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Leave it to the Beavers

[Note: This article appeared in the Spring 2014 Newsletter. The full newsletter can be viewed in this pdf document]

By Joe Yuhas

Beaver WorkBeaver Work (photo by Jim Bucar)Prior to and on October 13, 2013 (a Friday!) heavy rains covered over half a mile of the Biddeford section of the Eastern Trail with impassable flood waters. Reluctantly, we closed the trail, an unprecedented action. The ET website and ET Facebook page immediately relayed to trail users that we had informed Unitil and Biddeford’s department of public works and city manager that the section of the trail would be closed until further notice.

As a further complication, an event had been scheduled on that section of the trail for the following day. As you might imagine there was concern about how long the trail would be closed. But even more perplexing, was the question of how and why the flooding occurred. The trail had been open for over three years and had not flooded after many periods of prolonged heavy rains. What had changed?

The answer was Castor canadensi, i.e.,beaver, that industrious engineering rodent, the only other mammal besides humans that commonly alters its habitat to make it more suitable. Looking back, earlier in the summer many users of the Biddeford section of the Eastern Trail had noticed beaver activity in the vicinity of the 23¼ mile marker. That area, not far from the Arundel line, is marked by a culvert which passes beneath the trail with a broad open area along the trail. The wetland area there attracts many waterfowl and wading birds; with close observation, minnows can be seen feeding beneath the surface of the water. And a beaver family had evidently taken up residence.

I remember noticing the increasing number of branches and small trees being added to the edges of the impounded water on the opposite side of the trail early in the summer. Although I had not seen the beavers working, it became clear that they were busily constructing a dam. As the summer progressed, I noticed how the water level was rising and the noise of rushing water became more pronounced over the weeks as the height of the beaver dam rose. All very picturesque and appealing, but....

It is not unusual to see the results of the beavers’ work without seeing the beavers themselves, since they generally avoid humans and are nocturnal in their habits. Clearly, as the work progressed the water level on the upstream side of the trail inched its way upward. Apparently the beavers had also blocked the culvert, compounding the problem. By the first week of September the water level had risen nearly four feet and spread over an extended number of acres. The heavy rains did the rest: the force of all the impounded water washed out a large section of the trail.

Fortunately, the story does have a happy ending. First of all the scheduled event — the NF Walk — was relocated to the Thornton Academy section of the trail with little problem. Then Biddeford public works and Unitil responded immediately; in five days, including work over the weekend, the trail was again passable. The two agencies hauled in rock and rebuilt the trail over an extended length. The beaver dam was breached and the culvert cleared. And what about the busy beavers?

The whole family was gently trapped and relocated to a friendlier home.

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