The Pelt Belt

How beavers helped build a nation.

The denizens of Europe and North America have increasingly moved into cities. In Canada, the vast majority of citizens live along the American border. Driving from town to city by automobile, we are surrounded by an ocean of darkness. And as the world of nature fades into our collective rearview mirror, nostalgic books about wild places and wild animals have sprung up to remind us of the world we are leaving behind.

One of these is a recent Canadian book, Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver, by Victoria author and magazine writer Frances Backhouse. The author of five books, including the prize-winning Children of the Klondike, Backhouse is a skilled and personable narrator who guides us on a tour of the long, fond and sometimes lethal relationship we have entertained with this pudgy little rodent.

“Little” of course may not be the right adjective. When people see a beaver for the first time they are usually shocked by its size. Topping out at about 32 kilograms, the adult beaver is the second largest rodent (after the South American capybara) in the world. They are the largest rodents in North America and anyone who accidentally gets between a beaver and the water will testify that they are not to be trifled with. Beavers are avidly hunted by wolves and bears, and the land-bound beaver’s main defence is explosive counterattack. It is an impressive sight to see a furry cannonball charging toward you with clacking teeth, and beavers have been known to kill dogs, wolves and even people.

Nor are they universally loved by people who share their habitat. Although once endangered, beavers are now at peak capacity across much of their range, and they make themselves unpopular by destroying private trees, flooding farmland and tainting water with giardia, the parasite that causes “beaver fever.” Every summer, the TransCanada Highway, our symbol of national unity, gets shut down in places by our other symbol of national unity. Highway engineers will no sooner dynamite the plug than the beavers will be back at work “repairing the damage” that evening. Inexperienced city dwellers may assume that eliminating beavers is a simple matter. (“Can’t you just shoot them or something? They’re so tame.”) But they are not stupid either, and at the sound of the first gunshot they will disappear, emerging much later (coincident with hordes of mosquitoes) to continue their determined work in darkness.

The title of Backhouse’s book refers to the fact that beaver fur was once an extraordinarily valuable raw material for making hats in Europe. Many of us, when we think of a beaver fur hat, mistakenly envision the furry hat worn by generations of northern woodsmen and Sheriff Marge Gunderson in the movie Fargo. But, in fact, the beaver hats that were popular in Europe in past centuries were made of pressed felt, and sported wide brims and stylish crowns to repel rain and express the personality of the affluent wearer. The Eurasian beaver was a distinct species, and demand for beaver fur was so relentless that beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain by the 16th century. They were drastically depleted across much of their range in Europe and Russia, and when early explorers returned from North America in the 1500s with samples of plush beaver pelts, the rush was on. The Hudson Bay Company was formed in 1670 with a distinct ­purpose of exploiting North America’s beaver population, and the rest is history, Canadian ­history.

Backhouse’s book and Beaver, by Rachel Poli­quin, sometimes cover the same ground, but generally they take different approaches and would make good companion reading projects. Poliquin’s book is more of a natural history, an almanac of mythology and amusing anecdotes from the intermingled histories of beavers and humans. Poliquin, like Backhouse, is a British Columbia–based journalist, author and the curator of various natural history exhibits. The publisher of her book is Reaktion books, a British press that hit a homerun in 2014 with H Is for Hawk, a savagely elegiac account by British poet Helen Macdonald of her lifelong infatuation with birds of prey. Reaktion has produced a library of animal books ranging from Albatross to Walrus. (One must expect that Zebra is soon to come.) H is for Hawk must have paid the bills for the whole series and then some, and Beaver is Poli­quin’s worthy contribution.

If Poliquin’s book is a rambling natural history, Backhouse’s is somewhat of a road trip, employing shoe leather reportage to take us back and forth across the continent in search of beavers and beaver people. Backhouse starts her book with a trip to northern Saskatchewan, an area so rich in beavers that it is considered to be the beaver capital of the world. She establishes herself as a protagonist who intends to learn about beavers as she goes along, and this is an effective device as it gives her an opportunity to sort through history and spice up her narrative with little historical gems. Some of the commentary from early naturalists now strikes us as comical. The Jesuit historian Charlevoix, for example, travelled to New France in the early 1720s and reported seeing “sometimes 300 or 400 beavers together in one place, forming a town which might properly be called a little Venice.”

Early observers such as Charlevoix enthused that beavers walked around on their hind legs like little construction workers with bundles of lumber balanced on their shoulders, using their tails as wheelbarrows and trowels to build fabulous multi-chambered palaces in the Canadian wilderness. Charlevoix may have believed that it was easier to do his reporting from the comfort of his lantern-lit study, because his fanciful descriptions call into question whether he ever actually saw a beaver.

Both books also explore our ambivalence about nature. Since human beings first moved indoors and built roofs over their heads, there have been two main streams of philosophical thought about the world outside. Thomas Hobbes, Darwin and modern writers such as Richard Dawkins are often seen as representatives of the unromantic view—the view that nature is a fallen world, “red in tooth and claw,” where the fierce and the strong rule the woods and the weak are hunted for food. The other view is that nature is a sort of Eden from which we have tragically exiled ourselves, a world where “noble savages” once lived in balance and harmony with Nature until white Europeans came along with their muskets and money. Both perspectives are still in sway today, with the added irony that some of the most idealistic lovers of nature are those who, like Charlevoix, may have had little actual exposure to it.

Both books devote attention to Archie Belaney, an Englishman who moved to Canada in 1906 and “went Indian,” adopting the buckskins and braids of an Ojibway woodsman and championing the cause of the beaver and its impending extinction by minions of the fashion industry. Grey Owl travelled to Europe, gave speeches to packed houses and raised awareness of the imperilled wilderness. At the same time he was a loner who found it easier to strike up a friendship with animals rather than his fellow human beings.

Beavers apparently make great animal companions and one 19th-century fur trader reported that his pet beaver would “lie before the fire as contentedly as a dog.” The great HBC explorer Samuel Hearne also enjoyed the company of beavers. During his famous walkabout in the northern wilderness Hearne kept several beavers that came when called and were demonstrably fond of the humans they travelled with. Whenever the Dene women and children were absent for a prolonged period of time, Hearne reported that the beavers exhibited “great signs of uneasiness, and on their return shewed equal marks of pleasure, by fondling on them, crawling into their laps, laying on their backs, sitting erect like the squirrel, and behaving to them like children who see their parents but seldom.”

It would be interesting to poll some school­children and determine how many know that Canada’s first currency was the beaver pelt, and the country’s first government, the Hudson Bay Company, was built almost entirely on the beaver industry. The HBC issued “MB” coins (one Made Beaver was equal the value of one prime beaver pelt) and the coins were common currency for purchasing cookware, clothing, hardware, guns and practically anything else required for easing the challenges of wilderness survival. Unlike the western United States, much of which was open country accessible by horse and on foot, Canada was explored chiefly by canoe, a necessity given that more than half the country is covered with forest, lakes and rivers. Both Backhouse and Poliquin remind us that early explorers were not gathering knowledge for its own sake. They were motivated by profit—that is, the search for fur—and it was due to the never-ending quest for beaver that the landscape was mapped and our country was built.

Unlike proponents of either side of the nature debate, Backhouse shows enough respect for readers to present her experiences and let us decide for ourselves. She is refreshingly nonjudgemental about attending the massive annual fur auction in a warehouse near Toronto’s Pearson airport. Thousands of pelts of animals ranging from red squirrels to black bears are racked for buyers from around the world. She finds the scene appalling, in some ways, but the furs are luxuriant, and she points out that the loss of responsible, sustainable fur trapping and the backwoods culture that went with it are Canadian tragedies. Modern beaver traps kill the animal instantly and fur is arguably a more environmentally friendly material for clothing than petroleum-based fleeces and synthetics. And it is pure fantasy to think that removing the trapper from the landscape extinguishes the threat of violent death from a beaver’s life. As one trapper tells her. “The beaver is going to die an ugly death no matter what. When he can no longer run, outwit or outfight the predator that’s after him … he is going to be turned belly-up and eaten alive. So if he dies in a trap or in a snare or by a bullet, what’s the ­difference?”

Backhouse says she does not “feel qualified” to sit in judgement. “Except for about five years during my twenties, I’ve always eaten meat,” she says, “and although I’ve killed very little of what I’ve consumed, I have bludgeoned fish to death after dragging them from the ocean with barbed hooks … I regularly execute slugs and insects in my vegetable garden … I’ve had qualms about deaths I’ve inflicted or been party to, but I can’t deny them.”

Animals such as beavers and muskrat go through a boom and bust cycle that is driven by overpopulation, disease and overexploitation of habitat. They are tremendously prolific and if a sustainable number are harvested every year the core population can go on indefinitely without crashing. When the beaver population collapses, whether from a natural downturn in the cycle or from over harvesting, the landscape suffers. Poliquin eloquently explains the importance of beavers in healthy landscapes. In the Rocky Mountains, where beaver populations were reduced catastrophically, entire landscapes were changed. Marshes were drained, floodplains dried out and slow-moving rivers grew deeper and faster, accelerating runoff and desiccating the landscape. She says that there is evidence that some early aboriginal groups understood the importance of beavers. On the Great Plains, beavers have always done yeoman work in preserving wetlands and conserving water. Alexander Henry, an English fur trader who travelled with an Ojibway family during the 1760s, noted that certain tribes of the open plains “will not kill a beaver … to enable them to purchase an ax or other European utensil, though beaver are numerous in every stream throughout their country.”

Both authors are obviously fond of the animals and the books are peppered with anecdotes that demonstrate the beaver’s intelligence and personality. Poliquin says researchers have tested the intelligence of beavers by wrapping trees with wire mesh. One night the beavers used branches to build ramps up the trees so they could gnaw above the wire. The researchers further tried to foil the animals by placing pieces of bread on the top of metre-high poles. But again, the beavers built ramps to get the prize.

Poliquin’s book is filled with handsome engravings and historic illustrations, and, although Backhouse’s book has few illustrations, she provides word pictures that are just as entertaining. At one point she wants to watch a beaver work on its dam, but instead it treats her to a grooming display:

Sitting upright like a fat Buddha, with its tail folded under its haunches, it began with downward strokes of its front paws, pressing water from the fur on its chest, belly and sides … The beaver’s skinny little front legs seemed too short to reach all the desired body parts, but it twisted and turned with remarkable flexibility for such a chubby animal. It also scratched vigorously at its head and torso with its hind feet, lying down at one point to get at its back … It was a fine and rather comical display of grooming.

Humanity almost obliterated beavers from the North American landscape, and these books are full of reasons to celebrate their return.