On the Trails: One thing leads to another

I like to take a walk just to see what I can see, like the bear that went over the mountain, in the old song. You never know what might be found, until you look. Keep looking, and something of interest will turn up. Here’s a recent example — nothing stupendous, but a small story that started simply by noting something unexpected, checking it out and seeing what developed.

 

A friend and I walked along a small stream, talking (of course) and looking at wind-throws and mosses and whatever. We spotted something yellow, bright yellow, floating in a backwater. We detoured down to the edge of the stream and checked out the odd yellow object. It was an uprooted skunk cabbage plant; there was the rootstock with many thick roots and two shoots ready for next spring, a green one, partly eaten, and a yellow one that would be next spring’s flowering stalk. I’d never seen the full rootstock before (bears like to dig it up and eat it) nor all those roots, so that was new and interesting. But why was it left there?

As we pondered the floating skunk cabbage, we noted a pile of sticks, just a little way down the shoreline. We quickly saw that this was a winter cache made by beavers — sticks neatly cut and stacked. The cache held branches and twigs of several species: lots of rusty menziesia, some alder and blueberry and a few hemlock branches. An unusual assortment, in my experience. When they can get them, beavers really like cottonwood and willows, but these were not available in this area.

If there is a cache, there should be a beaver lodge nearby. But we could find no conventional lodge built of a mound of sticks and mud. Maybe these beavers lived in a bank burrow, under the roots of a big spruce tree. The beavers had built a small dam a short distance downstream of the cache. By raising the water level, they would keep the entrance to their living quarters underwater, protecting their “doorway.”

As we meandered along upstream, after our detour, we began to note the stubs of cut-off shrubs in several areas. These cuts, and those on the cached sticks, looked quite fresh. Soon we saw several narrow trails running from the creek-edge up into the woods, where there were more cut stubs. A few cut branches had been left along the trails, perhaps to be hauled later to the cache. Some of these trails had been made after a snowfall, and there were dollops of mud and footprints as evidence of recent use. Beavers had used some of these trails repeatedly, so they were well trampled. But we could find a number of clear footprints of beavers’ hind feet. And otters had used the trails, too.

These signs obviously meant that the beavers had been active outside of their winter quarters, even though they had a cache. This is known to happen, but usually beavers spend the winter months snug in their houses, the adults living partly off stored body fat, and the young ones, still growing, feeding on the cache. If you stand, very quietly, close to a beaver lodge, you may hear the family members talking to each other, murmuring and chuckling.

There you have it — a simple story, but very pleasing to see how one thing led to another. The story expanded from a single basic observation of something that seemed out of place into a picture of family life and uncommon winter activity. Would we have seen those small trails and footprints as we walked along? Certainly. But we would have missed the skunk cabbage and the cache and the invisible lodge. So the picture would have been sorely incomplete.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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