Original Published on Sep 02, 2022 at 09:24

By Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Beautiful busy beavers, which are actually large, semiaquatic rodents, are no strangers to the Columbia River Basin and have been here for centuries. Females are heavier than males, weighing up to 70 pounds on average, but records show some weighing up to 100 pounds. The beaver is the world’s second-largest living rodent next to the South American capybaras, with two distinct species, the Eurasian and the North American. The latter is the beaver we see on the breathtaking unceded territories of the Secwépemc and Ktunaxa peoples and the land chosen as home by the Métis peoples in the Columbia Valley. 

With rivers, creeks and lakes being their favourite and best-suited habitat, they, too, find it the perfect place to call home. With the ability to swim under ice, these restless rodents stay active all year round. Beavers live off the land and, in addition to sinking their teeth into woody trees and plants, these herbivores also love myriad vegetation, including apples, water lilies, clover, ragweed, cattails, watercress and so much more.

While they are not predators, beavers have many, with their top five in the Columbia River Basin being bears, coyotes, wolves, lynx, and wolverines. A group of beavers is called a colony. Well-furred and round, they are also known for their beady eyes, small ears, webbed hind feet and orange protruding teeth, but their most impressive feature is their flat leathery tail that acts as a rudder when swimming. 

Their double-thick fur and pelts were a hot commodity during the fur trade, which lasted 200-plus years. Their waterproof fur was used to make the finest top hats of the 1800s, including those worn by President Abraham Lincoln, and pelts would sell for 6.6 shillings. Before the fur trade, between 40- to 60-million beavers inhabited the Columbia River. It was a huge hub for the fur trade, which lasted nearly 250 years and wiped-out massive populations of beavers. Today, beavers are back in business and their population is strong and flourishing. In fact, with so many beavers building, there has become an overlap in beaver and human design in nature.

Giving a dam

With their strong and agile hand-like front paws, beavers are second to humans with the ability to completely alter their surroundings. The fingers on these industrious creatures allows them the ability to exploit all sorts of building materials, making them nature’s perfect engineers. Using mud, rocks, branches, twigs and even entire logs, beavers build their lodges and dams. In fact, once finding a locale they want to settle in, beavers will build dams before they build their lodges. They will build several dams along waterways that can range anywhere from five to eight feet deep and run up to 15 feet in length. A couple of the many reasons they build dams is to make a home for their future family and to ensure water on the other side is deep enough to prevent it from freezing solid come winter. In 2007, a satellite discovered a dam that was constructed nearly 30 years ago. It is 2,500 feet in length and has been regularly maintained by 14 different beaver colonies.

 Leave it to beaver

When it comes to love, we could learn a thing or two from beavers. Known for their happy and playful courtship, they mate for life. The gestation period for beavers lasts up to 105 days and the moms’ birth three to five kits during spring. Kits will stay with their parents up to three years before venturing off on their own. Let’s look at a couple of fun facts about beavers. They eat their own poop, gross but true. They pass it through their guts a second time to extract even more of the excrement’s vitamins and nutrients. Beavers secrete a brownish slime as thick as molasses out of their castor sacs, which are located under their tails. It smells like vanilla and is sometimes used in the making of artificial vanilla flavouring. Beavers are fascinating creatures with too many interesting facts and myths to cover. In Indigenous cultures, the beaver teaches one how to be persistent, productive, and not limit their options — a perfect message as a new school year begins for students young and old.

Fur Trade in Canada and British Columbia: The beaver pelt and fur fashion craze

By Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Canada was built on the fur trade, and it all started because of a European fashion craze and the desire to wear felt hats made from beaver fur. It was adjunct to the fishing industry in the 16th century that the fur trade first reared its head and wide-brimmed beaver felt hats were a must-have. The biggest European players at the time were the French, who would give Indigenous people from myriad First Nations European goods in exchange for warm and waterproof beaver pelts. Other animal hides and furs, including moose and otter, were also traded, but beaver pelts were the hottest commodity.

The fur trade first got its slow start at the beginning of the 1600s near what is now Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The first successful fur trade post was built by Montreal-based fur trader Thomas Frobisher in 1776 at Île-à-la-Crosse, the second oldest community in what is now northwestern Saskatchewan. The next to follow in his footsteps was Alexander Mackenzie, who made his first voyage into eastern parts of Canada in 1785. On May 9, 1793, Mackenzie set off a second time with nine men and a dog. On this adventure was the first to enter the area of what is now British Columbia, crossing the Rocky Mountains and reaching the Fraser River just over a month later, by June 17. The Secwépemc (Shuswap) people advised that the Fraser would be too difficult to navigate. Alexander instead took the overland route that was suggested to him.

It was around that time another river in British Columbia was being explored. On his second expedition around the world, Boston fur trader Robert Gray sailed into a waterway he named the Columbia River on May 11, 1792. He named the river after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva, which translates to Columbia Triumphant. When Gray sailed his ship into the regions of the unceded territories of the Secwépemc and Ktunaxa peoples, it was inhabited by more than 100,000 First Nations inhabitants. On that expedition, Gray only stayed for nine days, trading pelts with the area’s First Nations before moving on to China to do the same.

It was also around that time the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) begun making a name for itself. Just after the HBC extended its trade though to the Saskatchewan River and Lake Athabasca area, a young 14-year-old David Thompson found himself starting as an apprentice clerk.  His duties quickly grew and soon included hunting animals, establishing new posts, and writing and compiling accounts and journals for the company. Thompson was essential in expanding the North West Company’s fur-trading network through the Rocky Mountains and to the West Coast. By the early 1800s, Thompson had travelled into the Kootenays. By 1821, HBC and the North West Company had merged, retaining the Hudson’s Bay Company name.

Before the colonization of British Columbia, the fur trade was considered a transitional stage. The Columbia River in B.C., like many other Canadian waterways, was a main hub for trading beaver pelts and First Nations were able to retain control over their resource and lands, with peaceful relations between Europeans and Indigenous people fostered. The French that would come to trade with First Nations would often take Indigenous women to be their wives. Over time, this evolved into what we know now as Métis people. 

The fur trade lasted nearly 250 years in Canada. In each of those years, nearly 100-million animals were bred and killed on intensive fur farms to supply the demand of the rising fur- fashion industry. 

This item reprinted with permission from   Columbia Valley Pioneer   Invermere, British Columbia
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