Beaver Music in the Snow

by Hope Sawyer Buyukmihci, November 1968
Published in the January 2012 issue of The Beaver Defenders

The thermometer that January night read 8° above zero. The crackle of my feet over the frozen swamp told me the temperature was plunging down.

I was out to get photos of a grey fox who passed by the beaver lodge nightly. Setting out bait on a white patch of ice next to the lodge, I went into my blind. The sun’s afterglow bathed the swamp with cold light and all around I could hear the groans of ice contracting — violent, ripping noises like canvas being torn by a giant hand.

As darkness settled, the beavers awoke and began talking to each other. A few whines came muffled from the inside of the lodge, and then a splash as one dived in and visited the underwater pantry, where a generous hoard of sticks was stashed away.

Great horned owl drawing by co-founder Hope Sawyer Buyukmihci
Great horned owl drawing

Out of the distant woods came a soft hoot, mingling with the beavers’ voices. It was the cry of the great horned owl, who often speaks at dusk. Suddenly a black form moved among the frozen swamp weeds close by. At first I thought it was the fox, but a fox would have drifted like a shadow over the ice. This figure moved in an ambling fashion, and there was a high hump to this silhouette, telling me he was a raccoon.

When the blurred shape reached the middle of the frame, I pressed the trigger. There was a blinding flash and a sharp scurry of feet, then quiet. I turned the film, cocked the shutter and put in a fresh bulb.

The moon had risen low, and it cast a murky glow. The mercury had dipped to zero. No wonder the stream was frozen solid to the very lip of the falls. The water flowed swiftly there, and the yellow moon, making a path of gold across the snowy swamp, caught bright glitter from the tumbling water. The owl had stopped hooting and a beaver who had been gnawing under the ice was still.

Beavers in lodge drawing by co-founder Hope Sawyer Buyukmihci
Beaver kits in lodge

All at once there came to my ears a chorus which enlivened me; the joyous voices of beaver kittens snug in their winter lodge. Muted by the frozen walls, issued forth melodious voices — first one, then another joining in on a lower pitch, blending with the tone of the first. To this duet was added another voice, then yet another, blending into a quartet — barbershop music at its best, with four voices humming in exquisite harmony.

The sounds carried me away to a springtime orchard, where bees murmured in the blossoms and a May sun shone. For a few minutes my eyes forgot the stark scene before me, the frigid swamp and frozen lodge. Then I woke with a start.

Turbulence had erupted below the dam. There came Greenbrier, the father beaver, pushing through the water to his dam. With a rattle of ice he hauled himself onto the dam, where in the dim moonlight he loomed big as a bear. Lowering his head, he began to gnaw, and by the guttural sound I realized that he was gnawing ice. Grinding it away to keep open a channel, while the water swirled black and swift around him.

It was a moment of vivid contrast. The squat, powerful figure daring hardship to protect his loved ones; within the lodge, in warmth and comfort, carefree children singing at their play. Over it all the cold moon shone and the tortured ice snapped and growled in the grip of temperature change.

For two hours I sat entranced, while the murmur of the happy youngsters rose and fell like a baby’s prattle, and never ceased. When I finally took my gear and crunched homeward, their voices followed me into the night.