I moved to the valley along Beaver Creek (I am not sure of the real name of this creek) in 1997, lived in a small trailer, and took a job to help pay for my farm. My now ex- husband and I agreeably co-own the land. I managed the grassland and the farms livestock and still do.
First generation farmers in today’s world are few and far between. I am not sure how many solo women farmers there are, and well, my main livestock is the non-edible kind, that puts me in a unique category. Though, I know my appreciation for the SW Alberta landscape is not unusual.
I first got in hot water because of the creek’s mammal population when someone wanted to feed them a pile of bark from an invasive bush. I stood my ground politely and asked them not to, as it may cause an infestation of non-native bushes along the creek.
When you love something so dearly, sometimes you hurt people’s feelings.
I also created the farm emergency plan. How does one save your herd in case of a grass fire? With a three -horse trailer and a sustainable breeding herd of rare Canadian Horses, I rely on beaver dams and natural beaver ponds as the safety net. The herd will gravitate to these ponds during a grass fire emergency; horses have the smarts to keep themselves safe near a water body during fires. I can only evacuate dogs, cats, and three of my horses. But I can encourage the beaver to live where they have lived since the beginning of time. There is a hands-off beaver policy at Windy Coulee. I am grateful every time I see a sturdy beaver dam and a full pond behind it.
My farm volunteers and I hike out on those hot summer evenings to find the beaver. Late summer, you can sit on the banks and watch beaver cut the abundant willows on the creekside and drag them to the centre of the beaver ponds. Watching them swim, trying not to scare them or let them catch your scent helps you meditate in the failing light. If you are from Europe, this is an experience of a lifetime, like watching the northern lights.
Yet the beaver are simply collecting food for the winter. When the ponds are full, the piles of willow sink to the bottom and are reachable from underneath the ice. This is the result of their diligent work keeping the dams in place, storing the water, feeding the excess into the water table and supporting a healthy creek. Willows on ice in winter though, does make for dangerous skating.
I don’t skate. I walk the winter frozen creek and look for various wild animal tracks, see the willows and know the beaver are safe in their bank dens, and still able to get some food. I dream of watching them with their young next spring. It is a love affair from afar. I will never hold them or catch that strong beaver scent with a sniff of my nose in their fur. I will only remember hot summer evenings sitting on the coulee edge looking down at the beaver, getting ready for winter.
In the spring, sometimes the snow, ice, and chinooks get the better of them. In March, 2014, everything melted into a huge torrent.
The herd was stuck on the east side of the creek, the beavers who survived were stuck alongside a raging force of water that plowed through the dams, draining everything, washing food downstream, exposing the beaver to predators. I prayed for them to survive.
Later that spring, as I was checking on the herd, I saw a large beaver slogging back upstream. I know in my heart he or she stayed safe after being washed down towards the Oldman River, that runs through Piikani land.
This is all Nitsitapi land; Blackfoot Territory since the beginning of time. “Niitsitapi” (nee-itsee-TAH-peh) means “the real people.” I am privileged to live on this land as a guest. I am privileged to have the beaver living in the creek as my neighbours.
My heart was broken again, just before the floods of 2013 and 2014. I heard someone had a permit to trap a considerable amount of beaver from the creek valley. Not on Windy Coulee, but all around. How is that possible without even asking the neighbours?
The next two years of severe floods ensured no beaver used the creek for several years, then they resiliently moved back.
There was a balance for a decade.
In 2021, it all changed. Is this the ebb and flow of a creek? My heart says no. In August the creek dried up, flowed a bit again, dried up, flowed a bit again, dried up, and then the reservoir of water in the riparian water table also dried up, and then the beaver ponds dried up and the beaver disappeared. It stayed that way well into September. The beaver had no chance to store their food, get their homes ready for winter. I remember when the water came back, it was almost as if someone had turned on the tap. Too late in September to do any good for the beaver. In 2022 it happened again. My pond building neighbours are gone.
I hope that our creek can be managed to the point where the water will not stop on again off again like a city tap. I know humans take water out of the creek, and they may even do it without thinking of what is happening downstream. I know that humans can learn to think and act more for the downstream ecology.
I pray the beaver will come back again. But with drought affected crops, and diminishing wells, will there be enough water? Or can humans learn and act to show they know that a healthy creek is the most important thing for every living being in our community? Can humans learn how to live and farm with less water for short term business and more water for the creek?
I loved you beaver and everything you represented. When, or if, you come back I will be so very grateful! My herd will be safe again, Beaver Creek will be flowing again, and the creek known today as Beaver Creek will have its namesake back again. If, (hopefully when) this happens, our whole community may have a second chance to regain health, well being and the one thing that keeps everyone alive . . . water.
Mournfully yours, Heidi