Odd memories, part 21

This one still kinda startles me a little, but at the same time, it’s strangely vindicating.

Back in the early nineties, I had been working for a humane society for a couple of years at the most, and had gotten involved in wildlife rehabilitation and advice (as I’ve mentioned before, several times.) Back then I was quasi-knowledgeable about wildlife, but most of it really came from the people I worked with and the networking that I was doing – it was simply the nature of the job. And one aspect, that I kind of fell into (because I’d expressed a mild interest and no one else was doing it,) was getting involved in what we called the Beaver Project.

Yeah yeah, snicker all you want, get it out of your system. Where I lived and at that moment in time, there was a fair amount of activity from North American beavers (Castor canadensis.) My first encounter, which might have even occurred before I began working for the humane society, came one afternoon as I was walking along the banks of the creek that ran behind the apartment complex. Hearing some soft noises in the tall grasses, I crept stealthily closer, and happened upon simply the largest beaver I have seen in my life, easily three times the size of what most people imagine them to be (I was later to find out that they can continue to grow all of their lives, so this was likely an elderly specimen.) Memory is, of course, a volatile and untrustworthy thing, but I would estimate its weight at better than 18 kg (40 lbs) and overall length better than a meter (don’t even make me translate that for you.) Its head looked almost as big around as mine, and there I was, perhaps four meters from it. It soon became aware of my presence, which provoked the abrupt and alarming momentary pause in its mastication of some vegetable matter, ensuring that I wasn’t about to scold it or anything, before it resumed its meal without twitching from the spot. Eventually, as I watched, it turned casually and ambled down into the water, clearly not at all impressed with my hulking presence (which at that time scarcely massed three times its own.) I was to later learn that beavers, overall, are pretty damn mellow unless provoked, which is usually accomplished by dogs. People they generally don’t give a damn about.

Anyway, in the humane society, the purpose of the project was to inform people about how to help prevent beaver damage to their trees, try to alleviate flooding by beaver dams, and deal with a lot of public ire and misinformation. This was my first experience with the angry homeowner and the bandwagon effect – once an article ran in the paper, there would be countless “me toos” that escalated in scale until it was a positive epidemic, and of course it all came down to the humane society to do something about it because it was obviously our fault that the dam things existed here in the first place. Now, there was no epidemic, and for the most part only passing activity in a few select areas, and I know this because I’d been out to examine numerous reports and complaints. Mostly, it was people that had lost an expensive exotic sapling that they’d had planted while purchasing property on the edge of a lake or waterway – again, this must have been our fault. I have very little patience for such idiocy, really; if you want a natural vista or landscape or whatever, it comes with animals, because that’s where they fucking live. You can eliminate this entirely by living in a seventh-floor walkup in NYC if it bothers you that badly.

Before I oversell this injustice, let me clarify by saying that a lot of it was our doing – specifically, advocating for humane control methods and not trapping. A little background is in order. North Carolina is still largely backwater (No! Really?) and hunting and trapping gets a lot more attention than humane management or even just ignoring the critters in the state; the NC Wildlife Resource Commission was started entirely to maintain game lands and still keeps this as a primary focus, only reluctantly embracing the idea that maybe not everyone wanted to shoot something. And there was a peculiar law on the books: while beavers could be snare-trapped (usually by a barbaric little Spanish Inquisition castoff,) they could not be relocated, so even if you live-captured them in a humane trap, you weren’t allowed to release them again somewhere else, even onto parks or reserves or game land. The idea, so I was told, was that you were simply relocating the problem. Which is true enough, except for the bare fact that it if wasn’t homeowners’ land it wasn’t a problem anymore. But yeah.

At some point in there, we were contacted by a homeowner in Norfolk, Virginia, a few hours away by car. It seems that the same thing was happening there: an expensive plot of land newly-given over to housing, on the edge of a Norfolk River tributary, was seeing beaver damage and many of the homeowners were up in arms, demanding that the city do something about it. It became quite contentious, with advocates on both sides going at it hammer-and-tongs, and finally the city council decided to hold a hearing where everyone could present their case and they would make a decision. The reason we were contacted? We had an active humane program regarding beavers, and so they wanted someone from our organization to come speak at the hearing.

Now, let me paint the picture. I had been providing advice over the phone, and had helped with a couple of our public programs, which meant a total of 30 attendees or so. That, and a couple of school plays, rounded out my public speaking experience. But I imagined it was a relatively routine thing and, since there was presently no one else in the program that was available or experienced enough, our director encouraged me to go. The humane society had a vehicle that I could use, the homeowner who contacted us would put me up for the night, and so, when the time came, off I went.

There had been no time to plan much, and I intended to get as much information from my host as I could so I could address things directly. Meanwhile, I found out that the little meeting I had imagined was nowhere near accurate: there would be perhaps a few hundred people in a large auditorium, and the major TV news crews would be present. We would have five minutes to speak, no questions or back-and-forth, from a podium standing in front of the raised dais where the twelve council members sat. If you’re picturing this medieval judgment tribunal situation thing, I can say there were no robes and the scene wasn’t lit by guttering torches, but otherwise that’s accurate. Nothing like getting thrown into the deep end. I had, at my host’s urging, brought along a dress jacket at least, something suitable to be buried within.

Did I mention that I did not, in fact, have my speech written out? I had a lot of notes and odd-and-ends, and my own basic experience on hand, but nothing was rehearsed and I had no idea how long my scribbled notes would actually run when spoken. I was lucky enough, however, to be the second-to-last to speak, which allowed me to hear all of the cases being made before me, and so I was in the enviable position of being able to rebut these directly, and I actually wrote the entire speech up to a few minutes before I was to go on. When called upon, I stepped smartly to the podium, activating (so I thought) the microcassette recorder in my pocket to save my stuttering and rambling for all eternity.

And… it went without a hitch. For anyone that has actually listened to my podcasts, this is probably impossible to believe, but it’s true nonetheless. I might have stumbled over a word or two, but considerably less than some of the speakers, and nothing untoward or even memorable. I was still young and hardly an imposing specimen of any kind, much less what you’d expect from “an expert,” but it went amazingly well. I finished with about fifteen seconds to spare in my five-minute allotment, and regained my seat over a hearty thumbs-up from my host.

The last speaker was someone from a nationwide animal advocacy group based in DC (no, not PETA, or even in the same ludicrous ballpark – PETA really is a bunch of dipshits); someone with a hell of a lot more experience in the matters than I had, and well-used to public speaking. After we all finished, the council adjourned for a brief deliberation, while some of the speakers (including my host, but thankfully not including me – I have a face for radio) provided interviews for the TV crews. Not too long afterward, a couple of the council members approached the last speaker and I and asked if we’d be available to attend a small private meeting the following morning. We weren’t in a position to say no, really, after the effort we’d done to be there that night in the first place, so we agreed. I made the stupid mistake of confirming that I did have a place to stay, which meant I spent the night in my host’s spare bedroom rather than in a lovely downtown Norfolk hotel. Idiot.

The meeting the next morning was basically to reassure the council that trapping was pointless, and not something that the city needed to be spending its money on (especially since that trappers would have been charging $50 a head, and there was no assurance that this would actually accomplish anything nor that it would not be an ongoing expense – if you have a habitat, animals will use it, and the possibility of beaver populations perpetually coming down from further up the tributary was distinct enough.) The council elected to leave the matter up to the individual homeowners as, “what to expect when you live on the waterfront.” I have to say, it felt pretty damn vindicating.

After that, the guy from the nationwide organization and I had breakfast together, comparing notes and experiences, and he admitted that he was faintly chagrined to have to follow me, because I said virtually everything that he’d had planned. Which was great to hear, you betcha, but not terribly surprising; the information remains the same, and I pointed out that hearing two disparate sources reiterating the same info may likely have cemented the council’s decision, since most of the other speakers varied wildly on both expectations and the heinous damage that they claimed was being done. But overall, I still look back on this episode with a little disbelief – there were plenty of ways how, and plenty of reasons why, my speech could have gone awry, and it was by far the most public thing that I’ve done, even today. And yet, it helped with matters since, because I knew that I handled that well enough and so taking control of a wedding party or jumping onstage during a technical glitch stirred nothing in me more than a momentary nervousness.

By the way, somehow I never did trigger the cassette recorder when I thought I did, so I didn’t have any record of how it went other than my scribbled notes. Ah well.

Now, since I’m on the subject, I have to add part two.

Sometime after that, we’d received several complaints about flooding and so on along another creek in the area, one that we knew had the occasional mid-size beaver dam on it, because that was one of the projects I’d worked on; there are numerous methods of trying to ensure that beavers do not stop up too much of the water flow, all of them labor-intensive and none of them particularly effective – beavers detect water flow and try to stop it, because deep water is protection and access to their food plants. Wanting to determine the extent of the damming and the actual population of the rodents, we figured the best bet was to check out as much of the creek as possible, and this meant kayaking it. I’d done more than a passing amount of kayaking on our homebuilt models while back in NY, but did not possess one here, and so had to rent a whitewater performance kayak from the neighboring town. This craft was a far cry from what I was used to, which was a multi-person open-topped model where you could carry a small amount of cargo; instead, this was a seed-shaped needle of a craft with one of those skirts that you wrap around your waist and snap over the lip of the single-opening itself, to keep water out. This was the kind that you can eskimo-roll, a term that still exists even while “Eskimo” is being considered racist. Anyway, I had no idea how to, um, “E-word-roll” a kayak and wasn’t about to try it.

I want you to bear in mind that this was in February, so the water was still quite cold and not something that you wanted to splash about in. I endeavored to get into the kayak without setting foot in the water, finding in the process that these sport models are very laterally unstable, and also that the foot pegs pushed me up onto the seat back. This isn’t as egregious as it sounds, because the seat back rose all of six centimeters, I believe, but it was still uncomfortable. I pushed away from shore into the middle of the creek and started to turn.

Really unstable. Almost immediately the kayak decided on its own that we should E-word-roll, and turned turtle in a flash. I was in about a meter of water, not really the depth that you would make the attempt even if you were so inclined, and all I pictured was getting upside down without any knowledge of how to right myself and getting trapped within the kayak. Before I got fully horizontal on my way over, I’d slammed one paddle tip into the bottom, in an attempt to halt my inversion, and kicked madly out of the kayak and skirt. While this was happening I know I was uttering some desperate, unmanly, and extremely unintelligible sounds, even worse than when someone fishes their phone out of the toilet. It was over in seconds of course, and the water wasn’t remotely deep enough to pose a hazard even if I couldn’t swim (which I could,) but now I was soaked to the skin in 5°c weather.

Annnnddd that was it, wasn’t it? I’d have to go home and change, and still wasn’t sure how to handle this unstable piece of shit, and should probably just give it up and settle for hiking the creek edges as far as I could, some other day. As I mentally planned all of this, I got pissed off, and noticed that the wet clothes weren’t bothering me as much as I thought they would (though soaked, it was still a winter jacket, and of course a good mad-on does wonders for body temperature.) And at some point, while thinking about throwing the kayak back on top of the car, I noticed that the foot pegs were adjustable and set for someone about a meter shorter than I was. Eventually, I decided to give it another go.

Let me tell you, in those itty-bitty performance kayaks, center of gravity is important, and readjusting the pegs so I could sit in the seat improved the stability quite a bit – it was still quite tippy if I leaned at all, but manageable with just a little presence of mind. And so, I completed my mission, or what I could of it anyway, which was enough to answer all of the questions that I had. Because the dams that I encountered were feeble little things that didn’t raise the water level 30cm, while the water was perpetually stained orange from the ubiquitous Carolina clay, indicative of extensive runoff from areas where all the topsoil had been removed – the flooding wasn’t coming from the beaver activity, but from improper stormwater management from the nearby road construction efforts. Far too much of my journey was spent out of the kayak anyway, dragging it over snags and shallow areas because the creek wasn’t capable of supporting a single kayak’s passage, much less flooding out someone’s property, and a rise of a couple of handspans would have completely swamped the minimal beaver dams that I did encounter – the population couldn’t have been more than a dozen or so in a kilometer stretch. Certainly not an epidemic.

And the following year, I had the bandwagon effect confirmed, because then the papers had moved on to other topics and, while the beaver populations appeared unchanged from the year before, we received about 10% of the calls that we had previously. People are weird.