Outdoors North: Search for beaver tops long day

A young beaver kit, left, moves alongside its mother on a recent evening on an Upper Peninsula lake. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

“Do you care what’s happening around you; do your senses know the changes when they come.” — John Denver

Kicking my boot heels along the soggy dirt road, I came to a place that evening where the sunlight was bright in my eyes, blocking out much of the visual scene.

But through the trees that stood alongside a sweeping wetland, the sounds of the marsh came rushing, including the conk-la-ree of red-winged blackbirds, song sparrows and the signature dunk-a-doo water-pump sound of an American bittern.

Nearby, that bright sunlight had reached the far section of a small vernal pond, which was still and shadowed. Around its sides, trees stood naked and wrinkled, still without new leaves of the season.

On a muck-covered log laying across the surface of the water, the sunlight had caught the attention of a handful of painted turtles. In all, there were eight or nine of these old childhood friends of mine there.

Some sat facing each other, others pointed their noses in either direction off the side of the log. All but one of them slipped into the water when I approached. The one that remained looked old at first, with cracks across the top of its shell.

However, closer inspection revealed the presumed cracks to instead be dried, tan pieces of long marsh grass.

He looked at me. I looked at him.

I continued my looking and listening, sniffing the air and feeling the temperature of the evening beginning to dip. The turtle remained on the log.

A little farther down the dirt road, I came across some tracks in the mud made recently by a young moose. Unfortunately, the tracks weren’t fresh enough to anticipate a glimpse of the mighty animal.

This had been a challenging day and I was worn out. I had retreated to the woods for some communion with nature — my medicine.

The sights I had seen to this point had brought some inspiration and solace, but the sack full of the weight of the day still hung over my shoulder like Santa’s big bag of toys.

No wonder he needs a sleigh.

With the evening drifting down like a feather, I drove along the shore of the lake, with slick shades of blues and greens, and silver and black, dropped all over the surface of the moving water.

A quick glance out the passenger side window brought me the sight of four dark, oddly shaped humps on the edge of a sandy beach, inside a small cove. I had also noticed a skinned branch or two lying in the sand.

The bare branches made me think these humps might very well be beavers.

I pulled onto the shoulder of the road and got out, softly shutting the door, approaching as quietly as I could. I walked along the pavement, rather than crunching the gravel of the road shoulder under my boots.

As I peeked around a small pine tree, the four dark furry humps began heading into the water. They were indeed beavers. In fact, it was an adult female and three kits out feeding and playing.

In general, young beavers leave their lodge of sticks and mud after their first year. Their mothers usually stay with them for a year before the kits leave home for good to mate, dam and build a new lodge of their own.

While the adult female is tending to her young kits, the father of the offspring defends the beavers’ territory, which is situated around their dam and home.

I walked closer to the shoreline. The young kits were slapping their tails hard on top of the water and flipping under the surface, alerting each other to danger and trying to warn me away.

I sat on a rock in the grass and just watched. The young beavers began swimming away from where I sat, about 10 feet from the water’s edge. They then circled back to get another look, this time closer.

As they did this, the female remained still, afloat nearby, stretched out like a brown moss-covered tree trunk. Two of the three kits continued to slap their tails on the water, while the third seemed unaffected, like that last painted turtle on the log.

All this time, I continued to sit quietly with my camera in my hands, my index finger on the on/off switch. In the process of swimming in circles, the kits would individually swim up to their mother, making little sounds.

The kits would also swim toward each other until they got face to face. They would then turn away and make another circle. As time passed, the kits also dove under the water without tail slaps, resurfacing a short distance away.

After a few minutes of my silent watching and sitting still, the female beaver turned and began to swim toward the shore. Once there, she picked up a partially-skinned log, chewing it noisily.

The young beavers soon slowly joined her, taking up places along the beach like they had been before. They each worked small maple branches into their mouths with their paws. They paused to scratch themselves along the belly and sides.

In a little while longer, the female beaver moved out into the deeper water. She turned around to watch the wider part of the lake while the kits continued to chew, chew, chew.

Suddenly, she slapped her big tail on the water and the kits abandoned the beach and swam toward her in the water, the tree limbs still in their mouths, still chewing.

The female then turned and again headed back to shore. Two of the kits followed, the third — the unaffected wanderer — moved out along the beach and around a rocky point, out of sight. Surprisingly, the female seemed unconcerned.

About 15 or 20 minutes later, with still no return of the wandering pup, his mother headed around the point herself, leaving the kits chewing along the beach. At this point, I knew she no longer saw my presence as a threat.

A noise soon came from the brush along the shoreline, up the beach from the point. The rustling got louder. The female beaver then appeared at the edge of the rocks.

She slid into the water, dragging with her a budding maple branch about 5 feet long. She swam toward the two kits on the beach and they met her on the way, chewing off sections of the branch before they made it back to shore.

The three beavers continued to chomp, the kits making quiet yipping sounds.

Then, without any fanfare, the wanderer appeared suddenly in the waters about 40 yards offshore. The kit swam back and joined the others but was in no mood to eat.

Instead, the young beaver took up watch as the other three remained at the water’s edge. The beavers allowed me to move closer to get a few more photographs.

Before I left, I thanked them for the opportunity to share part of the evening with them. The cares and frustrations of my day had washed away, like water off a beaver kit’s back. I felt grateful for this wonderful glimpse of nature — so close at hand.

I must have sat there close to an hour watching those beavers, the skies filled with the sounds of crying loons in the distance and occasionally, the rattling of a car passing by along the blacktopped road.

That old Van Camp’s pork and beans commercial was right, “life’s simple pleasures are the best.”

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.