Beavers are amazing mammals

Last weekend, I traveled to Armstrong County to visit my friend Joanie Haidle. Joanie has two small ponds on her property, and last spring, a beaver took up residence on the larger one.

When I drove up the lane next to that pond, I spied Joanie’s new tenant immediately as it swam across the pond and away from the road. Later, I set up my camera and a telephoto lens on a tripod and walked back to the pond. I was delighted when the beaver obliged my desire for a photo opportunity by calmly swimming around, allowing me to get dozens of great shots.

Beavers are certainly fascinating creatures. Most folks know them for their remarkable ability to cut down trees and to build dams and lodges. But beavers also hold a distinctive place in the history of North America.

Beavers possess a luxurious coat of fur and thick body fat that enables them to live comfortably during the harshest winters. As a result, beaver pelts were highly desirable for making coats, hats and other garments. Both male and female beavers have musk glands known as “castors” near the base of the tail. These glands produce a strongly scented substance called “castoreum.”

Beavers use this scent to mark their territories. Castoreum has also been used an ingredient for medicine, perfume and to make lures for trapping beavers. The quest for valuable beaver fur and castoreum drove countless trappers and intrepid mountain men to be the first explorers of many areas of the American West and Canada throughout the eighteenth century.

Like so many other native species, however, beavers were almost completely gone from Pennsylvania by the late eighteenth century. Laws were finally enacted in 1903 affording them protection.

A pair of beavers from Wisconsin was introduced into Cameron County in 1917. These animals thrived and reproduced well. Further releases of beavers from Canada also reintroduced the species into its former range, and by 1934, beaver populations in Pennsylvania were ample enough to allow a trapping season for them. Now, beavers are again found throughout most of Pennsylvania and all of North America including Mexico

An adult beaver can weigh 40 to 60 pounds and live 10 to 12 years in the wild. Its flat, leathery tail is used for swimming and for balance when gnawing trees as well as a warning signal by slapping it on the water to frighten intruders.

Beavers are generally clumsy and slow on land but skillful and agile swimmers that can stay underwater for 15 minutes or more. Therefore, these aquatic mammals rarely stray too far from water and will even dig shallow canals to help them float logs to their home pond.

A beaver’s back feet are webbed to facilitate swimming, while its front feet are extremely dexterous, allowing the animal to precisely place sticks, logs and mud in their dam-building efforts. Beavers have poor eyesight, but their sense of smell is highly developed and used to find the many species of plants they use as food. Their impressive front teeth continue to grow during animal’s life to offset the constant wear of chewing trees and other woody plants.

Beavers prefer to live in remote areas but will make homes close to humans at times. This can create unwanted conflicts, however, especially of their dam-building efforts floods roads or sections of property.

An adult beaver might cut as many as 300 trees a year for food and dam building. In recent years, there have also been several incidents of rabid beavers biting humans in Pennsylvania. But love them or hate them, beavers are one of Pennsylvania’s most unique and interesting mammals.

Ox Roast event

One of my favorite Labor Day weekend traditions is attending the 80th Annual Ox Roast Festival on Sunday, Sept. 2 and Monday, Sept. 3 at the Blair County Game, Fish and Forestry Association in Riggles Gap north of Altoona.

The public is invited to participate in all the festivities, and admission and parking is free.

The weekend will kick off early with a 99-bird trapshooting event on Saturday at 6 p.m. The 30-target 3-D archery course will start at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday and Monday. Other activities from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day will include trap shooting, 5-stand, running deer, handgun steel plate shoot, a .22-caliber shooting gallery, kid’s games, hay rides, a sportsman’s flea market, lots of vendors and bingo at 1 p.m. A new this year is a Blair Game Crap Trap shoot (I’m not familiar with this one, but I’m sure it will be fun). Monday’s special activity is the club’s popular field day of 6 events, which include .22 rifle, high-power rifle, running deer, handgun, archery and disappearing bear.

Of course, there is always plenty of great food, including the club’s famous ox roast sandwiches, baked macaroni and cheese and more. Live music will also be featured throughout the weekend. Festival bands on Sunday include Asbury Lane at 11 a.m., Rokkandy at 1 p.m. and Borrowed Time at 3 p.m.; on Monday, Cousin Mike and Rick will perform at 11 a.m. and The Backyard Rockers at 1 p.m.

The club is located about three miles north of Altoona on 301 Riggles Gap Sportsmen Road. For more information, check out their Facebook page, visit the club website at www.blaircountygame.com for a map and directions or call the lodge at 942-8522.