Thursday, September 28, 2017


How the Island Swamps Survived War, Cattle, Millionaires and Methodists so Beavers Found a Home

Middle Pond 1996 two years after the beaver stood before me on the farthest and darkest shore in this photo

On August 20, 1994, two months after my wife, seven year old son and I moved up to live on Wellesley Island I had my closest encounter with a beaver ever. I stood on the south shore of a small pond I called the Middle Pond. It was the fourth of a series of seven small ponds in a narrow shady valley that beavers had recently dammed below a much bigger pond that I called the Big Pond. I paused to decide which short dam to cross to get me over to the north shore of the ponds where I could go up a slight ridge and gain an old farm road that would get me down to the trail around South Bay a hundred acre appendage of the six mile wide St. Lawrence River. That was the quickest way to get back home.

Then a beaver materialized in the pond, looked at me, slapped its tail and dived disappearing into the brown water. Total surprise. It was 4:45pm, too early for beavers to be out according to the books I'd read just before moving to the island.

I sat down on a rock to see if it would materialize again. A beaver reappeared in the pond but ignored me and looked instead at another beaver coming up over the dam. Then the first beaver paddled up pond as if I wasn't there. The second beaver swam a circle below me, reared up as if to scent me, but instead of slapping its tail and disappearing, it climbed up on the shore just a few feet from me.

Fair warning: I was almost naked and had been as I walked down a wooded rocky slope south of the pond. When I got close to the old farm road, even though I had never seen anybody use it, I slipped my brown swimming trunks back on. I now and then went naked to celebrate the dearth of biting insects on the island, and because, as I will shortly explain, I moved to the island to celebrate the symphony of nature which I thought called for exposing all the senses.

Anyway maybe that's why the beaver didn't notice me. I smelled like the woods. The beaver stood up like a bear, I was that close, then steady on its two huge flipper feet it lifted up a hand-like paw to bring a green leaf close to a mouth not at all like the mouths of cartoon beavers. The beaver mouth recedes under a strong upper jaw. The four big incisors are unobtrusive. I was glad I wasn't naked.

Then a tree fell across the pond, a chunky thirty foot tall maple I later saw, but pond water and tall grasses muffled its fall. It still could have killed me if I had been sitting under it. I reacted; the beaver didn't. I turned to get a closer look at the seemingly senseless animal and with absolute aplomb it compressed like an accordion, pivoted on both webbed feet and pushed noiselessly into the muddy water and disappeared.

I had an urge to jump in after. I was fascinated and full of questions. I had been a free lance journalist in Washington for about 15 years and written about all sorts from a tattoo artist to senators and my two pet goldfish. 

A few weeks later I did give chase. Only that time it was a family of five otters hurrying up the pond below the Middle Pond. I ran after them and soon fell on my face. When I got up to the Big Pond, I only saw two otters swimming. What happened to other three? The two I saw snorted at me and disappeared. What would happen if the rambunctious otters bumped into the beavers who made the pond?

I told Old Ernie, the 80 year old retired trapper born and raised on the island, about the otter chase. (I would not have mentioned it if he had not sold his traps.) He assured me there were no otters on the island. He had never seen any. He was full of surprises. He told me that when he was young there were no beaver ponds on our end of the island. It was all pasture for cattle.

The Old Trapper

I had to take Old Ernie at his word though it was confusing. His grandmother was a Mohawk and the other side of his family, like so many in the “North Country” of New York, came two centuries ago from Yorkshire England. Ernie sounded like it with a lilting line of talk hanging “arrrs” with every fifth beat. Ernie was a carpenter by trade and I assumed a trapper by tradition. That he didn't grow up trapping dumbfounded me. Could the island swamps, their natural habitat, be as new to otters as it was to me? Had beavers on the island, relative new comers themselves, never seen an otter?

I was also a historian thanks to Through a Fiery Trail: Building Washington 1790-1800 published in 1991. In 2009 a scholar reviewing two recent books covering the same ground opined that “surely Bob Arnebeck remains the best possible bard for the whole shabby saga of Washington City's first decade.” While writing that book I became obsessed with tracking the machinations of the land speculators. Weariness from reading fine print on microfilm was one of the reasons I moved.

The irony struck me. Just as I obsessed over speculators ruining George Washington's dreams for the nation's capital, would I soon become obsessed with otters moving in on the beavers? Not likely.

Beavers are not what anyone thinks of when they first encounter the Thousand Islands. The islands either bristling with trees or bare pink granite seem so riveting and Romantic that what animals are there seems beside the point. Never was going from Point A to Point B more inviting, with Point C luring you the other way. Throw in all the letters of the alphabet 80 times over in a six mile wide river and that's the consuming beauty of the whole set up.

Aerial view of the islands from the East
Adding to the romance is a contrast easily sensed when you paddle between the islands on a calm day: peaceful nature largely unspoiled and the rough edges of a relatively recent violent past. Twenty thousand years ago there were no Thousand 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. The eighteen hundred or so granite islands at the source of the St. Lawrence River at the northeast corner of Lake Ontario form a tenacious landscape we can't help but admire.

Beavers and otters appreciated another feature of the Ice Age. As the mile high ice that had depressed the land retreated the land rose and many glacial lakelets were left behind. 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.

 a muskrat enjoys a winter lakelet

So beavers and otters likely found homes on the islands big enough to sport creeks draining depressions. As a boy Old Ernie would have been fated to trap them if generations of Indians and whites before him hadn't trapped beavers to near extinction.

We get a measure of the lack of beavers in 1677. King Louis XIV of France gave the explorer La Salle permission to expand a small fort on the north shore of Lake Ontario commanding the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands (Les Milles Isles) thus controlling the trade in furs going to Montreal. The King gave the neighboring islands to LaSalle too and the explorer made plans for farms even industries. The leading edge of the slaughter of beavers was far to the west.

 1718 French map of the players in the fur trade. The Thousand Islands are in the northeast corner of "Lac Ontario." The tribes circled in red were "detruite", i.e. destroyed

The overarching goal of the fur trade was to separate Indians from their land by using brandy, iron pots and trinkets to get the Indians addicted to killing animals, especially the beavers that were not prolific enough to survive intense trapping. At the same time Indians succumbed to European diseases. The whole sordid slaughter moved west rapidly making it easier for whites to claim more land. 

Indians wryly observed that beavers flourished during wars between humans because during those wars men were too busy to killing themselves. From 1757 to 1814, eastern North America was often at war between the British and French and their Indian allies. The St. Lawrence River valley was a theater in all those wars. But beavers didn't return to the islands.

In the 1790s two French surveyors explored a huge tract of land stretching to about 30 miles south of the river and about 50 miles east from Lake Ontario. To attract French buyers fleeing the French Revolution the French owned land company called the huge area Castorland. Yet the surveyors didn't see any beavers, "castor" in French, even on the Beaver River. They did find a beaver skull in an old Indian camp.

A coin from Castorland
Evidently the word castor had positive romantic connotations for Frenchmen. Beaver felt had warmed their heads for two centuries. Beaver skins were not a trophy but provided the raw material for felt. There was an image of a beaver on the company's seal but no beavers on the company's land.

By the way, it is probably because of the name Castorland that the island got the name Wellesley. The British were bulldogs. Even though they lost the Revolutionary War , they settled the islands with Loyalists (Tory traitors in the US books). William Wells from a New Hampshire lumbering family. cut all the trees he could and floated them down river to Montreal. Wellesley Island was first called Wells Island by the English speaking locals.

Then in 1814, after fighting the US to a draw in the War of 1812, the British Admiralty sent Captain William Fitz Williams Owen (he was the illegitimate son of a naval officer named Williams) to Kingston to map the islands. Assuming incorrectly that Britain would control all the islands, he re-named all the big islands, obliterating French names, Indian names and local names.

Most historians view early 19th century French settlement in Northern New York as a Romantic lark. The British who had fought them for centuries didn't. So Capt. Owen named islands fronting “Castorland” after rortin' snortin' British heroes. By defeating Napoleon, Arthur Wellesley became the Duke of Wellington and the new most famous man in the world. (Napoleon had knocked George Washington off that pedestal and Washington eclipsed Frederick the Great.) So the captain called the central group of islands facing Castorland the Wellington Islands and the longest of those islands Wellesley Island. The rest of the Wellingtons are named after the Duke's generals.

He called the high point of the headland Buzacoe Head after a height in Portugal  that Wellington held against repeated French attacks.

From the back Buzacoe Head otters commanded South Bay

Right after Capt. Owen left, surveyors from both nations came to draw the international boundary between the islands. No names were changed by the American surveyors. No call for it, no one found cause to christian Beaver Island or Otter Island.
One of the British surveyors was a legendary fur trader. David Thompson began working for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1790 and moved on to work for the Northwest Company. He traveled some 51,000 miles in a broad arc of well watered land from Hudson Bay to the Columbia River, and also down throughout the Rocky Mountains. Thompson had just returned from Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast where the long war against beavers was finally running out of space and beavers. Only 40 years old, he got restless, signed on with the British surveying team and made a relatively short trip, just the entire thousand miles or so southern border of the Province of Ontario, then called Upper Canada. Thompson made no note of seeing beavers on the islands.

The US had their own surveyors mapping the border and one of them Major Jospeh Delafield pledged to keep a journal noting the flora and fauna. US military officers made a name for themselves by bringing back such observations. Delafield and his crew camped in the middle of Wellesley island, on the headland not far from where I would live, and then moved across South Bay to the shore of huge square mile wide Eel Bay. He didn't see any animals to note save minks, porcupines, many deer and one dead otter.

Early 1990s Landsat view annotated
After the surveyors left the islands went up for sale. A speculator who lived in Sackets Harbor on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario made the plunge and began selling off the islands. But Wellesley Island developed slowly. That was probably good news for beavers and otters, plenty of seclusion and cover. Indeed a man who thwarted two navies hid there.

Needless to say that a man President Martin Van Buren called a Pirate once roamed in a vacation resort is a big deal. So today it takes two weekends every August to celebrate Bill Johnston's exploits. It is said he hid in Devil's Oven, the closest uninhabitable island to the many bars of the Village of Alexandria Bay, opposite the east end of Wellesley, where the celebration takes place. 

But in 1838 after he and his men burned a British steamer, the Sir Robert Peel, as it docked at mid-point of Wellesley island to get firewood, they hid in the marshes and swamps of the island.

Johnston modified a wooden Durham boat built for taking freight downstream by forgetting the freight and adding 8 oars men. For short sprints the boat could go faster than the steamers of that day and was light enough to be carried over land short distances. Wellesley Island had several low points where Johnston could portage from the American side to the British side to escape the US or vice versa to escape the British. A long bay in the middle of the island called Lake of the Isles (Lake Waterloo on the Owen map) made escaping even easier.

But so much for romance and the hope that some beavers knew where Bill was hiding. In 1837 thirteen year old Hiram Moore arrived on the island with his grandmother. By the time he was nineteen he had helped clear a thousand acres of land on the west end of the island. According to the 1850 census 334 people lived on the island, mostly farmers and woodcutters supplying wood to fuel the steamships.

In the 1840's what I call the second war against the beavers began. In the first war the Indians' hunt for beavers was communal and tribes competed with each other. Rural whites waged the second war usually alone or in pairs and usually chaffing at the discipline required. One had to set traps and then hike out again and again to check them. Poorly made traps that went off for no reason made setting a line of traps hardly worth the gamble.

In 1823 about 100 miles south of the river, Jewell Newhouse invented a light, reliable, steel trap, and in 1848 the Oneida Community, a religious group Newhouse joined, began manufacturing his traps by the thousands.

I need only quote the company's guide to trapping to make my point: “I know several men in Jefferson County, New York, who paid for good farms with furs that they caught within eight miles of home. It is not uncommon for two men to make five hundred dollars in a trapping season.” (The name Castorland did not stick, though not a few French moved to it, including a Bonaparte. Most of it became Jefferson County. By the way, Jefferson was rather pro-French.)

Traps were half the trouble for beavers. Crops and cows changed the habitat. An 1864 map of the west end of the island listed ten farmers, three of the them Moores, all ranged along the southern shore of the island. Plus there was and a cheese "factory." So what land wasn't used for farming was used for pastures. 


Cattle clear the brush beavers might eat so hard cheese for any beavers who might have moved into the swamps in the center of the island and survived the Newhouse traps.
Then after the Civil War, Americans came to realize that there was more to life than farming and cheese making. In 1862 a visionary anticipated the future of the islands. George Pullman, a 41 year old Chicago railroad car manufacturer who grew up in New York villages along the Erie Canal, bought an island in the St. Lawrence River just off Alexandria Bay. When he bought the island he hadn't invented the Pullman. That sleeping car opened the floodgates. In 1872 when President Grant came in his Pullman to visit Pullman there was no house on the small rocky island. They tented and having once been stationed at Sacket's Harbor, Grant knew how to while away the hours. They fished.

The New York Central Railroad made roughing it in the Thousand Islands easy. Steamships picked up vacationers at the Clayton train station and distributed them throughout the Thousand Islands. The steamship landings could be divided into two camps: wet and dry.


In 1875 Frank Hines of Watertown, NY, the seat of Jefferson County, liberally distributed some 1800 building lots across the headland of Wellesley Island and both shores of South Bay. Buzacoe Head was eclipsed by Thousand Island Park. Newsome traps and cattle menaced beavers who might have returned to the island's interior swamps. Now a summer resort threatened the shores of South Bay and even Eel Bay.

Hines worked under the direction of a committee of Methodist ministers, the Thousand Island Park Camp Meeting Association. The prospectus accompanying the map made clear. There was no drinking, no gambling, camp meeting revival every Sunday (an open air Tabernacle was soon built) and religious services sanctifying the rest of week – and clean air, salubrious grounds and fishing.

The resort grew behind the steamship landing fronting the river. Tents gave way to houses and soon there were 300 houses, big along the river, small on the grid of streets in the flat middle of the community back toward South Bay. Here was every home a castle Methodist style. Neighbors could easily see and hear what was happening inside your castle. (The place remains a treasure of Victorian cottage architecture endorsed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

On paper the north shore of South Bay looked more inviting than the south shore where the crowd of houses were being built. Hines was an honest map maker and showed the marshes along the south shore. On the other side of the bay, he showed how one road could rise from  the rocks of the Narrows and go up a small valley that led up to a raised meadow.

The Association built a wooden bridge across the entrance of the bay that invited all to explore the north shore. But fortunately for the beavers, religion promotes the gathering of people not their dispersal. Winter ice soon took down a large chunk of the bridge and it wasn't replaced. The bridge lasted long enough for one summer's trash to be rolled over and dumped behind some granite boulders.

With no bridge, the north shore of South Bay was immune to development. One could still walk around the bay, but hold your nose. On the peninsula between two marshes at the back of the bay, a slaughterhouse sated the appetites of Thousand Island Parkers and their guest. (You can still find cattle bones where the abattoir once flourished.) The Association compensated for not expanding across the bay by going vertical. Four smaller hotels flanked the big one. Most of the big Victorian houses along the river took in boarders.

The second of two hotels to grace the green of TIP
Where people gather, even Methodists, fashion takes over.  The open air Tabernacle began to boast less of salvation and more of being the Northern Chautauqua. “Camp Meeting” was soon dropped from the name. (Methodists still came to the Park. My mother's uncle a Methodist preacher from Chicago began coming in 1930 and soon bought a house that eventually became mine.) 

The man running the slaughter house got rights to graze cattle on the 400 acres the Park owned and didn't develop north and east of South Bay. A long granite ridge separated the slaughter house from the crowd of people. You can still find the barbed wire on the north crest of the ridge.

The ridge ran east from the open air Tabernacle for about a mile. North of the ridge and east of the slaughter house was one of the creeks that I saw the beavers turn into a paradise. On the Hines map lots lined the south crest of the ridge overlooking a pleasure ground "Oriental Park" and between that and the river were a few more hundred lots along a half dozen streets.

see if you can find lot 999 where I live

Those streets were never laid out. what looked good on paper did not work on granite. In 1875 the east end of the park was a working farm and for over 50 years it stayed that way, soon expanding its dairy barn and cheese factory. Much of the ridge was used for pasture. The association also fashioned a 9 hole golf course. 

Meanwhile on the wet side of the island George Pullman became the first millionaire to build a castle on his island. Following Pullman's lead an archipelago of millionaires clustered in the American channel south of Wellesley Island. Across from Alexandria Bay, German born George Boldt who owned the Waldorf Astoria topped them all by building a castle that belonged on the Rhine. He built his enormous yacht house on the island and developed farms to grow produce to be shipped by train to New York City.

Then Boldt's friend Edson Bradley, who was educated in Germany and made his millions off Old Crow Kentucky whiskey and representing the Whiskey interest in Washington, broke ranks. On the north shore of Wellesley Island, Bradley built "Arcadia" which with 45 rooms was hailed as the world's largest bungalow. The acres behind the mansion which included part of the shore of Eel Bay pastured Bradley's herd of Ayrshire cattle. All the rocks made the island much like the hills of Scotland.

Most likely Bradley bought a herd already established on the island. Hiram Moore who bragged to be the oldest resident of the island bred Ayrshire and Galway cattle on 508 acres. Gardner Putnam who lived in Thousand Island Park leased 96 acres near it where he bred Ayrshire and Durham cattle.

It was proudly said that on some summer weekends 7000 people lived in Thousand Island Park. Probably a few thousand head of cattle browsed the west end of the island 52 weeks a year. But don't weep for the beavers. There were none to be crowded out by development.

Thanks to the efficacy of the Newhouse trap by 1900 the New York State Department of Conservation decided there were no beavers in the state. The 14th edition of the trapping guide published by Oneida Manufacturing advised that if you wanted beavers, you best go to Canada. In 1905 the state began releasing beavers from Canada and Yellowstone Park in an effort to restore beavers to the Adirondacks. The State estimated there were 1,500 to 2,000 in the Adirondacks in 1914 and proudly listed where they were. In the 1920's the state allowed beaver trapping again.

If any beaver made it to the headland of Wellesley Island it may have found large wooden boat houses to den in. The owners would be far away during the long winter. Enough people stayed on the island in the winter to warrant a one room school house but as already noted Old Ernie said he didn't remember any boyhood trapping, fishing yes, but not trapping.

Judging from a story told at his funeral in 1997, Ernie may not have been that keen about trapping beavers in boat houses. He had told me that when trapped and not dead, beavers were gentle. Anyway the story goes that the cottage owners on Grinnell Island asked Ernie to keep their boathouses clear of beavers during the winter. Their logs and sticks were a mess to clean out. When they came back in the spring and saw their boathouses clear they asked Ernie how many he had killed. “None. I told them all to go to Picton Island.”

Meanwhile fate was working to get beavers back into the interior of the island. George Boldt finished the outside and but not the inside of his castle. His wife died and then he died in 1916. Perhaps because his friend was gone, when the Bradley mansion burned down in 1922, he and his family changed course and built the largest mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. The Bradley money wasn't there when Thousand Island Park had to sell its land between South and Eel Bays.

The business model of the Park Association failed. When the big hotel burned down in 1896 it was rebuilt but not after it burned down again in 1912. Even building grand suspension bridges from the US and Canadian mainland did not spark a boom in TI Park. What seemed so magical to get to by train was tedious by automobile. The Association sold stock and became a Corporation. Not enough.

Meanwhile, a woman broke from the crowd. As part of Chautauqua at the Park, Cornell University professors gave summer courses on nature, including drawing lessons from Anna Botsford Comstock. In her over 900 pages long Handbook of Nature Study, first published in 1911, Comstock didn't mention beavers or otters. So when Minna Anthony Common, the grand daughter of one of the original tent dwellers, looked for something to draw she didn't think of the swamps. She hiked up the granite ridge behind the Tabernacle and then made a trail to lead others in drawing birds and flowers.


The Park managers could not contrive a way to make money off the nature trail. The easiest way to stave off bankruptcy was to sell undeveloped land.

The heirs of the Bradleys showed the way. With his death in 1938, long bickering over his estate began. The land on the island was an afterthought and in the early 1950's it was sold to New York State. The pasture along the river became rather nice camp sites in Wellesley Island State Park.

Meanwhile Minna Anthony Common's daughter had married a local newspaper publisher and wound up on the Thousand Islands  State Parks Commission board. A newspaper reporter, as well as an artist and naturalist like her mother, Catherine Common Johnson hatched the plan for New York State to buy the golf course, the ridge above, the pasture below the other side including the two creeks and all of the north shore of South Bay and south shore of Eel Bay and all in between. 

Her family also contributed money to build a Nature Center high on the shore of Eel Bay to share and interpret the wildlife in the Park. Planned as a great place for teaching people about nature, no one gave a thought about what it would mean for beavers when the pastures south of the Nature Center returned to swamps.

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 around South and Eel Bays. Several times during every vacation we paddled through the Narrows between Wellesley and Murray Islands. The 40 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. Like the major, 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.

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 impossible we walked the trails of the state park up and down along the shores of the bays and the Narrows treating us to beautiful rocks and views. There were several long interior trails. The East Trail 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 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. We called it Shangri-la.

Another interior trail went to a huge man-made "duck pond." To attract ducks the director of the Nature Center loosed bulldozers in the flat area marked “Meadow Park” in the 1875 Hines map east of the palisade above the Narrows and just north of a slight ridge forming the north shore of South Bay. 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.

development becomes a "Duck Pond"

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 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, just the bare essential above it all. 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.

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 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.
We didn't need a map for our hikes: cross the golf course, go up and over the wooded ridge, cross the First Valley thickets, meadow and swamp made easy to cross by a beaver dam. Go up and over the next wooded ridge and then cross the swamp in the Second Valley either using the beaver dam to the west or hazard the soggy wetland to the east. Then up over a higher wooded ridge and cross the Third Valley, a well wooded swamp a short dam of a small pond then climb up onto the rocks of the highest ridge on the whole island. Dry ourselves, our shoes and socks and have lunch. 

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 for a few days 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.

And with shrubs in our face, flowers rearing up amidst tall grasses (we saw closed gentians – purple!), and birds either bursting with springs songs or fattening up for migration, we didn't feel like we were missing anything. In the evening if the sunset over the river was dull, we sat on the ridge beyond the golf course overlooking the First Valley and let the hermit and wood thrushes, then veeries and whip-poor-wills sum it up for us. In the spring the peepers and chorus frogs tuned our heart strings.

I am ashamed to say it, but we thought of the three beaver ponds we walked by as being in the way though mercifully easier to navigate than thickets, meadows and swamps. Remember, we were nuts about the pink granite. Top of the World!

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

The Director of the Nature Center let duck hunters use the man-made duck pond. 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.”

Trapping pressure slowed beaver development. Then in the 1980's 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.

In the fall of 1994 I paid my respects to the State wildlife biologists working for the Department of Environmental Conservation in Watertown. One 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.

Surviving trapping stopped did not mean that the beavers were home free. The Director of the Nature Center 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.

(And we finally met that mean old Director who fortunately had more tolerance for greenhorns than he did for beavers. We claimed to have seen a sloth in the woods. Bob Wakefield hiked out with us and introduced us to a porcupine. A graduate of Antioch College he loved plants, wetlands and fish. He hustled as many fish and clams up from South Bay to the Duck Pond that he could. If he didn't help the beavers, he did help the otters.) 

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 pond in the Second Valley had begun damming the valley below, and I didn't notice.

Then in the fall of 1986 Leslie was pregnant. For two years after the spring of 1987 we stuck to groomed trails with baby in a pouch.

with my niece and son in pouch at the Big Pond 1987

 For three years after that we stayed on groomed trails with our son in hand. Raising a child we found that, summers on the island were not so bad. With playground, ball field, ice cream and candy store and dozens playmates, we tolerated the noise that we had avoided for years.
For five years we didn't cross the valleys as of old. So one hot August afternoon I decided to check on the Third Ridge, the boulders where we used to dry our shoes and socks. I hiked out to it via the East Trail and headed home across the trackless valleys. Thanks to a recently cut surveying line between the park and neighboring private lands I had a straight line to follow but I knew that straight ahead was a tangle of willows and osier that Leslie and I had twice fought our way through. We couldn't see the water lapping the roots but if we took a wrong step we discovered it was a foot deep.
Instead I bumped into a twelve foot high beaver dam. I climbed the rocky slope  beside the dam taller than I imagined beavers could ever make and saw a pond that curved away from a ridge of tall oaks and pines farther than my eye could see off to the east completely submerging the wetland that had been such a trial to cross. I knew the name of the magnificent beaver 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 a genie had been put back in its bottle. One hundred acres of rippling water behind a 12 foot high wall of mud and logs expertly made and promising a symphony of wish fulfillments that had nothing to do with humans. In the middle of an island in the middle of a river that had become the most sensible things in my life, here was the place not to test my muscles, not to identify or even to understand. To simply wait and watch on the banks of the Lost Swamp Pond in all seasons until I tired of the startling half seen reality – imagine the world under the water.

Two years later we subletted our apartment and found that it is easy for an artist and writer to leave town. Leslie planned her garden. I really thought I was escaping history by leaving Washington behind. Seeing the Lost Swamp Pond inspired me to finally see a beaver. We tried to camp beside the pond below the Big Pond and a beaver's incessant tail slaps soon drove us home. I saw that the beavers made more ponds below the Big Pond each making the hike to see them a little shorter. Baby steps and I was content just to sit on banks of ponds and hope ripples turned into a beaver or a rarer otter. Nothing I read about beavers warned me of what I would see in the next ten years.
But can a history of beavers and otters reacting to each other move us the way histories of our own species do? Doesn't the innocence of animals keep humans from drawing any lessons much beyond the just-so stories or the sober deductions from evolution? What can I say? The end of this obsession, yes, it became an obsession, surprised me.

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