paul—after a pancake breakfast that would restore energy to our tired bodies for another demanding day. The cub came out of nowhere, arriving so silently that none of us heard him approach. The little bear was just suddenly there, at the wooden bird feeder that stands on a pole thirty feet from the cabin. He was the size of a dog, a labrador, perhaps. He had to rear up on his hind legs to reach the feeder, on...

    • Blueberry Hill
      (pp. 63-67)

      Summer was getting on, and there was much excitement in the air about the upcoming blueberry and raspberry harvests. We rejoiced that life in the North Woods was still governed by natural cycles and preserved some of its age-old stability. Every season was different, the old-timers assured us, but there was also the pleasure of habit, of starting to perceive differences and variations in the yearly repetitions. Rituals and ceremonies kept the social fabric intact and made this a good place to live, the locals proudly informed us, far from the speed and decadence of city life.

      We set out...

    • Raspberry Picking
      (pp. 68-71)

      With a new sense of time, we watched with great eagerness the ripening of the raspberries at the end of our field. It looked like a banner year. By early August, we decided that the moment had come. We struggled across the field, through the knee-high grass, not without pausing to admire the seedlings we had planted literally by the sweat of our brows. Had they grown a quarter of an inch? Were they too dry? There had been some rain since they were planted. Water was crucial immediately after planting, Tom declared, full of his new knowledge. He thought...

    • Devastation
      (pp. 72-74)

      The berry season had passed. Although the grass in the field was still green, it was taking on a more yellowish tinge.

      Ferns, susceptible to cold air, turned orange. Canadian thistles speckled the picture with red dots. The days were getting shorter, and the blackbirds—among the first to migrate—were gathering in flocks, a sign of their impending departure. We decided that it was time for another walk in the forest and set out with our backpack, which contained our customary lunch, a compass, an ax, plenty of mosquito repellent, and helmets.

      We walked across the field along the...

  6. Part II. The War against the Beavers

    • The War Begins
      (pp. 77-79)

      We became obsessed. Every day, we hiked out to the pond, falling over logs and getting scratched and whipped by limbs. Unperturbed, with blood on our foreheads and twigs in our hair, we climbed up onto the impressive dam. It was not for nothing that the beavers had earned their reputation as “nature’s engineers.” The mosaic of clay, branches, and rocks was proof of their ingenuity.

      The beavers had chosen the spot where the creek ran through a flat area just above the waterfall. They built the dam right on top of the fall in such a way that it...

    • Jim Rondeau
      (pp. 80-83)

      Our feeling of oneness with nature was gravely compromised. After the fiasco of trying to drive the beavers out through harassment and sabotage, we gave ourselves a few days’ respite before beginning the search for a trapper. Our neighbor Mike, happy without a doubt that we were not “eco-freaks” like the previous owners (little did he know about my great visions of harmony with nature), suggested Jim Rondeau, the husband of Lisa Rondeau, the kind woman who managed a small general store that included the post office.

      We knew Lisa well. In addition to running the store and postal station,...

    • Strange Bedfellows
      (pp. 84-89)

      With the arrival of winter, snow and ice covered the ground and erased the beaver tracks, at least temporarily, from our memory. After Christmas, snow had begun to fall again and the thermometer suddenly dropped to a steady twenty below for close to a month. Sometime in February, we hiked in on another moonlit night with our familiar Duluth pack, sinking into the snow, struggling with balance—we had yet to acquire snowshoes—and, to assuage our misery, congratulating ourselves for at least no longer having our “loaner cat,” Doreen, with us.

      Doreen was a rather high-strung and neurotic feline...

    • Tree Nailing
      (pp. 90-92)

      On several cross-country skiing expeditions later that month, we had decided to go in the direction of the beaver pond. Winter, we somehow assumed, forgetting about the carved trees and wood shavings we saw on our land earlier, would be a time of truce in the beaver war. Wrong. Our sorties revealed that there were many more “beaver trees” than in the previous summer. Subzero temperatures and a thick layer of ice had not prevented the squatters from continuing their labor. From then on, as had our summer outings, all our skiing trips too painfully led us to the growing...

    • Nature Attacks
      (pp. 93-97)

      Spring came early that year. the river opened, and once again it was time for the annual tree planting ceremony that continued to combine so much pleasure and pain. We persevered in our plan to diversify our forest and discourage the beaver along the river and around the field. Tom, braving the mosquitoes and the blackflies, even ventured out to the beaver pond to do some replanting along its shores. When we inspected the result of our hard labor a few weeks later, the seedlings looked quite healthy. Indeed, their survival rate seemed to be more than about two out...

    • The First Trapper
      (pp. 98-102)

      Tent caterpillars, swimming, hiking, canoeing, fishing, mushrooming, and the excitement of observing birds had made us forget, at least temporarily, about the beavers. The forest was extremely dense that year, and the thought of fighting our way through thick brush armed with the ax and mosquito repellent, stumbling over downed trees and limbs, and scratching our faces and arms until they were bloody had lost a great deal of its original appeal. It was quite unexpected, then, that one day in August we received a call from an elderly man with a heavy northern Minnesota accent. He introduced himself as...

    • A New Beaver Dam
      (pp. 103-106)

      With his unshakable faith in humanity, Tom readily accepted Dale’s verdict. The beavers were gone; they might even have been wiped out by disease, poor things. Tom was ready to groom the area by clearing it of debris, opening the dam, and replanting. He was eager for us to “get on with our lives,” as they say on the news after every major catastrophe. The more resistant of the two, I grudgingly trotted along with him, across the field and through the forest to our most familiar spot. An overwhelming calm greeted us there. But then, it was the middle...

    • The Logging Letter
      (pp. 107-110)

      Another winter came and went. It was a beautiful spring day in the city. The wind was gusting from the south; puffy white clouds were racing across the sky. The branches were still bare, but somehow it was clear that the long winter was really over. Soon, I pondered, not without elation, we would be driving north to our place in the woods for the annual tree-planting cere mony. Tree planting was even more of a necessity now, after the recent drought, the invasion by tent caterpillars, and the devastation by the beavers that was still unsolved. We had put...

    • A Tour with the “Forest Coordinator”
      (pp. 111-114)

      Ralph kahn was the specialist who surveyed the forest for the county in order to decide which areas were to be cut. As St. Louis County’s forest coordinator, he had composed the letter announcing the county’s intention to log its land. The letter had been written with a rare fluency and even a touch of rhetoric. Clearly, Ralph was a new breed of technical expert. He was from the area but had trained on the West Coast and was well acquainted with the latest principles and methods of forest husbandry. Ralph had an ambivalent relationship with the local population, which...

    • Amos, the Eco-Trapper
      (pp. 115-117)

      Later that day, at my insistence, tom called amos, the trapper Ralph had suggested. The telephone rang for a long time, and no answering machine kicked in. It took several days of persistence before a woman’s voice with a heavy regional accent finally answered. It was Edna, Amos’s wife, who informed us that her husband was out “on a mission.” The expression was a euphemism for the preparation of some kind of hunting trip. Amos was retired after forty years with the U.S. Forest Service and knew the North Woods well. He supplemented his meager pension by organizing hunting expeditions...

    • Edna, the Woodswoman
      (pp. 118-121)

      The following sunday, amos returned with his wife. Sexism did not exist with folks up here: that was an invention of city dwellers. On a farm or in the woods, all hands were required. The women still oversaw the household and did the accounting where needed. As in the old days, men roamed the woods. Women stayed closer to home and tended to the garden and the house. Only occasionally, as in the case of hunting, did women leave the hearth.

      When Amos and Edna visited us that Sunday, they had just had their weekly treat, which consisted of breakfast...

    • More Beaver Stories
      (pp. 122-126)

      Amos returned after thanksgiving on an old snowmobile that he parked in front of the cabin like a horse. He dismounted, removed his snowshoes from the rack, and signaled to Tom that he was ready to go. He wanted to visit the beaver pond now that the water was frozen and access made easier. Amos strapped on his old-style snowshoes, and Tom stepped into the bindings of his cross-country skis. I watched them as they set off across the snow-covered field.

      Once again, as in the case of the car-towing episode with our neighbor Mike, Tom, who seemed so tough...

    • The First Victim
      (pp. 127-132)

      It was one of these rare luminous days in late December. The air was bitter cold and still; the sky was deep blue and the snow glistened in the noon sunlight. The smoke from the chimney rose in a thin, straight line. In the morning we had gone on our skis into the forest. The river was becoming busier every year with snowmobile traffic, and we no longer felt safe there. Snowmobilers came up from behind you and zoomed by. They did not keep to the middle of the river, but liked to jump over the moguls created by mounds...

    • A Silent Spring
      (pp. 133-134)

      May arrived, and once again it was time for our annual tree planting. Balmy winds were blowing from the south. Soon green leaves would spread a lush green coat over the naked branches of the tall aspens. Bushes would bud, and even the spruces would grow their bright green tips. The river was already open and flowing high. From the porch of the cabin, we looked at the greening field, the forest with the budding trees, and the vast expanse of the shimmering river. We cast some furtive, guilt-ridden glances toward the beaver lodge at the bottom of the hill....

    • A New Plague
      (pp. 135-137)

      We went out to the field to inspect the progress of the evergreens we had planted over the years. This was the time of year when they were easy to spot. The dark green color of spruces and red, white, and jack pines stood out in the brownish yellow grass on which the last patches of snow had melted only a couple of weeks before. In another week or so, after the first rain, nature would truly explode. Tall ferns would unfold, brush would fill in. The forest would take on its thick summer look again. While thinking out loud,...

    • Urbanization
      (pp. 138-142)

      With the arrival of summer, and under the illusion that both the budworms and the beavers had disappeared, we resumed our hikes, picnics, canoe outings, and daily swims.

      The eagles were no longer the only ones flying over our heads while we indulged in aquatic pleasures. By law aquaplanes had to avoid the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, so they flew over our area instead, just beyond the western perimeter of the BWCAW. “Wilderness” proper was steadily moving north. When we first bought our land, one bright blue aquaplane made one daily run, carrying mail and goods to and from...

    • The Beavers Return
      (pp. 143-145)

      If daily pleasures made us forget the travails of the world at large, the latter were nonetheless knocking at the door. I was slowly relinquishing the idea of control in our little patch of paradise and reevaluating my concept of harmony and nature. Yet I felt we were still struggling against what I denounced as the unabated forces of chaos. Indeed, to what I continued to refer to as the earlier “destruction” by the beavers was added that by tent caterpillars, spruce budworms, and, soon, logging. We were being encroached upon by nature and by industry.

      While some trees and...

    • Joe Ahearn
      (pp. 146-149)

      In late august, we were lingering at the breakfast table, watching the sun rise from behind the slender spruce trees beyond the bird feeder. The first rays were casting oblique shadows through the mist that shrouded the river and the nearby field. The mist was rising swiftly off the dark water with its glittering, golden streaks from the early morning sun. Gradually, as the sun rose, the mist retreated, first from the field and then from the water, on which the last air bubbles of the night still traveled. The mist eventually concentrated at the far bend of the river,...

    • Big Timber
      (pp. 150-152)

      A few months later, the day after christmas, we ventured out on our skis and decided to follow the loop that would take us through the forest, along the always partially open creek, over the beaver pond, through the stand of thick spruces, and, finally, down the gentle slopes among the tall aspen trees before we reentered our field.

      We were laboring down the path that no hunters had groomed for us. A bad omen, I thought. We finally reached the point of bifurcation, from where we could either go straight and end up eventually on our treasured Blueberry Hill,...

    • Wolves
      (pp. 153-155)

      In spite of the presumed overall warming trend, the winter turned out to be one of the coldest on record. Many animals starved and froze to death; the deep snow made it harder than usual for them to move around. Some came out of their hiding places, closer to human habitation, in search of food and shelter. Wolves were spotted in open areas and struck fear in people’s hearts, still part of the same mythology that for centuries had prompted fascination with the elusiveLupus. Over the past decade, we had occasionally heard the howls of a few wolf packs...

    • More Chaos
      (pp. 156-158)

      After discovering the mechanized devastation at the back of our property the previous winter, we did not venture out of our part of the woods for the entire summer. We came to celebrate more and more our “rugged” forest with its fungus-covered trees and overgrown “messy” look. I was no longer complaining about having bought a beaver pond.

      It was not until the following winter that, on another crosscountry outing, we decided to follow the forest path behind the cabin that led by the logged area. Now that our loop had been “wrecked,” we decided to start, as in the...

    • “Nature’s Ways”
      (pp. 159-162)

      The cold weather lasted well into spring, and the deep snow did not melt until early May. Many more deer died of starvation or became easy prey to hungry predators. They could not even nibble on our pine seedlings, covered by a uniform white mass. Not a single bird came to the feeder. Had they gone to more reliable sources in the area? Instead of the cheery twitter of little chickadees, only silence greeted us each time we stepped out of the cabin, interrupted at times by loud noises from the river, the sounds of expansion cracks.

      Winter did end,...

    • Back to Blueberry Hill
      (pp. 163-164)

      Six months later, as if drawn by a magnet, we decided to hike up to our Blueberry Hill, despite the fact that we would have to cross the “lunar landscape.” Making our way down the narrow, dark forest path, we no longer glanced in the direction of the beaver pond but directly opposite, toward the area of devastation. Saplings were growing there, true, but we reminded each other that it would be decades before those aspens would be at a reasonable height again. With little replanting being done, the aspen monoculture was, at this point, guaranteed supremacy. We continued to...

  7. Epilogue
    (pp. 165-168)

    I never found in the north woods the long-sought adventures of my childhood heroes Chief Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. I never found what I thought was the harmony advocated by more modern writers. I discovered, however, that every order is fragile and that harmony is fleeting. During a decade in the North Woods, I came to change my views of nature and the forest. Not only did the stories of my childhood belong to another world, but my vision of harmony and peace was challenged every day. What I encountered in its stead was a nature rife with force, and...

  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 169-169)