A COZY ROOM
Once the water level has been established the beavers build a lodge, a rough mound of logs and mud with an underwater entrance and a cozy room inside above the water level. Nearby they pile up a store of logs and branches as a food supply against the coming winter. This is why a constant water level is important to the beavers. If it rises it will flood them out of their home. If it drops, their food supply will become frozen and snow-covered and they will starve. This is the very thing that makes them vulnerable in the current campaign. If the rangers can prevent the beavers from maintaining that water level the beavers will eventually go away and build, somewhere else.
When a beaver lake is deserted the dam eventually breaks and the water drains off, leaving an open area in the forest where the soil has been enriched by silting. Saplings spring up and grow into trees nourished by the rich soil. The result is that the forest on the site of an old beaver meadow is richer and finer than before. This cycle is all very well in an uninhabited wilderness, but when the area is heavily used by people there is bound to be a conflict as the cycle progresses. This is the basis of the trouble in Gatineau Park.
The estimated total number of descendants of those original 17 beavers is 7,000. Most of these have spread over the surrounding countryside with the result that two years ago the Quebec government declared open season on beavers the year round. In the 52,000 acres of the park owned by the FDC the beaver population was 1,024 when the trapping season ended last December 1. During the season the FDC's rangers trapped 70, but the catch in the entire Gatineau Park area, including those trapped by farmers and others to protect roads and crops, was about 300.
Beavers are trapped in the park only when their operations become an absolute menace. But they can become a menace rather easily, for beaver work is done on an astonishing scale. Ranger Scott can take you to well-engineered beaver dams holding back lakes up to 35 acres in extent. Furthermore, since these engineers of the animal world build their dam to maintain an exact water level, they will leave no log unmoved in order to keep the level. This has led to a strange struggle between man and beast.
When the beavers build a dam in a threatening location the rangers tear a hole in the structure each day. They can't tear down the dam entirely because a flood would result and, besides, the beavers would only build it right back again. Their scheme is to tear down a little more than the beavers can rebuild in one night. Sometimes the two-sided project goes on for several weeks, with the rangers tearing down in the daytime and the beavers building up at night.
For the beavers it is a losing battle. Eventually they give up and move to some other stream. If they build their dam where it will cause no harm they are left alone.
"That's what the rangers want them to do," says Park Superintendent Robert Elwood Edey. "They would much rather drive them away than kill them. We like beavers."
But if the critters keep moving to bad spots they eventually have to be trapped. At present the trapping is done only in the autumn. But more and more sectors are becoming danger spots as more roads and cottages are built for the summer pleasure of Ottawans. As many as 13,500 persons drive through the park on a nice weekend. While tourist numbers are increasing, so are beaver numbers, and so many dams will be built that the rangers won't be able to tear them down. Park officials fear that it may be necessary to trap beavers from spring through autumn.
Abandoned beaver ponds are particularly hazardous. After creating a pond the beavers will use it for five years or so. When the surrounding trees have been cut for food and to repair the dam, and when the pond has become silted, they move away and build a new dam somewhere else. Without the furry repairmen on hand the dam weakens, suddenly breaks and causes a flood which can do heavy damage. In 1957 one of the main roads of the park was washed out in this manner. Last year, east of Ottawa and outside the park, a lumber company's train struck a 50-foot washout and was derailed, injuring 25 lumbermen. It was the biggest piece of beaver mischief of the year.