Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Introduction continued

The Genie Comes Out of the Bottle and I Miss It
Lost Swamp Pond at dawn

Twenty thousand years ago there were no islands, only ice a mile high. As the Ice Age melted there were still no islands, only water. The huge lake that formed 14,000 years ago in the middle of North America became the source for three huge rivers. Without a thick ice cover the land rose. The huge lake drained leaving the five Great Lakes. The Mississippi and Hudson rivers lost their connection to the lakes. Only the St. Lawrence River drains the lakes. The eighteen hundred or so islands at the beginning of the river left both craggy and round by the glacial retreat remain as monuments to the violent changes of that past forming a tenacious landscape we can't help but admire.

Beavers and otters appreciated another feature of the Ice Age. As the mile high ice depressed the land retreated many glacial lakelets were left behind. Melting waters and rain could fill those pockets and many were shallow enough to dry out during seasons of drought allowing plants and even trees to flourish creating swamps. Fish ran up the rivulets that drained the swamps in the spring when the fish spawned.

Muskrat behind the Big Pond Dam in April

So after the Wellesley Island State Park Nature Center opened in 1969, ending the reign of the cow on the western part of the island, the beavers natural urge to find a quiet place to raise their young could be gratified. They left the boat houses and marshes in South Bay and after a short climb up gentle though rocky slopes found depressed land left by the glacier where a deposit of rich soil left by the receding flood of water provided mud to build dams to capture even more water. 

In the few years between the end of pasturing and the arrival of the beavers, grasses, shrubs and small trees had grown back providing food to fuel the beavers and logs for lodges and dams. As I would eventually see, beavers could make dams all along the creeks but to begin with they created ponds in the largest low spots in the valleys which were about a half mile up from South Bay.

We arrived in 1974 and didn't have the foggiest idea of what was happening. I wish I could give a blow by blow of the beavers' progress from 1974 to 1994 but I can't. In the 1970's we spent only two or three weeks in the spring and in the fall on the island, and like everyone else we came to enjoy the river.

We bought an Italian made inflatable canoe that mastered the waves of the river and still allowed us to poke into the marshes of South Bay. Wepaddled through the Narrows between Wellesley and Murray Islands. The 40 to 60 foot high palisade of Wellesley fronting the Narrows probably deterred Wells' axemen so we probably experienced the pines and granite along the Narrows much as Major Delafield and his crew did.

Other than watching carp spawn in South Bay we got most pleasure from bobbing along the south shore of Eel Bay where the pink granite rolled into clear blue green water. In the middle of one pink roll there are glacial potholes formed by swirling stones drilling the granite as the ice melted. 

By the 1980s we had paddled around Picton Island and using both the family boat with a 6 hp motor and the inflatable we explored bays around Grindstone Island. In 20 years of such poking around we never saw a beaver or an otter, but then we usually were out between 9am and 3pm.
Leslie in the other end of an inflatable in the 1970s

My parents lived on the east end of Thousand Island Park facing the river. When the wind whipped up waves strong enough to make paddling west to reach the headland impossible we walked the trails of the state park.

Most of the trails went up and down along the shores of the bays and the Narrows treating us to beautiful rocks and views. Later we learned that just off a trail near the Narrows the director of the Nature Center found grasses that an ecologist argued are generally found only where fur trading voyageurs made camp.  

There were several long interior trails. The East Trail was our favorite. It crossed the wetlands of three valleys on boardwalks taking one as close as possible to the ferns and other aquatic plants.

Just off the East Trail we had our most pleasant surprise. A short but high ridge formed what looked like a dark green canyon. We poked into that and noticed a small creek flowing out of a low woods below a 30 foot high granite wall. We headed up the creek clutching the trees and finding convenient tree roots and granite niches to step on and tried not to get our shoes wet. We grappled over clear flowing water and thick ferns, stared eye to eye with flowering plants. After 50 yards of that we could climb up the ridge and sitting under tall white pines look down on the tops of hemlocks. We looked down on a Garden of Eden unspoiled and eternal. We called it Shangri-la. 

But back to the East Trail. It was good exercise. You had to climb 50 feet from the wetland to a plateau of exposed granite as big as two basketball courts and then down again. A daily walk on the East Trail could fill a long life.

Another interior trail went to a huge man-made "duck pond." To add something dramatic the director of the Nature Center loosed bulldozers in the flat area marked “Meadow Park” in the 1875 Hines map to create a large pond just east of the palisade above the Narrows and just north of a slight ridge forming the north shore of South Bay. The idea was to attract ducks. There was no other recreational purpose for the pond. South Bay was just over the ridge and the State Park had camp sites along Eel Bay and camp sites and a swimming beach along the river's Canadian channel.

Most beaver ponds curve. The Duck Pond had two massive embankments perfectly straight.

The Duck Pond dates when beavers moved onto the island: after 1969. If beavers had been in the park no man made pond would have been needed. Ducks love beaver ponds. As it turned out they didn't care for the Duck Pond but the geese, beavers and otters did. Leslie and I mostly enjoyed lounging on a little footbridge along the northwest shore of the pond warming in the Spring sunshine as yellow warblers battled in a stand of small trees. 

While walking on the Nature Center trails we never saw a beaver nor signs of beavers nor any signs about beavers. There was a stuffed one in the little Nature Center museum.

In the late 1970's we were lured away from the trails. My father played golf and we frequently joined him when he played the 9 hole State Park course just across the road from our house. In 1975 Thousand Island Park celebrated its centennial by publishing a relatively detailed history with Hines' 1875 map attached. My habitual slice off the 4th tee coming down the granite ridge soon introduced us to the granite plateau where according to Hines' map two score building lots were to be doubled up behind "Twilight Avenue."

We went beyond the range of my slice and explored the plateau. Leslie and I thought the plateau was the top of the world. There were no remnants of roads, trails, paths or marks for building lots. The roly-poly pale pink rock supports a thousand islands of moss where the waves of rock allowed moisture to settle. 

Granite plateaus were a feature of every island ridge

But it wasn't much exercise rambling from moss island to moss island each no bigger than a bed. To the north thickets and scrub trees narrowed the open plateau, but there was a hint of an easy way north on granite just back from the 4th tee. That only lured us to thick honeysuckles, junipers, and more scrub trees depending on how much soil collected in the rolling granite which in the shade loses its pinkness as it is almost entirely cloaked with gray lichens. We didn't take many photos then but one taken in 1979 is extant showing me on a short and narrow slope of granite with thick brush and trees below and behind me.

A first look at my future

We learned how to work our way through the vegetation, avoid stickers!, and found a massive face of granite overlooking a wooded valley. From the top of the rock we could see a pond and two ridges beyond that both cloaked with trees. For almost 15 years we hiked in the interior of the island across three swamps and up along three ridges, and we still didn't see any beavers even though we knew from the ponds and dams we saw that beavers were there.

View of the valleys in late October

That said it's possible that if we saw a beaver we wouldn't have known it. I had been a Boy Scout and could make a campfire, tie a square knot, and, in my patrol, found the way back to camp when we were lost. Leslie learned a good deal about plants from her mother but we knew next to nothing about mammals. For example, in June 1979 while hiking above the golf course to the precipice of the ridge overlooking the valley below we stumbled upon a large animal sleeping on a branch of a tree. It looked like a giant sloth to us but we had some doubt that they could live that far north. 

Leslie called the Nature Center and that's how we met the director, Bob Wakefield. He drove over to our house and hiked with us over the golf course and into the bush. I was able to remember the way and Wakefield introduced us to a sleeping porcupine.

Porcupine sleeping in tree during the day

Anyway, when we walked down the north slope of the ridge and pushed our way through osier shrubs to the beaver pond, we didn't think of trying to find the beavers. 

The pond, which we began calling the Big Pond, filled from 5 to 10 acres of the valley with water. We never walked around the pond because through the tall reeds along the shore we saw water everywhere and behind the reeds were all manner of plants. So we walked on top of a dried mud dam which made a gentle S-curve across the valley.

Big Pond dam in the early 90s

That was the worst possible introduction to a beaver dam. We got two mistaken impressions: that it was built for our convenience and that it was stable if not permanent. Plus though it always looked different to us we never saw any direct evidence that the beavers tended it. For 15 years or so we saw it in late May and early June and in September. Beavers generally repair the winter damage to their dams in April and early May. They don't begin preparing the dams for the coming winter until October. Even when beavers built a lodge not far behind the dam we never saw anything there that suggested to us that we just missed seeing a beaver.

The ridge we were headed to which we called the First Ridge was wider than the Golf Course Ridge but not as high. The brush was easier to get through north of the Big Pond and the slope up the woods was gentle. Since the trees were bigger the way below the canopy of leaves was easy to get lost in. We found two ways to maintain a course, straight over the high part of the ridge or cheat to the west down the slopes of a valley cutting through the ridge.

The second way brought us to what I would eventually call the Mother of All Dams (because it so often brought me to my knees.) It was also obviously the older dam because a few small trees were growing out of it. Every other inch of the dam supported a variety of vegetation that by late May grew into a rather daunting gauntlet. I think it had to do with the second valley being so consistently low that the ground below the dam was as wet as the ground above the dam. The roots of the vegetation hoisted to the sun by the dam were sucking moisture from both sides. 

It was a classic dam built between granite outcrops. This history would be much better if we had made that classic dam our usual way to the next ridge, but the terrain to and below the dam was quite flat, soggy and buggy. The many trees below the dam did not guarantee solid footing. 

When the beavers started building new dams, they moved below the Mother of All Dams. But when the beavers began doing that we had all but made a rut taking the other way over the First Ridge. We crossed the upper end of the Second Swamp Pond that formed behind the Mother of All Dams.

Veering east around the high side of the pond to avoid the dam was often not that easy. Beaver ponds expand and contract so the way in back of the pond that you think you are familiar with always changes. If it is not too wet to easily cross, the vegetation is too thick from its recently being wet. Don't make the mistake as we once or twice did in thinking the way farther back of the pond must be easier. We found ourselves balancing on willow roots that like mangroves were sucking standing water below. They rather slowed down our quest for the highest sun drenched peak where we could dry our shoes and socks.

The Second Swamp between the First and Second ridges was ground zero for the beavers, the long lowest point of the west end of the island.  But we were more fascinated with a huge granite outcrop forming part of the Second Ridge which was shaped like whale. Once when as walked on the hump of the whale we bumped into a porcupine strolling in the noonday sun. 

The Third Swamp was narrow and the Third Ridge formed the high plateau of that end of the island, perfect for drying our socks and shoes as we lay facing the the sun in the southern sky. Then we hiked west along the ridge to the East Trail and home.

 Leslie climbing up Third Ridge in the 1980s

We left History back in the Second Swamp. This is what I think we missed.

Bob Wakefield told us that he let duck hunters use the man-made duck pond. It was probably a wise decision to accommodate locals like Ernie who had had free reign when Thousand Island Park owned the land. Locals called the highland where the Nature Center was built Huckleberry Ridge and a nearby wet depression on the same highland, where beavers eventually built a lodge, was called Calhoun's Swamp. The locals cut the trees there in the winter not beavers. 

Once we saw a duck blind on the Duck Pond shore when we vacationed into October. Evidently trappers who are often duck hunters too took that as invitation to trap. So when beavers established themselves in the two big pond, Ernie and others who were getting muskrats and beavers in the river marshes and boat houses went after the animals who moved into the ponds. Deer hunters would also see signs left by beavers who are most active during the late fall hunting seasons. I asked Ernie about where he trapped but all we could agree on was that trapping was done “back there.”

I think the trapping pressure that slowed beaver development ended in the late 1980s more or less when Ernie retired. Not that Ernie was necessarily the main trapper. I'm told that when the man who bought pelts came to the Main Dock in Thousand Island Park he dealt with several trappers.

When we moved north, I learned that the expanding beaver population was not confined to the island. I paid my respects to the State wildlife biologists working for the Department of Environmental Conservation in Watertown, the Jefferson County seat. In Washington I had made most of my money as a free lance journalist and my habitual way of paying respect was asking questions. I'm sure Joe Lamendola thought I was a busy body when I asked how and why land owners could get permits to trap or shoot "nuisance beavers" anytime of the year.

He told me there were more beavers in New York now than there were at the start of the fur trade. He added that the source of most of the beavers on the river causing damage to smaller islands and boat houses came from Wellesley Island State Park. He gave me a just published survey of people's generally negative attitudes about beavers in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties. The closer people were to beavers the more likely they would be "intolerant" of them. And there were more and more beavers. The report explained why: the European Community, precursor to the EU, decided not to import the pelts of animals killed with leg hold traps. The price for pelts plummeted. The number of trappers dropped by half.

Surviving in the state park until trapping stopped did not mean that the beavers were home free. Bob Wakefield did not appreciate the beavers flooding his wetland boardwalks. He had his staff dismantle a dam so that it was low enough not to back up water over the boardwalk. Then they put up electrified wire, the modern way of keeping cattle from leaving a pasture, to keep the beavers from repairing the dam. Didn't work. During our spring visits we still had to take our shoes off when we walked on the boardwalks.

Then the beavers did something that impressed me. The beavers cut down some rather large red oaks, say 50 feet tall with an almost 3 foot diameter, on a slope along the valley below the electrified dam. Looked like cause and effect to me; looked like beavers could fight back.

I should have widened my scope to find out what the beavers were doing. The tree cutting I saw had nothing to do with the electrified dam. Beavers moving down from the Mother of all Dams had begun damming the valley below, and I didn't notice.

To be sure in the battle between park and beavers, I rooted for the beavers. At about the same time some beavers began engineering another convenience, a small dam at the east end of the Second Swamp Pond. When completed it would shortened the time to the Second Ridge but one slip meant full immersion of our shoes. Then in the fall of 1986 Leslie was pregnant. In the spring of 1987 we stuck to groomed trails with baby in a pouch.

Once we had a son spending summers on the island was not so bad. My father gave me the house before died of cancer in the spring of 1990.  With playground, ball field, ice cream and candy store and dozens of kids to play with during the summer, we tolerated the noise that we had avoided for years. Our son was in paradise and we were kept busy. When we hiked it was not far and at his pace. When we still had him in a pouch we couldn't go far off-trail. But we did find an old farm road from South Bay going up the first swamp valley and that got us to the Big Pond where with my 7 year old niece and three month old son, I stood on a beaver lodge. 
On the Big Pond lodge in 1987

I think the beavers had left that lodge. They had built a dam below the Big Pond dam. The pond was much smaller but we didn't walk around it to discover their new lodge which amounted to little more than logs concealing burrows into a low bank.

Once our son could walk, the closest we got to the beavers were the trees they cut down on dry land that could entertain a 3 year old.

Introducing our 3 year old to beaver work

But I really can't blame my son. Even when I saw by their new dams, new ponds and tree cutting showing that the beavers were more active, I was still out and about for the exercise. I was an ego maniac in a way that only a just published author can be damned. Then one day in late August or early September river otters stopped me in my tracks.

I didn't understand then how lucky I was to see them. Otters became rather rare in North America. Ernest Thompson Seton whose books explained wild animals to 20th century children calculated that there might be just one otter in all the Province of Manitoba (about the size of several Great Plains states and half of it is lakes and rivers.) 

As the fur trade cooled, otters were found again in mountainous regions like the Adirondacks and Yellowstone. The notion took hold among the experts that pollution limited the return of otters elsewhere.  The state's wildlife biologists agreed with Old Ernie. Their maps showed that otters were confined to the Adirondack mountains. When I told Lamendola that I saw otters in the St. Lawrence River, he was skeptical explaining that the water was too polluted.
Leslie and I were more familiar with otters than beavers. After getting the knack on the river we paddled our inflatable canoe elsewhere and in 1985 saw an otter with a small fish in its mouth on the banks of a creek in the Ocala National Forest in Florida. To see an animal pose just as it is so often pictured is a pleasure but somewhat of an anticlimax.

In 1992, hiking with my brother-in-law Steve who likes to stay on trails, we took the Shortcut Trail that got us from the Granite Trail north of the Duck Pond to South Bay without seeing the Duck Pond. We crossed the small creek flowing to the Duck Pond on a small bridge below the dam of a long pond the beavers recently made. As I was flattering the beavers for making a better pond than the man-made pond down stream, I saw 5 otters swimming in tandem.

They swam like little porpoises with long black tails. What else could they be but river otters? I credited Bob Wakefield for luring them out of the river by putting fish in his Duck Pond. I learned later that otters simply follow the beavers. Soon I would too.    

We hadn't crossed the valleys as of old for 4 years. So one hot afternoon I decided to check on the Third Ridge, the east end boulders where we used to dry our shoes and socks. I hiked out to it via the East Trail but decided to go home across the trackless valleys. I was surprised to find the way easier. I followed a recently cut surveying line between the park and neighboring private lands. Walking off trail so much I was used to walking with my head down so I noticed that end of the Second Swamp Pond was remarkably dry before I saw why. Then I looked up and saw how beavers change the world. 

The Lost Swamp Pond dam in 1993

I walked up to a twelve foot high beaver dam. I climbed the slope  beside it and saw a pond that curved farther than my eye could see. It stretched off to the east behind a rock outcrop. I knew the name of the magnificent pond the instant I saw it. The Lost Swamp Pond – I had lost a swamp and gained a pond. I also lost myself. I had stumbled upon change perpetrated by wild things for their own ends. Seeing the Lost Swamp Pond was knowing that the genie had been let out of its bottle and thousands of wishes came true that had nothing to do with humans. 

While we raised our baby, the beavers built a pond twice the size and twice as beautiful as the big pond below using ground that I thought after trudging across it a few times could never be anything but misery best avoided. Then and there I didn't exactly decide to make sitting by the Lost Swamp Pond waiting for beavers and otters my second career. For one thing that would mean a long commute, I still had a 45 minute walk to get home and share my excitement. And another 9 hours to get to and from Washington.

So three years later we moved. Leslie is an artist; I'm a freelance writer, underline free. Supporting both an apartment in Washington and a summer home was beyond our means. But we could rent the former by the year and the latter by the week. Plus I thought I was escaping history of that contentious sort played out between the Capitol and White House. I needed a break from reading the fine print. Every summer before we moved I adjusted to what I took as the natural order that symphony of endless variations in a growing series of beaver ponds largely off the sights of other humans. Music to the eyes.

Before moving our family made two brief winter visits and passed the trials of ice and snow -- more please!

Then came my true trial by ice. In early April we came up to check out the local school, far too white but the families there were unlike any we met in Washington. Nature was at its drabbest: plants brown, trees bare, mud reigns. 

I took a hike across the soggy golf course, up and beyond and 4th tee, down the big rock over looking the valley and up to the dam of the Big Pond. I got over to the dirt road and walked down through the spruces, then down a hill under some large oaks and maples. At the bottom of the hill I saw a beaver dam. It struck me as odd to be standing behind a beaver dam. Then I looked down and saw that I was standing on a sheet of thin clear ice and the water below looked to be about 3 feet deep. 

The road dam no place to stand on April ice

Four months later the beaver stood before me as I sat by the side of a small pond midway between the Big Pond and South Bay. Six months later I chased five otters up the chain of small ponds, fell, as I already told you. Let's fall some more, into the contentious world of beavers and otters, into Chapter One.

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