Beaver and Muskrat
The American Beaver is the largest rodent in North America, and its impact on boreal forest ecosystems is equally impressive. Common in densely wooded wetland environments, beavers are designed to be nature’s hydro engineers. They have large, squat bodies, short necks, and broad, flat tails that enable the beaver to remain in a stable position while cutting trees with its powerful jaws and large incisors. While clumsy on land, the beaver is fast and agile in the water, and so it spends much of its time altering the environment around it to its own advantage, cutting off small streams and rivers with dams so that it can flood the area where food is plentiful. As a result, the beaver plays a vital role in the development of wetland regions areas of the boreal forest.
The Common Muskrat, while occupying a similar environment to the beaver, is really not that closely related to its much larger neighbour. It also does not play as critical a role in reshaping its surrounding environment as a beaver does, though it does benefit from the beaver’s work in creating wetland environments in which to live. Aside from size difference, the muskrat also lacks the flat tail of the beaver, having a long, thin tail instead. While beavers construct large lodges on riverbanks or in flooded areas, muskrats construct smaller dens called push-ups in shallow waters, using cattails and bulrushes instead of trees as building material. Like the beaver, the muskrat is at home in the water and can stay submerged beneath the surface for up to fifteen minutes before coming up for air. Also like the beaver, muskrats remain active throughout the year, and live under the ice in the winter.
Because of its long, thick fur, the pelt of a beaver was one of the most highly prized of all animal pelts during the height of the European fur trade. This was especially true in the winter, when the beaver’s fur was longer and thicker to keep out the winter chill. Though the beaver became a valuable commodity to many northwest Aboriginal Peoples during the fur trade, traditional uses of beaver by the Aboriginal Peoples focused on more of the animal than just the fur. As described by Terry Garvin in the following excerpt from his book, Carving Faces, Carving Lives:
Besides the fur itself, beavers are used in other ways. Beavers can be eaten, usually cooked whole over an open fire. The castor glands are removed and sold to perfume manufacturers around the world. The castor glands are also used to make a variety of medicines. For headaches, a piece of castor is gently heated until smoke permeates the room. Breathing the smoke relieves the headache. Smoke from a dried, powdered castor which has been sprinkled on burning wood is said to relieve a sore throat or nasal congestion. Powdered castor mixed with grease is applied to human wounds to reduce infection. A gummy secretion from the base of the gland can be chewed to relieve a sore mouth. Some bush people chew this gum simply for relaxation.
Most hunters and trappers are also familiar with the practice of using a small piece of castor to lure predators like lynx into a trap. Many predators are wiling to take a beaver caught away from the water, for on land the beaver is an ungainly, lumbering creature. It is as graceful underwater, however, as it is awkward on land; in this element it has little to fear from predators. Otters will occasionally destroy a beaver dam in order to catch a beaver kit, but will retreat if threatened by an adult.
A unique craft use of the beaver involved stuffing a beaver foot with fabric, hair, or wild cotton to use as a pincushion. (Granny Woodward, of Anzac, 1967.)
Muskrat pelts, while not as commercially valuable as those of beavers, did not exempt muskrats from the hunt. In fact, one type of very small canoe created by traditional hunters and trappers was dubbed the rat canoe because of the craft’s ability to navigate through the shallow waters occupied by muskrats. Muskrats had traditional use as a good source of food and fur. As explained by Terry Garvin:
Muskrat fur is cured and used to make jackets, mitts, and hats. It is also used to trim clothing and crafts. Muskrat, known simply as rat, is usually prepared by skinning, gutting, and cleaning the entire animal, and roasting it on a stick over an open fire.
Featured Video: Trapping Muskrats
The Heritage Community Foundation, with the kind permission of Terry Garvin, is pleased to present this feature excerpt from the Bush Land People video.
Aside from beavers, muskrats are a valued source of fur and food to the peoples of the boreal forest. As winter snows melt, push-ups, the dens of muskrats, are exposed to the snares of trappers, and the business of trapping muskrats begins.