Home      About Dan      News      Books      Forum      Art      Writing Well


March 4, 2001 "VOICES" Column for THE DENVER POST

by Dan Simmons

"Oh, wow, we have beaver living on the property," I said six years ago when we bought Windwalker, a mountain cabin with 118 acres surrounded by national forest near Allenspark. "Neat!"

Within a year I would be stalking the creatures through the night with a .410-gauge shotgun, twitching and muttering to myself.

Before sending those letters, please understand that if I am any sort of "ist," it is conservationist. For more than a dozen years I taught sixth-graders environmental science at Eco-Week at Camp St. Malo just down the road from Windwalker, preaching the importance of ecological succession, emphasizing the beavers' role in the scheme of things. I owned two – not one, but two -- copies of Enos Mills's In Beaver World.

But these . . . these damned DNA-driven destruction machines . . . were eating my trees.

Windwalker's riparian system consisted of two man-made ponds connected by three-quarters of a mile of meandering stream. The beaver had laid claim to the lower end of the valley, turning it into something resembling the Somme battlefield. Fine, I thought, live and let live. They could keep the lower third of the valley; I would enjoy the rest.

They headed upstream within a month of my moving in.

While the younger beavers were surveying the upper valley, the old-timers clogged up the culvert in the lower pond, causing the dam to give way and doing more than $7,000 worth of damage. While I was bulldozing the dam back in place and adding a spillway, the younger beavers were working double shifts upstream. The previous owners had built a kids' play fort almost as large as the real thing – lodgepole-pine palisades, parapets, a tower, even a drawbridge to lower across the stream. The beavers flooded the fort and within months it toppled into the new pond they were backing up.

For a year I worked at tearing out their dams on the meandering stream. Ever try to tear out a beaver dam by hand? If we built our overseas embassies that soundly, terrorists wouldn't have a chance. After months of work, I got suspicious, hacked my way upstream, and found that their lower dams had been a diversion: the beaver had constructed a dozen step-dams hidden in the thick willows, flooding the upper valley.

I tried fencing trees. I tried the Forest Service. I tried professional beaver trappers. I tried Raoul Mitgang.

The beavers cut down two aspen for every one I fenced. The Forest Service tut-tutted. The professional beaver trappers had found religion and gave me a third copy of In Beaver World and a lecture on the joys of co-existence. Raoul Mitgang . . . well, we won't go into that.

The last straw came one August day when I drove my Jeep down the valley with a new load of tree-fencing only to find that the beaver had dropped two large aspen across the jeep track – trees a quarter of a mile from their pond and work area, fallen trees that had one purpose and one purpose only – to stop me from fencing more trees.

So that night I found myself stalking the beaver with the shotgun I had owned since I was a kid. Just to scare them, I assured myself. Uh-huh.

Every evening after sunset, the beavers boil out of their lodge and work for hours. Not that evening. Nothing. Nada. Nary a flat tail nor furry rodent skull in sight. Around midnight, I broke the shotgun and descended the steep hill in the dark, crossing a meadow of high grass to get a better vantage point. And that's when I realized that I was being stalked.

The thing was behind me in the tall grass and its eyes were four feet off the ground and green in the starlight. The shadow watched me a moment and then jumped fifteen feet across the creek and disappeared. "Mountain lion poking around," the old-timers at the Hummingbird Café said the next day. I knew better. I'd escalated the war. The beaver had called in reinforcements.

Five years later and the beavers and I have come to an understanding: they win. The valley's flooded, the trees are gone, the fort's tumbled, and the meandering stream doesn't meander.

"They can't hurt me any more," I say to myself. But at night, in my cabin four hundred feet up the hillside, in my cabin cantilevered out over the cliff and supported by stout wooden columns, I lie awake. Listening.

The gnawing. The gnawing.


Home     Books     Curtis on Publishing     Previews     Bio     Bibliography     Snapshots      Reader's Forum     Art