Who Will Speak for the Animals?
In the midst of the forest, deep in the sandy bank of the Big East River, a family stirred. The father was getting ready to dive into the tunnel that lead from his home to the black water flowing swiftly under the ice. The little kits slept near their mother in the den he had built last spring. Nearly at the end of winter, it was time to get new brush for food. The branches of willow stowed under the water on the river bed were nearly gone.
Papa Beaver slid down the tunnel and swam through the dark water, heading towards an opening in the ice near the bank. Where the sun had melted the snow, he climbed out of the water. His large brown body, black paddle-like tail, and slick fur gleamed. Climbing up the bank, he headed to the aspen trees in the forest above. After chewing off some branches, he returned down the steep side of the riverbank. Branches in tow, he re-entered the water, and instantly disappeared beneath the surface of the water. Moments later, he reappeared, a round brown mound rising out of the river to ascend the bank once again.
A smaller beaver, the mother, poked her head through the small pool near the bank and then pulled the rest of her body onto the ice shelf. She was cautious and didn’t venture up the bank like her mate, but stayed close to the water. Now that the ice was breaking up, she was enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. It had been a long winter.
Up and down the bank, Papa Beaver went, carrying mouthfuls of branches. His trek had created a muddy path. On his downward descents, he would slide in the mud. Industrious, tireless, he worked until dusk and then disappeared under the water.
It was spring but because it had been a hard winter, snow lay deep in the parkland surrounding the beavers' bank-side den. The sun was now melting the snow. Every day the open pool of water near the den grew bigger. In the afternoon, on the sunny side of the river, Papa Beaver would appear to work, to repair his home and bring fresh food to his family.
This winter there hadn’t been many signs of wildlife. Surprisingly there were no deer about and very few birds, only a few woodpeckers giving themselves away by their tap-tapping, and an occasional squirrel. Walking down the quiet road we would see animal tracks. Wolf tracks, we imagined, which we confirmed later in a book we had bought. Algonquin Park, with one of the healthiest wolf populations not far away, this was a possibility. We never saw a wolf, but I looked for signs whenever I went walking.
It was a delight when the family of beavers showed up. Looking towards the river one day, a large, dark brown shape on the opposite river bank caught my attention. I raced to find binoculars. After that first sighting we all gathered to watch the beaver and his family from our living room. Almost daily at 2:30 in the afternoon they would appear. We refrained from traipsing behind our house by the stream to leave them undisturbed. We did not wish them to leave.
A beaver in the wild, like all animals, has challenges. There is always a predator to worry about. When this beaver, our neighbor, made his way up the riverbank to gather branches, he had to be wary. Was there a wolf or coyote watching him as he climbed? Would a human surprise him before he could slide beneath the ice, to the safety of his burrow?
We stayed out of their way and felt lucky to observe them so closely. Two weeks of observation passed quickly. The snow, heavier everyday with the strengthening sun, receded from the bank. Our rented house, with the cathedral windows looking towards the river, sat on land that was part of the Big East’s flood plain. It usually flooded during the spring thaw. Cottagers built here at their own risk. About ten kilometers outside of Huntsville, our road followed the river, separated from it by low sandy ground on which birch and pine trees grew. It had a backwoods feel and there were real cabins, not McMansions as there are in many parts of Muskoka. Few people lived here year round. In summer the cottagers came to enjoy the stream and its sandy banks. Across from Arrowhead Park, a woodsy silence reigned. In the spring, before the summer folk came, the beavers were quite safe and protected.
We had grown fond of this beaver family and loved watching the big male beaver working away every afternoon. Then, the time came for me to catch a VIA Rail train back to Saskatoon, in order to sell our house. The day before my scheduled train, I walked behind the house to say good-bye to the woods I had come to love. Turning the corner of the house I came face to face with big Mr. Beaver. There he was, standing upright, balanced by his black paddle of a tail, chewing on a branch, looking at me. I gazed into his eyes for what seemed a long time, both of us still and peaceful. I think that he knew that I had come to say good-bye. I felt that he knew the joy we had experienced as we watched him work. He knew that we had been respectful in leaving his family undisturbed. I said good-bye as I saw him for the final time drop down into the black, flowing water.
The forecast for a spring flood, if all conditions were present, was that an unprecedented flooding event could occur. Driving to Parry Sound in the middle of the night to catch a 2:30 AM train, my husband and I discussed the situation. He had already found another house for the summer for our family. He didn't realize at the time how prudent it was that he had. With a hike in the temperature combined with days of rain, with the the snow melting all at once the floodplain would be overwhelmed. I left a week before these conditions actually transpired.
I arrived two days later. Saskatoon was draped in thick drifts of snow and I was chilled to the bone. It felt like January, not March, more winter than the spring that was just coming to Ontario. I stepped out of the train into a stiff wind, the snow whipping past me. My gloves were packed in my suitcase and I regretted that I hadn’t dug them out.
Over the next while, as I settled in, I phoned my sons and husband to see how they were. I also asked if the river was rising, and what the beaver family was up to. Both humans and animals existed in my heart and thoughts every day.
About a week later, while I was on the phone with my second eldest son, he answered a knock on the door. I could hear him say, “Hello.”
“Hello,” an urgent voice answered.
“I’m your neighbor. You’re going to have to move your car to higher ground. The river’s going to cut you off when it covers the road.”
“What’s going on?” I fearfully asked my son over the phone.
“Thanks. Ok, good-bye,” I could hear him say.
“Hey honey-you need to get out of there,” I told him helplessly. He admitted that since their Dad had left for work that morning, the river had run up the backyard, filling in the low ground to the left of the house. It was approaching the living room windows.
Looking at the rising flood, he said, “Hey, Dad’s at work. I’ve got to get busy. I’ll talk to you later,” and hung up. I imagined the scene, wishing him godspeed from across the country. Later, I heard the tale of how my sons had thrown essentials into the van, loading it to capacity, and driven out on a road already covered by a foot of water. My family moved into the new house a few weeks before expected. It continued to rain for two more days.
By the time the damage was assessed, it was determined that flood records had been broken on the Big East River. Newspapers showed pictures of residents in boats going to check on their properties. Downtown Huntsville was also flooded. It was on the national news.
My family had left in the nick of time. Luckily for the owners of our rental house, it had sat up high enough on a rise so that it escaped much damage, though the river had pushed a heavy shed way off of its concrete base and the basement was full to the top with water.
What had become of the beavers, I wondered? The force of the water had scoured the river banks. Nothing remained on them. Water marked trees and houses at an amazing height. The river had risen twenty-two feet.
I didn’t see this until I returned in June, after our house in Saskatoon had sold. When I got back to look, I saw nothing indicating the beavers survived the raging flood. A silent, sandy bank void of vegetation remained.
What caused such a great flood? Yes, the triple threat of days of rain, warm temperatures, and melting snow pack, but amongst the cottagers, something else was being mentioned. They said it guardedly. Most people in Muskoka, I have found, are careful not to criticize their leaders openly. From experiencing reprisals, I wonder, or because they can never get politicians to do anything good for them so why bother?
Asking questions of my neighbors and of new acquaintances I discovered some bad feelings amongst them. I found out that when the town built the Summit Center at the time of the G-8 the authorities gave the builders permission to dump the excavated gravel into the hollows along the Big East, rather than drive it a longer distance to the regular dump. Those natural hollows usually could handle a lot of the spring runoff. This year they couldn’t, having been filled in. Those whose houses were built near the Big East River got hit hard by the flooding. People here resented that the expense surrounding the G-8 saddled Huntsville with a ten million dollar bill. Not only people, I thought, thinking of the beaver family.
What hasn’t been publicly discussed in our town is the illegal dumping, which contributed to the severity of the flood.
Canada really has become a country on the skids. Politicians claim innocence and distance themselves from their actions, not thinking of the consequences for future generations. They disregard scientific evidence, and show no remorse when bad things happen. Most don’t seem to have any respect for the natural world, especially the animal one. This is the Canada I have come to know. It is being run like a pirate ship and the way it’s going, the ship is going to run aground, bashed to pieces and stranded on the rocks.
Who will speak for the animals?
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