A Day in the Life: Whitewater rafting with beavers

I recently went on a 4-day vacation with Andrew and a bunch of his family. We went whitewater rafting down ~44 miles of the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument on the western edge of Colorado, starting at the famous Gates of Lodore. Because I’m a nerd and think about beaver dams at least five times per day, I found myself googling “beaver dam gates of lodore green river” out of curiosity – just to see if there were any news articles or stories about beavers in the area. Turns out that the Green River, particularly the sections we rafted on, has an incredibly rich history with beavers.

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Andrew standing in Lodore Canyon. Steep rocky walls, shrubby vegetation, relatively fast water…not your typical beaver habitat.

First, to set the scene: Lodore Canyon is a steep walled canyon that the Green River flows through. In Lodore Canyon, the rapids range from Class I to Class IV depending on water level. The canyon itself is very arid and the vegetation is largely shrubby. While the landscape was incredibly beautiful, it didn’t really strike me as the kind of place that beavers like to hang out.

BOY, WAS I WRONG!

In the 1820’s, during the fur trapping boom, a number of trappers in search of beaver pelts attempted to raft down the Green River where numerous beaver were rumored to live by the local Native Americans. In 1825, General William Ashley made his way through the treacherous rapids in pursuit of beaver. Then again in 1838, Trapper Dennis Julien made his way through the perilous waters chasing after those highly profitable beaver pelts. There were probably a lot more trappers that travelled the Green River looking for furs, but the written records of them are sparse due to both high fatality rates and lack of literacy and writing utensils.

So I knew going into the trip that historically there were a lot a beavers in the area, but I sort of figured that current beaver populations were probably low and there wouldn’t be much evidence of past or present beaver occupation in Lodore Canyon.

BOY, WAS I WRONG!

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A nice illustration of a beaver bank burrow. The only way to even tell they are there is when the water level is low and you can see the entrance hole.

On the first day we were rafting the river, I saw a large beaver lodge, and probably 20 bank burrows. While beavers like to build dams and lodges for safety and comfort as I’ve talked about before, when the water they are on is particularly variable, fast, or large they will skip the building process altogether and just burrow into the riverbanks to make their homes.

I continued to see a TON of beaver bank burrows over the next few days. On the second to last day we stopped at a creek called Jone’s Hole that had a giant, glorious beaver dam on it. We hiked around the area first, saw some ancient pictographs on the canyon walls (including one that the majority of the people on the trip agreed was of a beaver), went to a waterfall, and finally made a quick stop at the dam. It was a very impressive dam considering how much water can come rushing down the creeks that feed the Green River. Some tourists take their picture with remarkable scenery or historic landmarks. I take my picture with beaver dams.

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Since I talked a lot about beavers, obsessively pointed out their bank burrows, and took pictures of a dam this whole vacation counts as time worked, right?

That night we camped at a site that had an active bank burrow and the beaver was known to come out and swim around in the mornings and evenings.

Naturally, after being confined to close quarters with me for 3 days so far, the rest of the people on the trip knew all about beavers and all about how much I like to learn about them/study them/see them. When we got to the campsite, all 25 rafters and all 5 guides were on high alert looking for the beaver. After a few teasing middle-of-the-night tail slaps, the beaver finally made an appearance at around 5 in the morning. I wish I could say I got some pictures of him, but I was so absorbed in the moment watching him swim around with branches in his mouth for snacks that I completely spaced out on photographing it.

Overall, the trip was awesome and I actually got to talk to a big group (25 people and 5 guides) about the role of beavers and beaver dams in local ecosystems, geology, and hydrology. One person even said they were so interested in what I was saying that they wanted to read my dissertation in a few years when it’s done (we’ll see if they still feel that way when a 100+ page document shows up in their inbox).

All joking around aside, if only one person came out of the trip with a better understanding of beavers and their dams, then I’d say it was a very successful trip. Maybe one person did. Or maybe 30 people did. I’m happy either way.

 

 

 

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