Beaver Magic

Here is the beaver interested group without Brock since he is taking the photo!
It was about 1 mile of walking through knee deep water to get to Outlet Creek. 
One of the trees the beavers have been working on for food and dams.
This is the nonnative red swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii.
Two cottonwood trees that have been “worked” by the beavers.
One of the wonderful stick and mud dams built by the North American Beaver, Castor canadensis, on Outlet Creek.
These are more cottonwoods that our beavers are eating with many sapling trees coming up at their base..

Last week we had an informative day with two of our local (Sonoma County) beaver experts and enthusiasts, Brock Dolan and Kate Lundquist. They are the directors of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center WATER Institute and have put together a guide called, Beaver in California: Creating a Culture of Stewardship which this blog linked to last week on our media update of the beavers.

A small group of MCRCD staff and consulting specialists spent the day walking through knee to chest-deep water in the northern Little Lake Valley marshes. The weather was fine and cloudy, but not cold, the color of the water highlighted in the low angle of the winter sun.

Before we stepped out into the marsh, we circled up and Brock and Kate talked to us about the important work that the North American Beaver, Castor canadensis, do as wetland engineers. Brock is famous for coining the mantra of ‘Slow It-Spread It-Sink It-Store It-Share It!’ When beavers spread water out, they promote recharge of the underlying water table and then hold that water for release later in the season. Brock and Kate said that this can be very helpful in California’s Mediterranean climate where we do not get much summer rain during the hottest months and fall rains continue to decline and come later, prolonging drought conditions. They said that California is lagging behind all the other states in valuing the work that beavers do as engineers of aquatic systems. Both Brock and Kate have been working diligently to educate and promote land stewardship, help with ecological restoration, and to update policies to better serve the environment that both wildlife and humans depend on.

After the introduction and we all had put our chest waders and masks on, we set out to see what our beavers had been up to on Outlet Creek and in the wetlands. It was a long walk through first a dry field then a marsh with knee to waist deep water, slow but beautiful. There was only one bull Tule elk watching us from the north, and many ducks, geese, red-winged blackbirds and even some tree swallows flew over. We found a few large red swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii (not native), swimming along with us. As we neared Outlet Creek there were areas of deep channels that the beavers had dug out connecting the creek to the tall tule and cattail stands out in the marsh. Some of these channels were 4 to 5 feet deep, about 2 feet wide, and ran 30 or more feet from Outlet Creek. We talked about how beavers love their carbs, they do not just eat trees. Tules and cattails are also a great food source, which is why they are willing to exert the energy to dig the channels to get to it. If there was a forest out in the marsh, they would do the same thing to get to the trees! The channels, or trenches, are dug out with their small and powerful front paws, piling the mud alongside the trench, and making the bottom smooth and hard. We walked across several of the channels and the hard bottom was apparent, different than the rest of the marsh area. These channels allow water to stay in the marsh area longer, providing habitat for many creatures including waterfowl, egrets, and herons. When we finally reached the creek, it did not take long to find a well-constructed beaver dam and evidence of beaver chews on some willow and cottonwood trees.

Beaver dams slow down the flow of water, help to decrease the sediment load, and create habitat for salmonids and other aquatic life. The trees that have been felled for food and dam building have already sprouted back with many new trees now growing where there was one. The dam acts as a buffer to high flows, reducing the intensity of floods and channel erosion. All this information and more can be found in the journal Beaver in California by Brock and Kate.

There was much discussion on our way back about the improvement to the ecosystem that beavers provide. As we made our way back through the mile of wetland, ducks flew noisily by, chorus frogs sang their ‘spring-is-a-coming song,’ and we had a few drops of rain falling. My mind was full of the wonder, laughter, and information shared. We are so very fortunate to have these beavers here to learn from, to observe, and to admire.

A poem written by one of the beaver day participants, MCRCD board member, and Botanical Consultant, Geri Hulse-Stephens:


In the Presence of their Work


It was a pilgrimage,

(to go forward, to praise and to be blessed by).

We came to see the work of the beaver

And listen to the same

sliding, splashing, gliding waters

that call to them.


To get there we plowed through the foot-deep flood

across the delta plain,

breaking and raking the water with every step.

Surely they heard us coming,

this small platoon in chest-high waders,

and burrowed deeper into their embankment bungalow

under the thatch of tangled willow.


But we saw their work,

tree trunks carved out in the shape of a ‘c’

with fine tooth-marks covering the surface

like a wood-cut printing block,

trees crashed to earth and sprouting

leggy spires of green erupting from their prone bodies,

water now benched in the creek

resting on different plains.


We saw the work

they were driven to do

and the gift it bestows on

on the fish, the turtles, the otters, the others,

tirelessly driven

like a group of musicians for years,

collaborating alone in their studio

only to become

The voice of their generation.


Along the creek tiny pussy willows studded the yellow twigs,

the shiny white pearls

like the bright and unexpected beauty

the beaver left for us to see.


G Hulse-Stephens