The beaver is Canada’s national animal: it appeared on the first postage stamp issued by the colony in 1851, and now features on the back of the 5¢ piece. There was nothing sentimental about this choice – beaver pelts kick-started the colonial economy – and only recently has the beaver been treated with some restraint and protected from being indiscriminately polished off.
Beavers are aquatic rodents, growing to around 75cm in length and weighing about 35kg. Aboriginal peoples hunted the beaver for its thick, soft pelt, composed of long guard hairs and a dense undercoat, to use for clothing. In the seventeenth century. European fur traders realized the value of beaver pelts, particularly in the manufacture of the all-weather, all-purpose hat worn by every man of any substance. To keep up with demand the beaver was extensively trapped, and the French voyageurs pushed further and further west along the lake and river systems in pursuit of the animal, thereby opening up much of the interior. The beaver was hunted to the point of extinction in much of eastern Canada, but had a reprieve when the beaver hat went out of fashion in the late nineteenth century; today beavers are comparatively commonplace.
Beavers start to build their dams, which can be up to 700m wide, by strategically felling one tree across a stream. This catches silt and driftwood and the beaver then reinforces the barrier with sticks and stones plus grass and mud, which is laboriously smoothed-in as a binding element. The lodge is constructed simultaneously; sometimes it forms part of the dam and sometimes it is fixed to the shore or an island in the pond. It is about 2m in diameter and has two entrances – one accessible from land and one from underwater – both for its own convenience and to be able to escape predators in any emergency, along with a lot of tail slapping to give the alarm. Lodges are topped with grass thatch and a good layer of mud, which freezes in winter, making them virtually impenetrable. During the autumn, the beaver stocks its pond with the soft-bark trees and saplings that make up its diet. It drags them below the water line and anchors them to the mud at the bottom before retiring to the lodge for the winter, only emerging to get food from the pond or repair the dam. Beaver lakes are not the tree-fringed paradises portrayed by some nature-film makers; nearer the mark is a mud-banked pond, surrounded by untidily felled trees and with a bedraggled-looking domed heap of sticks and sludge somewhere along its banks.