Natural World

Leaving It To Beaver

By Patty LaNoue Stearns

“So,” I asked the sellers at the closing of our house, “what kind of wildlife do you see around the property? Any deer?”

“Well,” the wife offered, “there’s a beaver.”

“Really?” I leaned forward excitedly. “Cool!”

We signed the papers and took ownership of the house, on a lake outside Traverse City–not big enough for jet skis, thank God, but plenty of room for a beaver. My husband and I are wildlife freaks. Love the Animal Planet and Discovery channels. Hike and fish and hope we can catch sight of some critter out there in the woods doing something, well, natural — like they’re always doing on TV.

So the idea that we might be able to watch a beaver from our deck really got us pumped. I remembered seeing beavers when I was a kid, at a place where we summered near Glennie called Sunny Lake. As we approached the swimming rodents in our canoe, we’d notice their icky orangey-yellow teeth first, then watch them swim in circles as their flat, leathery tails beat out a warning for us to stay away. Then they’d dive into their log hut in the water, and disappear.

“Busy, busy beavers,” I’d yell out, feeling at one with nature.

My three sisters and I would make beaver-teeth faces at each other and laugh while singing the fifties-era commercial for Ipana toothpaste, whose mascot was Bucky Beaver: “Brusha, brusha, brusha, here’s the new Ipana, brusha, brusha, brusha, it’s gentle to your teeee-f.” We watched “Leave It To Beaver” each week. All of this attesting to our awareness and respect for this seemingly innocuous semiaquatic rodent.

About two months ago, however, as the landscape unfolded under the melting snow, my warm, fuzzy feelings started changing. Waving his binoculars in front of the windows facing the lake, my husband yelled: “Jeez! You’ve got to look at this.”

I grabbed the binoculars and peered out at the forest across the water. “Three trees have fallen over there since YESTERDAY!” my husband bellowed. “That beaver’s got to go.” We walked around the lake to inspect the damage. About 15 trees down, shredded bark all over the ground, like some kind of monster came through the forest and chewed it off at the shins.

Come to think of it, as a child, when we brought the canoe up to the shore of Sunny Lake and trudged back through the woods to our cabin, I remember all those birch trees that were gnawed through, fallen to the forest floor, useless for anything but woodpeckers and little kids who wanted to make miniature canoes out of the bark.

I called Critter Control, hoping to find a humane way to move the animal to a more beaver-friendly locale. “We can get it out of there, and we can move it,” the man told me. “But I’ll tell you the truth–nobody really wants them. They used to be endangered, but now we’ve got an overpopulation.” He also wanted something like $400 to do the job.

On the recommendation of our neighbor–who ice-fishes on our lake and says we have not one, but THREE beavers–we called a beaver trapper. “This guy’s the real deal,” our neighbor said. “He even makes beaver sausage.” I wasn’t interested in eating the creatures, just saving our trees.

We called the trapper, left two urgent messages. He finally returned our calls. He’d hurt his back, he explained, and really wasn’t up to it, anyway. “You know,” he said, “you people move up north and expect to have everything the way it was in the city. That ain’t the way it is out here in the country. The beavers were there first, you know.”

Actually, I think the trees were there before these particular beavers ever appeared on Earth–or in our lake–but he’s right, we don’t really have a claim to what’s out there.

So for now, we’re just watching–leaving it to beaver. Every day, we see a little brown head pop up, the flap of a tail, the glint of a long incisor–and another log floating in the water. We’re watching, and waiting, and hoping that very soon a hungry coyote–make that three coyotes–will discover there’s some very fine dining out our way.

(Originally published in Traverse: Northern Michigan’s Magazine.)