Paddling among the summer crowds

The entrance gaped open here and there, like a smile missing some teeth. Dark tunnels disappeared mysteriously deep into the pile of mud and sticks the beavers used to construct the lodge.

The entrance gaped open here and there, like a smile missing some teeth. Dark tunnels disappeared mysteriously deep into the pile of mud and sticks the beavers used to construct the lodge. The whole structure lay in the open, waiting for the water levels to rise and make it more secretive again.

Slowly, we paddled closer. Freshly gnawed sticks, the peeled wood slick like wet skin, floated in the water. We edged the canoe right up to the beaver lodge and tried to peer into the multitude of tunnels. Darkness.

Suddenly, a swell rose where the bottom of the structure met the water. A succession of waves radiated out from the beaver home as one of its inhabitants dove out. The stocky shape swam deftly past us, little feet kicking like a frog, then rose to the surface a few meters behind the canoe. The beaver eyed us suspiciously as she drew circles in the bay. In the next instant, she was followed by her mate.

Yet another turbulence drew our attention back to the lodge as a third, smaller beaver swam out, perhaps a more bumbling, trusting fellow, for he surfaced right next to our canoe. We looked down in wonder at the little brown guy, only an arm’s length away. After a few seconds of contemplation it dawned on him that we were not a floating log and with a loud, if belated smack of his tail, he vanished underwater.

Sam and I waited, half expecting ever more beavers to leave their vulnerable lodge. It would be easy digging for a bear right now. Soft mewing sounds came from inside the pile of sticks – or so I thought for a moment. Babies? We strained our ears but only heard the twittering of birds, until the alarm cries of a couple of Canada geese drowned out all other sounds.

The honking duo flew in a half-hearted way it seemed, just a metre above the water, eventually gaining a bit more height. If not in pursuit, then at least choosing the same general direction as the geese, came an osprey. We nudged the canoe away from the beaver lodge and began paddling again, following the commotion of birds.

All these summer creatures! After the long, long months with few birds and just the odd moose, caribou and wolf around, the variety and number of animals out there is quite staggering. It makes me feel a bit like the local yokel in a resort town who stares at the first wave of tourists with awe and a slack lower jaw.

The wild goose chase ended when the osprey settled daintily on the dead crown of a pine tree, making a fluttery spectacle of folding up his wings. What a show-off. “There’s something in the water,” said Sam. I turned around to see him staring down at the reflecting surface. A light-coloured shape lay down there among the rocks.

“Is it something dead?”

“Not really. It’s pretty cool. Wonder how it got there.”

I drew on my paddle with more effort as the canoe pivoted on the spot. The water threw clouds and sky back up at me, then my eyes fastened on a sunken moose antler.

“That’s an interesting spot to cast an antler! Must have hung on by just a thread until he started swimming.”

We carried on, closer to the tree where the osprey still sat. Such high-strung birds: where a bald-headed eagle would have continued to sit sedately, fixing us with one pale eye, the osprey nervously took to the air again.

Two arctic terns, not feeling too territorial yet, sat on a reef and exchanged endearments in their shrill tongue. I have a weakness for these elegant fliers who travel between the ends of the earth twice a year, for their sheer bravado and roguish attacks on unsuspecting boaters. But my love doesn’t quite extend to their earsplitting voices.

In the distance behind us, we could still see two of the beaver trio patrolling their bay. We paddled home closely to shore, hoping to spot a bear, but only discovered the paw and hoof prints of caribou and wolves in the sand – the other locals who find their home suddenly populated beyond their wildest winter dreams.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.