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Bookends: How Beavers shaped the Geography and History of North America January 19, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: How Beavers shaped the Geography and History of North America

By Dan Davidson

July 13, 2016

– 761 words –

 

Once They Were Hats:0nce

In Search of the Mighty Beaver

By Frances Backhouse

ECW Press

261 pages

$18.95

 

There are a number of beaver lodges in the Klondike. One family has been known to create emporary difficulties along a branch of the Klondike River that meanders past Henderson Corner and Rock Creek. Other families are thought to be the cause of occasional outbreaks of “beaver fever” (Giardiasis) in some of the rural areas south of Dawson.

They’re a chubby, somewhat comical little creature, often used in cartoonish ways to represent Canada, as in that annoying pizza commercial currently flooding evening television (beaver with tartan cape and hockey stick) or the recent cartoon demonstrating Canada’s increased commitment to NATO (little beaver in combat gear hauling tiny toy cannon). Unless their activities have caused us some inconvenience, we don’t tend to take them seriously.

Frances Backhouse says that much of what we refer to historically as the New World was once Beaverland, shaped and influenced by the activities of a creature that was more numerous and widespread than the fabled herds of bison about which we read so much in western lore. They occupied and influenced the landscape of every part of North American that was not desert, or too cold for them, or patrolled by alligators. “Wherever they could find water and wood, beavers were there.”

Indeed, as the book moves on, we discover that beavers had quite a bit to do with the existence of both the water and the wood. It appears that they are Mother Nature’s landscape artists, that their presence or absence can have a profound effect on an ecosystem.

Beavers go back a long way into history, and came in a variety of sizes over the millennia. Not all of them were dam and lodge builders like Castor canadensis. Not all are now, Some of them den under river banks for instance.

Backhouse begins by taking a number of trips into areas where the landscape is most like what it would have been when there were a lot fewer people on the continent and, having described those places, asks us to imagine much of the continent looking that way. Sure, the First Nations people trapped and used the beaver, but not to the extent that Europeans would when they got here.

While the Southern Hemisphere tended to be explored as the result of the search for mineral wealth, North American exploration was driven by the fur trade, and beaver pelts were considered one of the prime commodities.

Chapter three details how the beaver was trapped nearly to extinction over just a few hundred years, as ever more efficient ways of catching them were developed and the European mania for hats made of beaver felt took hold.

No tale of the return of the beaver would be complete without mention of the work of Archie Belaney, the transplanted Brit who fooled most of the word as Grey Owl. He was, perhaps, more of a convenient poster child for an existing moment, rather than quite the eco-hero that legend has made him, but his story remains of interest.

In connection with those hats, Backhouse spent time at the Smithbilt hat factory in Calgary, and visited the North American Fur Auction in Toronto, as well as actually learning how to skin a beaver under the tutelage of a professional trapper.

The book wraps up with some discussion of the beavers’ impact on water tables, growth of peat bogs, development of wetlands which help to control forest fire hazards, and how their activity paves the way for diverse flora and fauna during and after their occupation of an area. She provides several examples of how beaver activity in certain areas has been controlled and shaped without having to kill them.

Frances Backhouse is perhaps best known to Yukon readers as the author of Women of the Klondike (Whitecap 1995) and Children of the Klondike (Whitecap 2010). The former was her first book length project, written after a number of years of shorter form journalism. The latter was the book she worked on during her stay at Berton House, in 2008. Both can be found on a lot of book racks in the territory’s stores. Sadly, her 1999 book about hiking the Chilkoot Pass, Hiking with Ghosts (Raincoast) is out of print, but perhaps the buzz about this book will bring it back, or at least hasten that promised e-book version.

 

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