HOW TO HUNT AND CATCH THE BEAVER
HOW TO HUNT AND CATCH THE BEAVER
During the greater part of the time since the settlement of America by Europeans, the beaver has been a favorite object with hunters. The general aspect of the beaver is that of a very large muskrat, but the greater size of the beaver, the thickness and breadth of its head, and its horizontally flattened, broad, and scaly tail, render it impossible to mistake it for any other creature. When closely examined in its movements, both on shore and in the water, it also closely resembles the muskrat, having the same quick step, with great vigor and celerity, either on the surface or in the depths of the water.
Beavers have long been the theme of the naturalist's admiration, on account of their apparent sagacity and skill in building their habitations. They are not particular in the site they select for their dwellings, but in a lake or pond where a dam is not required, they are careful to build where the water is sufficiently deep. The materials used in constructing their dams are the trunks and branches of small birch, mulberry, willow, poplar, alder, elm, ash, etc. The strength of their teeth and their perseverance may be estimated by the size of the trees they cut down.
Dr. Best informs us that he has seen a mulberry tree eight inches in diameter which had been gnawed down by the beavers. I have seen both ash and elm of that size cut down by them. These are cut in such a manner as to fall into the water, and then floated towards the site of the dam. The figure of the dam varies, according as the stream has a gentle or a rapid current. Along with the trunks and branches of trees, they intermingle mud and stones, to give greater security, and the dams remain long after the beavers have been exterminated. The dwellings of the beavers are formed of the same material as the dam, and are adapted in size to the number of inhabitants; there are seldom more than four old ones, and six or eight young ones. The walls are very skillfully and strongly constructed, and the whole fabric is a curious evidence of the sagacity of the animal. To capture beavers residing on a small river or creek, the Indians find it necessary to stake the stream across, to prevent the animals from escaping, and then they try to ascertain where the vaults or washes in the banks are situated.
This can only be done by those who are very experienced in such explorations. The hunter is furnished with an ice-chisel, lashed to a handle four or five feet in length. With this instrument he strikes against the ice, as he goes along the edge of the banks. The sound produced by the blow informs him. when he is opposite one of these vaults. When one is discovered, a hole is cut through the ice sufficiently large to admit a full-grown beaver, and the search is continued until as many of the places of retreat are discovered as possible. During the time the most expert hunters are thus occupied, the others, with the women, are busy in breaking open the beaver-houses, which, as may be sup posed from what has been already stated, is a task of some difficulty. The beavers, alarmed at the invasion of their dwellings, take to the water and swim with surprising swiftness to their retreats in the banks; but their entrance is betrayed to the hunters watching the holes in the ice, by the motion and discoloration of the water. The entrance is instantly closed with stakes of wood, and the beaver, instead of finding shelter in his cave, is made prisoner and destroyed. The hunter then pulls the animal out, if within reach, by the introduction of his hand and arm, or by a hook designed for this use fastened to a long handle. Beaver-houses found in lakes or other standing waters offer an easy prey to hunters, as there is no occasion for Staking the water across.
Among the Hudson Bay Indians every hunter has the exclusive right to all the beavers caught in the washes discovered by him. Each individual, on finding one, places some mark, such as a pole or the branch of a tree stuck up, in order to know his own. Beavers caught in any house are also the property of the discoverer, who takes care to mark his claim.
The number of beavers killed in the northern parts of this country is exceedingly great, even at the present time, after the fur trade has been carried on for so many years, and the most indiscriminate warfare waged uninterruptedly against the species. In the year 1820, sixty thousand beaver skins were sold by the Hudson Bay Company, which we can by no means suppose to be the whole number killed during the preceding season. If to these be added the quantities collected by the traders from the Indians of the Missouri country, we may form some idea of the immense number of these animals which exist throughout the vast regions of the North and West. It is a subject of regret that an animal so valuable and prolific should be hunted in a manner tending so evidently to the extermination of the species, when a little care and management on the part of those interested might prevent unnecessary destruction, and increase the source of their revenue.
The old beavers are frequently killed within a short time of their littering season, and with every such death from three to six are destroyed; the young are often killed before they have attained half their growth and value, and of necessity, long before they have contributed to the continuance of their species. In a few years, comparatively speaking, the beaver has been exterminated in all the Atlantic and in the "Western States, as far as the middle and upper waters of the Missouri; while in the Hudson Bay Possessions they are becoming annually more scarce, and the race will eventually be extinguished throughout the whole continent. A few individuals may, for a time, elude the immediate violence of persecution, and like the degraded descendants of the aborigines of our soil be occasionally exhibited as melancholy mementos of the tribes long previously whelmed in the fathomless gulf of avarice. The business of trapping requires great experience and caution, as the senses of the beaver are very keen, and enable him to detect the recent presence of the hunter by the slightest traces. It is necessary that the hands should be washed clean before the trap is handled and baited, and that every precaution should be employed to elude the vigilance of the animal.
The bait which is used to entice the beavers is prepared from the substance called castor, obtained from the glandulous pouches of the male animal, which contains sometimes from two to three ounces. This substance is called by the hunters barkstone, and is squeezed gently into an open-mouthed phial. The contents of five or six of these castor bags are mixed with a nutmeg, twelve or fifteen cloves, and thirty grains of cinnamon, in fine powder, and then the whole is stirred up with as much whiskey as will give it the consistency of mustard prepared for the table. This mixture must be kept closely corked up, and in four or five days the odor will become more powerful; with care it may be preserved for months without injury. Various other strong aromatics are sometimes used to increase the pungency of the odor. Some of this preparation, smeared upon the bits of wood with which the traps are baited, will entice the beaver from a great distance.
The castor, whose odor is similar to tanners' ooze, gets the name of barkstone from its resemblance to finely powdered bark; the sacks that contain it are about two inches in length. Behind these, and between the skin and root of the tail, are found two other oval cysts, lying together, which contain a pure, strong oil of a rancid smell.
During the winter season the beaver becomes very fat, and its flesh is esteemed by the hunters as excellent food, but those occasionally caught in the summer are very thin and unfit for the table. They lead so wandering a life at this season, and are so much exhausted by the collection of materials for building, or the winter stock of provisions, as well as by suckling their young, as to be generally, at that time, in a very poor condition. Their fur, during the summer, is of little value, and it is only in winter that it is to be obtained in that state which renders it so desirable to the fur traders.
Beaver hunting is a laborious occupation. With your beaver traps on your back you start into the wild woods and go to some small branches or creeks that empty into lakes or large streams. Follow these up until you discover small trees, cut down by the beaver. It is not exactly like chopping done with an axe, but it is fairly chopped after all,ócut smoothly from above and below, lengthwise with the grain. If the cut seems fresh and new, the beavers are close by. Don't make much noise, nor leave much sign behind you, if you intend to catch them in a trap.
We will suppose this is late in the fall, just before the winter sets in, and that you suddenly come upon a dam as you travel up the little stream, and it proves to he an old dam of long standing with a large pond of water above it. You may naturally conclude that there is a large family of beavers, say eight or ten in number. Of course you want to catch them all in your trap, so hunt carefully around the pond and you will find their feeding place, where they have eaten the bark off from their feed wood. Here set your trap in four inches of water, with a twelve-pound stone fastened to the end of the chain. Fasten to it also a piece of bark twelve or fourteen feet long, the other end being fastened to the shore. When the beaver is caught he will make for deep water, and the stone will sink him and drown him. The bark will let him go far enough, and will enable you to trace the trap and pull him out. The bark should be fastened to a stake under water, and the slack should be coiled up and put under the stone. The whole apparatus, except the trap, should be nicely covered with mud. If you find the place where they haul in their timber, set a trap there in the same way. Also just at the mouths of their holes, under water. Always have the trap sufficiently weighted, or the I beaver will come ashore and amputate his leg. When you set the trap at the feeding place, smear the wood around it with the castor scent before described.
Now I must tell you of one of my beaver hunts. When I was a boy I went with one of my comrades, loaded with our guns, traps, blankets, and provisions, to the head of a small stream in the middle of a great cedar swamp. We followed the stream through swamps and thickets for a mile or so, sometimes crawling on our hands and knees, and sometimes climbing over fallen trees. By and by our little creek grew broader, and as we began to leave the swamp, it spread into a large pond with a dam about thirty rods long. On one. side the land was rather low, on the other side a steep bluff, rising directly from the water to the height of about eighty feet. The bluff was covered with a growth of small poplar and birch. The beaver had made roads or slides from the very top to the bottom, some smooth and neat. They cut their wood on the very top of the bluff, and slid it down into the pond.
Now here was a chance to catch a beaver, but I lacked just such a little book as this to tell me how to do it. It was near night, and we cut a hole in the dam, and set one trap there and another at a feeding place; then we went over behind the hill to camp for the night. It was not very far away, the hill being a narrow one. Here we struck a fire and prepared our supper of broiled pork and bread, and got ready for a night's rest. But the scent of the broiled pork attracted the attention of a pack of gray wolves of the bigger sort, and when we had got fairly down and asleep, with our guns under our heads, the whole pack set up a howl which made us dream of wolves until I awoke, whispering to my companion; this caused him to start up and speak aloud. One old she-wolf, which had come up within a few feet of us, commenced to bark outright. Just then my old gun poured out a stream of fire, that looked a rod long in the pitch darkness, and the whole pack set up a howl that made the woods roar again. A few discharges of our guns, one at a time, made them change their minds, and we started up our fire, which drove them off to the distance of about half a mile, where they kept up their howling until daybreak. The muss upset our beaver catching for that night, and finally, when we did get a couple in the traps, as they were not weighted, one of them ran away with the trap after cutting a dry ash pole nearly in two in several places, and the other drew himself ashore and cut off his leg, leaving that in the trap to tell the story.
When you cut a beaver dam, don't make a hole more than six inches deep. Wade in the water while you are doing it; don't step on the land, and don't spit on it; neither handle it with dirty hands. Set the trap as before directed in about four inches of water where they would naturally swim up to the gap in the dam, and you will be sure to catch them.
Another mode is to take a poplar or alder stick or pole, and stick it in the water in a slanting direction near tho feeding place. Set the trap near the bottom of the stick, and as they work down in gnawing off the bark for food, they will get into the trap. This plan works well after the water is frozen over.
Thrasher, Halsey. The Hunter and Trapper. New York: Orange Judd and Company, 1808.
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