Monday, November 14, 2011



Arguments about our national sport or our national game are so much fun because they don't matter a dam. (In honour of the dentally defective rat, I have dropped the n.)
I divide Canadians into two groups: those for whom beavers have been a nuisance and those who think all our animals, especially the beaver, have sacred places in the Canadian identity.
I know beaver have become part of our language. We praise someone by saying he works like a busy beaver. But that's the problem. I just wish they didn't work so hard.
Canadians should have been warned decades ago because Grey Owl, the famous writer about beaver, who even cut holes in his floor as a beaver door, turned out to be a phony Englishman without native blood.
The latest fuss has been triggered by a Conservative senator, Nicole Eaton, who says the polar bear should replace the beaver as Canada's national animal emblem because beavers are a costly nuisance. Amen!
There are several ironies. Eaton has spoken in the past in praise of beaver but then a family started living under her cottage deck every summer. As a senator she should be careful about suggesting changes to the status quo. Beavers are plentiful but Canadian senators are an endangered species.  She's also a member of the Eaton department store family that had a great rivalry with the Hudson Bay Company which was built on the backs of dead beavers and put four beavers on its coat of arms in 1678.
I have had countless encounters with beavers but, thank heavens, never a polar bear outside the zoo. It's on my bucket list of something I want to see, something I share with centuries of  people going back to  prehistoric and medieval times who had fearful admiration for bears of all kinds
Unlike most Canadians, I have worked in the North, but not where the magnificent polar bear was monarch of all it could sniff. The true north strong and free is best represented by the polar bear.
But in the Yukon beavers are a problem too. I was Editor of the territory's only newspaper, the Whitehorse Star, and trying desperately as a 20-year-old not to blow my cool in the midst of a hard-drinking collection of really weird refugees from the rest of Canada.
My publisher, Harry Boyle (not the CBC one), had bought property on a remote lake, a log cabin that dated back to the Gold Rush and was coated with yellowed newspapers and magazines. There was only one other dwelling, not occupied since the miner had shot himself. When we went to explore, we found we had to wade for a hundred yards because the road had been flooded by beavers. We moved carefully since outside the car we were vulnerable to the grizzlies and moose who lived there, and we had neglected to bring a rifle powerful enough not to glance bullets off any charging animal.
I said I would go back when we could drive all the way.
Over the years I have had friends who grumbled about beaver damage on their farms. I wrote about Toronto parks and conservation authority officials who always seem to have a beaver problem which was complicated by those who just wanted to watch them cut down expensive trees so they didn't get a toothache.
But the toothy menaces became my annual problem when I bought a cottage on Burnt Point in the Trent River south of Havelock. Beavers welcomed me after the first winter by chopping down three lovely silver birch in front of my bunkie. For 30 years I have wrapped trees in fence wire and barbed wire, poured disagreeable liquid mixtures of stuff including cayenne pepper down the bark, and resorted to every protective gimmick that I heard about from locals or discovered on the internet.
Despite that, I have lost a baker's dozen of mature trees and countless saplings and bushes. One beaver chopped down a tree by pulling down the protective wire mesh and then didn't even bother to eat one twig.
I last wrote about beaver in a blog titled Getting Tough On Wild Life. That was just after I found that beaver had chomped down an evergreen that my son Mark and I planted 15 years ago and I hoped would soon resemble other lovely trees around the cottage.
Since then I have been in daily battle with a beaver and its mate who try to use the boat house more than I do. I played classical music 24/7 in the boat house and when that didn't work switched to jazz and left the light on. Nothing worked, it smelled like a dump, and it was a bit disconcerting to keep stepping on a beaver.
One day I was carrying a hiking stick and when the big male was tardy in vacating, I hammered him over the head. It swam into the channel and then circled back. A long shot, but I got a rifle from my gun safe and tried anyway. I may have hit it because it never came back.
My grandsons rather liked it because if they snuck up quietly, they could see it sleeping on its back with its little paws in the air like a giant gerbil.
A neighbour had suggested she would collect enough money to hire a trapper. I pointed out that the trappers used to charge $50 but it had gone up a lot. Besides, I said, he would just skin it. After all, Canada was built from the hides of dead beavers.
Didn't I worry about the authorities, she asked? I pointed out the OPP was in no position to be tough because its brass had beaver evicted from behind their Orillia headquarters. Besides, I had so much proof of beaver damage, it was disgusting.
(I really try to let nature exist without harm. Just leave me alone. I try to drive away the thick water snakes rather than kill them, I ignore the muskrat that lives in the point even when it built a second nest on the outboard support of my pontoon boat, the minks that live beside the muskrat are never bothered and I only shot the porcupine because it kept gnawing the cottage.)
Let's run through the pros and cons of this fun debate which is a grand diversion from matters that really count. In confusing stock market lingo, I'm a bull on the bear but a bear on the beaver.
Bears can eat you but beavers can't. So that's support for the beaver. Polar bears look great but beavers look retarded. So that backs the bear. Beavers are industrious and are praised as gifted engineers, but praising their hard work is like complimenting a terrorist. Beavers are monogamous, which used to be a compliment before Canadians became so horny. Polar bears want to mate with any bear in the neighbourhood, which mimics the nightclub scene any Saturday night.
No wonder that in a recent popularity survey, the polar bear has pulled ahead of the beaver because bad-ass handsome strong creatures are much more a Canuck thing that some squashed runt that hides in a mud hut when it isn't vandalizing the neighbourhood.

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