I’m in love with water. Particularly water that babbles over beaver dams in the summer, ripples with the startled flight of a mallard in the fall, clinks with breaking ice in the winter and rages in muddy madness in the spring runoff. This is my Michigan River, shrouded with dense stands of yellow, red and ochre willows, looping through flooded expanses of marsh with more curves than a Chinese acrobat.
A river in name only, the Michigan would more properly be considered a brook if it were tumbling down the Appalachian mountains. You mustn’t think of rivers like the Mississippi or Rio Grande when you think of the Michigan, because generally it’s not more than 15 feet wide and is only deep when melting snow swells the channel. Except, of course, for the ponds that build up behind the beaver dams.
One summer morning on my way to check the horses, I saw a large cow moose emerging from the willows next to one such pond. I’ve sighted moose hundreds of times, and I still stop every time I see one. Expecting this one to bolt back from whence she came, I was delighted to see her daintily enter the water instead. She minced in, bringing to mind a 1920s bathing beauty unhappy with the water’s temperature. The river was at its annual summer low, shallow enough in many places for me to walk across without water seeping in my shoe tops.
“OK,” I thought. “She’s going to walk to the other side.” It took no more than four steps–which, being a moose, covered a lot of ground– for her to prove me wrong. She wasn’t walking. She was swimming. A six-foot tall moose completely submerged in a beaver pond, the dam for which spanned a river no more than 6 inches deep.
Normally, beavers are the bane of a rancher’s existence, because they build their dams in culverts and ditches. Any beaver with even rudimentary ability can dam a culvert in one night. Any competent rancher can tear that dam out in a morning. And so goes the dance, day and night, build and destroy, till one of them gives up. Usually the beaver.
Having spent countless hours with my arms submerged in frigid water opening up beaver dams, I can personally attest to what marvels of engineering they are. These are not simple piles of sticks. They’re a woven meshwork of willow and aspen, generously stuffed with rocks that the beavers carry down to the water on their tails, the whole sauced with a juicy mud dressing. This work of staggering genius is a major inconvenience to the rancher who needs his ditches and culverts free and clear to move water around his land, rather than oozing into swampy riparian mud.
We liked our beaver ponds. They dotted the Michigan like a string of pearls. And just like pearls, our dams had great value. One summer during the worst drought in memory, they became the neighborhood bar, providing drinking water for, and saving the lives of, a host of animals we normally never saw. During warm spells in winter, when ice plates clung to the river banks, I watched river otters fishing the eddies next to the dams, slithering under the ice shelves, then sliding gracefully onto an ice platform to gulp down trout.
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