I'll be Dammed

It is that time of year again, when the spring rains cause their massive flooding and erosion. The rains of March 2008 pale just slightly in comparison to the largest and most destructive floods of last year, when traffic needed re-routing from impassible roadways; the fire departments were busy pumping out basements; and people and animals were displaced from their lodgings. Still we are better off here, in the Northeast, than others that live in other parts of the country and must endure far more tragic natural disasters.

The Little Wappingers Creek rose an estimated 12 to 15 feet above normal, spilling over the banks, once again pushing over trees and tearing the grass from the soil. It is as though the creek vomited onto the land, heaving rocks and pea gravel, where there once were grassy tussocks, reeds, and wild cardinal flowers. As the waters recede, they leave an eerie reminder of their power. Just over my head, clusters of leaves and twigs, covered in a grayish powdery residue, are hung up in the trees forming what look like huge nests.

The fallen trees, bark, and leaves that would naturally decompose and create the duff of the forest floor is vital for seeds to sprout, take root, and maintain moisture. All of that has been swept away completely, leaving the fertile silt exposed and vulnerable. I am truly alarmed that there is nothing left to hold the soil in place. I know that in a matter of weeks, with more rains imminent, the precious dirt will be washed to the mouth of the Hudson River. The usual calm of the creek's waters is often transformed into world class white water at this time of year. It actually has a roar of its own. I think about the possibilities of a child or pet being washed away, and shudder at the thought.

Early spring is when my contemplative "beachcombing" along the banks of the creek begin. It'll take the whole rest of the summer to pick up all the broken glass, horseshoes, lawnmowers, gun shell casings, pieces of crockery, garbage pails, basketballs, parts of old stoves, bathroom tiles, or pieces of a kitchen floor. Budweiser always takes the prize for the most consistent deposits and is the main source of my disgusted regard for careless polluters.

Nothing I collect is of any value, but still I search for treasures. My eyes sweep back and forth among the stones looking for the particular facets of an arrowhead, some remnant of the Revolutionary War, or maybe even the finger bone from some unsolved murder mystery from many years past. At different times of the day the sun reflects the pieces of glass that I missed the day before. Although it makes me sad to see all the debris, the act of picking it up and sifting through it is quite addicting, and yes, as relaxing as gathering shells along the seashore. I have thought about asking neighbors to beachcomb and collectively bring together our findings for an art project, to bring about awareness of careless littering. Wouldn't that be fun and informative!

Although I insist that the experiences in nature are profound, not all of them are pleasant, and some border on horrific. It was a few years ago, after the floods, that I visited my favorite spot of repose, where the remnants of an old mill are now reduced to a pile of rocks that get pushed further and further downstream each year to form a waterfall. Just as the coastal shorelines deposit beach one year, and take it away the next, we must respect the will of nature and know that we are powerless to change it. This year the falls formed a yin yang symbol, last year they were in the shape of a horseshoe. It was a day in early March, and with the debris from the floods still gathered on those rocks, I was about to receive one of the great shocks of my life.

When you visit a spot outdoors everyday, you unconsciously know what is usual and what
is not. As the waters receded just enough, the frozen deposits that hung up in the rocks seemed to
become larger, as they stood up and out of the water. I made note of a big mound in the middle of the rubble. Over the course of a few days, as the leaves washed away and some of the stick nests broke apart, I was sure there was something solid underneath it all. It was just far enough to be out of reach, the water was icy cold, and the current was still swift enough to keep caution in mind. After waiting to see what would be revealed, I could see patches of pink and I knew I was looking at something that was once alive. I was sure it was pink flesh, and it looked to weigh at least 20 pounds.

I immediately became uneasy. I had that queasy feeling in my stomach. This could not be good. Was it possible that one of my worst fears was about to be discovered? Let it not be so! What living form could have come to such a tragic end?

When I was sure that I was looking at flesh, I sprung into action. I grabbed a discarded sapling about 15 feet long and tried to reach it. My husband was away on his annual ski trip and I was alone with no one to hear me or help me should this turn out to be the recovery of a body or if I hurt myself in the process. Nevertheless, with trial and error I consistently poked at the mound, in attempts to dislodge it. My stick snapped off from the pressure. Slowly I got the debris loosened. In my naivete I was sure that what I was looking at was in fact a small but bloated child (or a piglet). My heart was pounding, and I could barely breathe as I worked diligently to turn it over.

The mass was so waterlogged that it was quite heavy and my second pole snapped in attempts to turn it over. I thought about jumping in, but also knew I had nine minutes in the cold water should I fall or get swept away. Finally with a new pole to use as leverage I was able to pry it loose, turning it over. Ever so slowly, still convinced it was a human body, I was able to bring it around. I then saw the three short legs with webbed feet and claws. One front leg was completely chopped off. As I gently rolled it over for full inspection, I saw the big yellow teeth long grown over and the leathery tail of a beaver. Ohhhh, awe and sadness!

Relieved that it wasn't human, it was still unsettling to discover its probable fate. Obviously the animal had been in a trap, and chewed its own leg off. It had been in the water for so long that all of its hair had come off. I rolled the poor thing over the rocks and let the fast current take it downstream, perhaps to feed the large snapping turtles later that spring.

I was appalled to learn that trapping still exists. Trapping is an understood necessity for farmers, when beavers make dams that flood their pastures, but who wears a beaver hat anymore! I thought about the fact that New York City, the greatest city in the world, was founded on the fur trade. The Waldorf-Astoria and the Empire State Building were built from the wealth amassed by the likes of John Jacob Astor, from the pelts of beavers.

It was just last year that we realized we had a beaver problem. We had seen evidence of their
existence years before upon discovering an old gray stump in the shape of a pencil, and thought it to be "very cool." Wow! There were once beaver on our creek. (Well, duh!) Soon the warm fuzzies changed to dismay as not one, but eighteen of our trees along the creek were felled during the course of last summer. Once, sitting in my secret spot (a viewing blind I constructed out of dead tree branches), the beaver swam right by me, unaware of my presence. He owned the creek! I was rather envious. We resorted to putting chicken wire around some of our favorite trees. With so many of them already gone, the erosion problem along the banks became worse. Our beaver became less affectionately known to us as “that little +%#@'er.” (Little stinker?) Why our spot!? With the whole entire creek to forage over, why our spot? Where did he come from and where was he going with our trees?

On Sundays we often take a ride about town and its outskirts, to explore a road less traveled. We drove out to the northwest end of Schoolhouse Road, the source of a tributary to Little Wappingers Creek, to discover beaver world, a huge wetlands area with many haunted dead trees and beaver lodges galore. Ah-haaa! Of course I had jumped on the Internet to learn all I can about beavers, and how not to confuse a beaver lodge with that of the muskrat that shares the creek, and whose den consists of smaller branches than that of the beaver.

This season we have seen further evidence of the beavers' claim to Little Wappingers Creek. Down off the southern end of Clinton Hollow Road, I noticed a mound amassing. I kept my eye on it over the days and weeks, and thought at first it was that of a muskrat. But at the highest level of the flood stage it was revealed to us that, in fact, it was a beaver lodge. Right on the very top of the waterlogged mound were mama, papa, and three plump pups, looking totally perplexed and displaced, but ready to get to work to save their home. Their fur in the sunlight was a beautiful deep red. Now that the water levels have lowered, more of the lodge is visible with an obvious back entrance. They are so brilliant in their construction. They are a traffic stopper for all of us who know they are there.

Thank goodness they have moved downstream!

Facts:

Live up to 12 years.
Can fell a 10” tree in under 2 minutes.
Feed solely on the bark and branches of trees. .
Mate for life.
Can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes.
Are active from dusk to dawn
Must chew perpetually to keep their teeth filed.
Keep constant upkeep of the lodge.
Slap their tail in the water to warn off enemies.

Folklore:

Beavers are known as the Keeper of Dreams.

Do you become lost in your dreams or do you act on them?

When you see a beaver, know that it is time
to take action.

Take good care of your own lodging, and dream big!

(Folklore by Ted Andrews, Animal Speak, Llewellyn Publishing)



Pat Laine is an 8 year resident of Clinton. She owns and operates Little Creek Therapeutic Massage. She shares her home with her husband Will and their two Maine Coon cats. Whether walking in the woods, or from their vantage point overlooking Little Wappingers Creek and its environs, they observe the miracles of wildlife and plant life on a daily basis.


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