Winter is nearer than summer now. The water is 40 degrees or colder, the leaves have dropped, the last ducks and geese are working their way south — and the beavers are laying in provisions.
Canoeing down the St. Croix on a warm November day, the wide valley is nearly silent. The water is a perfectly flat mirror. The days are short now, and the sun arcs across the sky far to the south so my partner and I paddle directly into it all afternoon.
I occasionally see tangles of branches in the water next to the bank.
It could be easily overlooked as another snag, dead trees that have been caught up by the current here. I see plenty of those, too, but these thick rafts of branches are different. They are wedged against the bank, where sometimes a beaver lodge is visible built against the shore. In other places I can only assume the aquatic rodents have simply burrowed into the bank.
The branches are the beaver family’s winter food supply. They have been working on it for months, with the adults switching in late summer from the work of raising and feeding the spring’s kits to preparing for the subnivean season ahead — the months when they will be trapped in the lodge and under the river ice, everything covered in snow.
They take down small willows and other species growing along the bank, and also larger trees. Once the tree is on the ground, they chew off the branches and usually leave the trunk.
Today, the water is still liquid, and slips quietly along. The river is low like it was almost all summer, and it’s also clear, so the bed a few feet below is often visible. There is another world under the surface of the St. Croix, and I never tire of watching it pass underneath me. I see logs, including some with the sawed off ends that make me wonder if they are logging artifacts. I see mussel shells and fish, weeds and rocks, sand and mud.
Sometimes the bottom races up toward the surface, and from my seat in the stern I rudder, while Slim draws in the bow, and we find our way back to deeper waters.
In the sky above, bald eagles are everywhere. They are in pairs and sometimes in a family of three or four. They seem restless, flying between trees, often screeching and squeaking at each other. In the basalt-walled gorge of the lower Dalles, near Franconia, a pair come swerving downriver, calling and colliding in mid-air, engaged in some disagreement. Or it could be courtship.
It’s a confusing week of a strange year, and it’s good to get away from humanity’s problems. The eagles aren’t worried about the pandemic, the beavers are unaware of the election. Nature’s persistence is endless, and the calm is contagious.
A small flock of mergansers are spooked by a boat motoring upstream, and they streak past us just above the water, their wingtips nearly touching the surface. Later, mallards explode from a backwater bay. The waterfowl are skittish, like they’ve been dodging shotguns pellets their whole journey toward winter waters.
By the time we eat lunch, the shadows are long as the eight o’ clock hour of a summer evening. Sunset seems imminent all afternoon.
The silver maples of the floodplain are leafless and gray. The bluffs are mostly the same, except for red oaks still holding their leaves, and the deep green white pines that jut above the canopy. The golden sunlight tints all of it.
Everything seems to be going to sleep or going south, but winter is actually when the cycle of life begins for some creatures. On the banks, deer are also agitated. We spot one nice buck who stares us down from an island, and a few does bounding through the brush. They will spend the winter gestating the next generation.
Winter is when beavers conceive, with kits born in early spring, and their parents spend the summer caring for them. Fall is the time for anticipation and preparation.
Lodges are reinforced with mud and wood, and food is stored away.
Beavers in the river are different from their lake- and pond-dwelling cousins. These beavers have no hope of damming up the might St. Croix, creating a calm pool where they can store their food. They are also at the mercy of water levels, and a freak flood could wash away their supplies.
So these food caches are no random pile of sticks. They are carefully built to stay put, and also for the favorite foods to stay below the surface, and below the ice.
The rafts of sticks we see are only the tip of the food caches. There are some larger logs on top, and the whole top layer is designed to become waterlogged and sink, pressing the food supplies below down for winter access. Branches shoved into the river mud help hold it fast.
Beavers and other large animals that stay here all year need to be smart to survive, and they need to look ahead at the long-term. And they need to work together.
Several kinds of animals store food for winter, but few do it communally, teaming up to store the food. Beavers are a little like Ojibwe people harvesting wild rice in fall, or homesteaders harvesting crops, canning and drying them for the long, hard months to come.
While the caches we see are substantial, the colony will keep adding to it until the river freezes over. Then they will share it to survive the hungry season.
Another interesting sight along the river banks is a handful of apparently abandoned boats, tied up to shore, no owner to be seen. They actually belong to bow hunters enjoying this public land and seeking the whitetails who call it home. Soon the gun season will start, and there will be splashes of blaze orange along the bluffs like a late-blooming flower of an unnatural color.
Toward the end of the float, something large splashed in the water. I saw only the last bit of it, and it was either a large fish or a beaver. It was probably a beaver. I’ll believe it was a beaver.
We aren’t paddling at the moment, and the water is perfectly flat. The ripples caused by the splash reaches us a moment later, and we bob ever so slightly on the gentle waves.
The sun soon makes good on its threat to dip behind the bluffs, and the shadows are immediately cool. The warm temperature during the day had been deceiving, but the wildlife we saw clearly knew the season.
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