The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” –Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
Over seven hundred people live in the Big Run watershed. Yet since the headwaters of the stream are so close to us here at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center and they play such a large role in what we do, we often think of Big Run as our stream. The Chesapeake Bay watershed, which Big Run feeds into, is home to over sixteen million people. Since Big Run is the highest stream in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, its waters flow past the overwhelming majority of Chesapeake Bay watershed residents. The waters of Big Run belong to nearly sixteen million people. More precisely, nearly sixteen million people belong to the waters of Big Run. And yet we still think of it as our stream.
Our stream, like all streams and rivers, is not static. It is a part of the landscape as dynamic as the life forms that depend on it. It acts and is acted upon. It is the stage as well as a lead actor. Most of the changes that a river undergoes, however, are much too slow for the human eye, much less the human attention span, to detect. Every now and then rapid changes do occur though, and when they do, we notice.
Earlier this season, many of us came back to the Big Run watershed to find a major change. The beavers that had built the long abandoned dams and lodges at the headwaters of Big Run had returned. Sometime in early 2009, beavers came back to Big Run after a long hiatus to construct a new dam and lodge a quarter mile downstream of their old one. The result is an enormous pool in a tiny stream, like a large rodent being swallowed by a snake. Where the stream was once only a few inches deep, the pond is now as much as a few feet deep. Red Spruce and Red Pine trees once on the banks of Big Run are now three feet deep in water.
Aside from humans, beavers do more to modify their landscape than any other creature. Beavers fell trees with their constantly growing teeth in order to have the sticks they need for their dam. They patch these together with stones and mud. The dam creates a pond which acts as a moat to protect their lodge. The lodge is built out of the same materials. From the bank, it looks like little more than a burn pile. Inside, there are two rooms, or dens. One is a sort of mud room for drying off, the other is a living area for as many as a dozen beavers. Though the dens are above the surface of the water, the actual entrance to the lodge is below. Beavers can remain underwater for as much as fifteen minutes.
Like much of the changes that occur on Big Run, we noticed the end result of the beaver dam but not the process. Beavers work at night and they work quickly. During East Harlem School’s inaugural visit in August, my co-instructor and I led our group on a night hike to the beaver pond in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the building process. We did a short reading and then sat on the edge of the pond in silence, watching the night sky emerge and hoping the beavers would do the same. We waited for about twenty minutes. At that point our focus began to dissolve and we compared observations. Some people thought they saw the slightest signs of movements or beavers perched on the logs scattered about the edges of the ponds. I certainly didn’t see anything. Regardless of what anyone else thought they saw, we all spent those twenty minutes doing nothing but watching the river. Whether we perceived it or not, we all saw the river change.
Jeff De Bellis