“Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.”
— Captain Jack Sparrow
Outdoor adventure can be found on a city park bench, walking across a field, or in your backyard. Little side adventures can be enjoyable if you find yourself in a place where you need to get away and recharge your batteries.
Such was the case for me. I recently was in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin for two weeks on a job assignment. While there, I needed a few moments each day to get away and recharge. I was stuck at a school without transportation, but I luckily found a nice trail in some woods near my hotel. The woods consisted of pine and oak trees, and there was a clear creek, too.
I could see the trail’s start from my second-story hotel room, and each time I looked at it, it was like a magnet drawing me into the woods.
There were forest paths that branched off the main trail along the creek and went through swampy lowlands. One evening at sunset, I was exploring the area when I came upon a small tree trunk that had been hewn off about a foot above its base.
I looked around, but I didn’t see the rest of the tree anywhere. Then I noticed another stump and then another, and I realized I was in beaver territory. I searched for more down by the creek and I heard the strange sound of falling water. I say strange because the creek wasn’t rocky. I followed it to its source and discovered the sound came from water going over a big beaver dam.
Behind it was a large pond that appeared to be deep. I discovered more trees a couple feet in diameter that had been felled — one chomp at a time by a beaver. I then noticed a dome-shaped pile of sticks about 15 feet from the bank of the pond that rose up five or six feet above the surface of the water. It was a classic beaver lodge.
Back at the hotel, I did some Internet research on the beaver. I wanted to find out more about the animal, and when may be the best time of the day to observe it.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, beavers are nocturnal and primarily work and function at night.
These giant rodents can weigh up to 60 pounds and measure 46 inches from head to tail. They have large, sharp front teeth that are highly effective at chopping down trees. Their incisors have to be sharpened regularly and they do this by chewings on trees of every size.
They are also great swimmers and their large flat tail is used like a rudder. If the animals feel threatened, they slap their tail on the water as a warning to their family members and then they all “fort” up in the lodge. The lodge typically has an underwater entrance that leads to a den where the animals store food and take refuge from predators.
These creatures have the ability to stay underwater for 10 minutes. Their lodge forts, complete with a deep moat, protect them from predators. Beavers are herbivores, which means they do not eat meat. They eat bark, twigs, leaves, buds and stems of trees. According to the Wisconsin DNR, they prefer alder, birch, poplar and willow trees.
The beaver is renowned for its ability to alter the landscape. They cut down a lot of trees and are considered a damaging nuisance by some. But when they back up a creek, they create a riparian habitat that is mutually beneficial to plants, animals and humans. The rich soils and twigs act like a giant natural filter and the water downstream from a beaver pond is generally cleaner than the water upstream.
This information fascinated me. I decided to head out just before sundown and wait for nightfall to see if I could watch a beaver in the wild. At sunset, I found an old log about six feet from the water’s edge and sat there like a statue. I could see the lodge and several large trees nearby were gnawed almost completely through with fresh piles of wood chips at their base.
Three different white tail deer walked past me. A gray squirrel bounded down a tree next to me, also unaware of my presence. If you are silent and patient in the forest, the animals will eventually present themselves. After a while, I sat down next to a large tree, leaned up against the trunk and dozed off.
When I awoke, it was dark and the stars reflected brightly in the flat black of the beaver pond. The forest was dark and silent. It was cold and the novelty of waiting for a beaver was wearing off. I told myself I would leave in 15 minutes if I didn’t see anything.
Fifteen minutes went by and I scanned the pond with my flashlight that I had not used until then. On the pond, a large furry head emerged from the water and turned towards me, took a slow look and then disappeared again under the water.
I then saw another creature on the surface, and while I was watched, the beaver made a loud “splash” that shattered the silence of the woods. It sounded like someone threw a 25-pound sack of potatoes into the pond. I was excited that I got to see a beaver at the last second before I left the woods.
Wherever you are in the natural world, remember there are probably interesting things waiting to be observed and known. Slow down, take a moment, notice and then do some research. You may be surprised by what you might find right around the corner.
Or from your hotel room window.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.