7/31/2019 3:05:00 PM The beaver's role in America, past and present
Ron Kuecker Outdoors Columnist
Right now, as I sit writin' and you sit readin', baby beaver are out there struggling for survival. They're probably around 10 pounds by now, just switching over from mommas milk to the juicy bark of cottonwoods or willows. Who knows how they'll end up, some will starve, some will survive; a few might get grabbed by an eagle or coyote if they stray too far from water. For sure, they're unwanted by most because they plug drainage culverts, ditches, tile and in some cases even the Des Moines River. I once saw a dam completely across the Des Moines River, just north of Heron Lake, to the west side of the bridge, on Henry Vonk's land. It was in the winter, a nice covering of snow all around, and a thing of true beauty. One of those rarities in southwest Minnesota. That dam, and lesser ones, keeps the water at the desired depth for beaver, two to three feet deep. They dig out canals in the bottom, build lodges or excavate bank dens to escape into for winter. It is there where they sleep and give birth to young born with their eyes open in a cavity above water and under a protective layer of sticks and mud. Well, that wasn't always the status of America's largest rodent that lives to be 20 years old on occasions. Once they were king of the hill. Shortly after America was settled from the north and the east, which started nearly 500 years before Columbus, beaver pelts became our first big export. Fur that previously came from Scandinavia and Siberia began to "run out." Explorers searching for gold and spices via a northwest passage to Asia began settling in their New-Found-Land. They soon learned that the natives of the area wanted their knives, axes, pots and pans and would readily trade their hard-earned beaver pelts for them. Upper New York, Pennsylvania and all areas on either side of the St. Lawrence River became the center of early beaver trading. The pelts were used for human coats in winter but their biggest usage went back to Europe, mainly England and France. There the pelts were turned into beaver felt and ultimately, a beautiful hat. To own such a hat turned an average man into one of dignity and prominence. So, the beaver turned into the main prize of early development of this country along with the many cod found along the shorelines. The cod, of course, were dried and sent back to Europe, some of which was rehydrated with lye and called lutefisk. Mad hatters A little aside to the huge fur trade that started this country was the development of the felt hat, most of which took place in Paris. There a select and well-respected business developed. In the process of developing beaver fur to beaver felt, mercury dissolved in acid was used to firm up the fabric. This resulted in the formation of fumes loaded with mercury. Long exposure to that element caused a dementia with many symptoms varying from paralysis to just acting crazy. Thus the term "mad hatters" evolved. Don't kill your catch The 1960s was a time of serious social unrest. They resulted from such things as the assassinations of both John and Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the Kent State shooting of students by the National Guard. Yet, out of that terrible era for our country came something very good in terms of the outdoors. B.A.S.S. was born. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society was started by its main originator, Ray Scott. He thought that if bowling, golf, even pocket billiards could draw such a following why couldn't a fishing contest do the same? So, using his ability as an organizer, Scott set up the first bass fishing tournament in Arkansas. He coaxed 106 bass fisherman into paying $100 each to take part. It was a huge success and he had another one in the fall. That bass society soon grew and began putting out their own magazine called Bassmaster. That publication not only sold memberships it cultivated a new culture in fishing. Not all have liked the advent of huge 70 mph bass boats or the technology that has revolutionized the sport. But most do enjoy the depth finders, fish locators and now, underwater fish cameras that have evolved. But the biggest and best of the developments that came from Scott's B.A.S.S. was the discipline of catch and release. It came to him after a ton of fish were caught in Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas. They were brought to the weigh-in on stringers, all dead. This can't go on. Speaking that winter at a trout fishing gathering he saw that trout fishers were all returning their fish to the water. He thought, bass fisherman have to do the same. Live wells were developed, stringers mostly became antiques and now only a fish or two die during tournaments. A "Don't Kill your Catch" rule soon became a widespread catch and release program. Huge sturgeon released Appearing on my Samsung this morning was a very enjoyable video. Two 12- and 14-year-old boys had been watching a huge fish in Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis for days. They decided to catch him. They got a rope, formed a slipknot and placed it ahead of the tail. Then they pulled it ashore, measured it at 73 inches and released the giant sturgeon. Tech savvy friends video'd the whole process.