Close Encounters: Skirmish at Jonvick Creek
Despite a chilling fog, Ann Russ reveled in her first spring trek along the Superior Hiking Trail (see sidebar) near Lutsen. A white-throated sparrow warbled a welcome as she climbed to the vista overlooking Caribou Lake. It was 1990, and Ann was excited about her new role as trail maintenance supervisor. Curious to see the canoe system rigged for crossing the Jonvick Creek beaver pond, Ann jogged down the trail toward the creek. Maybe shed even catch some beaver activity.
"Oh, nooo!" she wailed when she reached the water. "I dont believe it!" There had been beaver activity, all right, but not the kind shed hoped for.
So began a battle of wills.
The humans had met their match.
The Superior Hiking Trail was conceived in the mid-1980s to bring hikers through the spectacular forests along Lake Superiors ridge from Duluth to the Canadian border. Trail construction crews reached Jonvick Creek near Lutsen in 1988 and decided to run the trail along an old beaver dam across the creek. Big mistake.
They didnt do their research. When one beaver family vacates a wetland, another pair often takes over. Sure enough, within a year, a beaver family began construction 100 feet downstream from the old dam.
The beavers eagerly dove into their task of felling aspens and dragging them down to dam the creek. Its an endless task, because as the water backs up, the dam must widen. Fortunately for the beavers, there was little traffic on the newly established trail, and their work went unnoticed.
Then along came a hiker.
The trail was buried under 6 feet of water, so he bushwhacked through the woods past the dam, sloshed across the creek, and continued on his way.
Then along came another hiker, and another, and yet another. Before long, complaints about the flooded Jonvick Creek crossing had filtered back to trail supervisors.
A team of volunteers trekked in to investigate, and sure enough, the trail was submerged. Hesitant to disturb the beaver activity, they decided to haul in a canoe so hikers could paddle across the pond. Volunteers portaged a battered 80-pound Grumman over a mile and a half of steep terrain to the creek. They tied 150 feet of rope to the canoe with an end secured on each side of the pond. If the canoe was across the pond, hikers could pull it to their side with the towrope. Laughing at the ludicrous setup, the crew tried out their new invention. A great compromise for cohabiting peacefully with the beavers.
Then along came Ann Russ. "Oh, no." She scanned the pond for the canoe and finally spotted its tip glinting above the surface on the far side. The rest of it was submerged; its rope tether nowhere to be seen, buried somewhere in the muck or perhaps incorporated into the dam.
Exasperated yet intrigued, Ann resigned herself to her fate. Shed get wet anyway if she picked her way across the rickety dam or forded the stream below it, so why not dive in to fix the problem? She stripped to her skin, swam across the icy beaver pond, braced herself in the muck, and heaved the canoe up to empty it. She climbed in and paddled back, stark naked.
"Dry clothes never felt so good," Ann said as she recounted her experience. "I was too cold to be mad anymore, and fortunately no one else was out that day to see me!"
Trail crews brought in a metal cable. Even North Americas largest rodents cant chew steel. To ensure that the cable wouldnt be buried by beaver activity, they strung it across the pond above the water, like a clothesline, snaking it between dying trees in the pond. Hikers could ride in the canoe, grab the overhead cable, and pull themselves across hand-over-hand. A second hiker was free to bail the leaky canoe as they crossed.
"The cable hurt your hands," Ann said, "and the system was useless if the canoe was on the other side of the pond. Youd just have to hope for the best as you did a balancing act across the dam."
Within a year the cable had sagged and was submerged by branches dragged through the pond by beavers.
Anns husband, Wayne, took up the challenge of this ongoing contest and decided to apply his wildlife biologists ingenuity. He proposed a rope pulley system suspended above the pond. He and Ann hiked in, and he slogged through the pond for a full day with a chain saw, clearing trees for a straight shot across the pond. They secured pulleys to a spruce on one side of the pond and a balsam fir on the other, confident in the beavers natural preference for aspen and birch. They tethered the canoe to the pulley rope so it could be pulled to either side of the pond. The rope was easier on the hands, and the pulleys were rigged so that the rope would stay taut.
The new system worked perfectly—perfectly, that is, until the beavers constructed their lodge smack in the middle of the canoe path. To make matters worse, that winter the lodge was buried beneath 3 feet of snow, and critters traveling above nibbled at the rope, weakening and finally breaking it. Hikers once again had to teeter across the dam or ford the stream below it.
In May, Wayne made another arduous effort. Hiking in with a chain saw, he temporarily knocked down part of the dam to drain the swamp; and then he slogged through the pond, every step threatening to suck him into the muck. He cleared a new path through the drowned alder midway between the lodge and the dam.
As he worked, Wayne realized that the dam had become so substantial it was easy to walk across safely. He decided to abandon the pulley system entirely. He left the canoe on one side, and Ann posted a sign that told the whole story and gave people the option of either paddling or crossing the dam.
Using aspen poles left by the beavers, crews installed a canoe dock on the western bank. The beavers promptly chewed the poles and the dock collapsed. Workers reconstructed the dock with metal pole supports, and the beavers lost interest.
The next year, 1993, Ann handed the torch of trail maintenance supervisor to Ken Oelkers of Silver Bay. Kens work crews built a boardwalk across the now 200-foot beaver dam. Its a rickety, twisty walkway, but it gets hikers safely across.
The battered canoe still rests on one side of the pond (or the other). The dock teeters but still stands. Hikers have the option of crossing the dam or paddling across the pond, but often they do neither right away. First they pause to read the sign recounting the saga of this decade-long skirmish between the beavers and the humans.
Perhaps they rest on the log bench to watch for moose, pine martens, hares, and other critters attracted by the ever-changing Jonvick Creek crossing. They may hear the call of a raven or spot a bald eagle soaring overhead. And if theyre very lucky, they may see a beaver in action—one of the many generations of beavers that have kept life interesting for volunteers on the Superior Hiking Trail.
English teacher, free-lance writer, and trail maintenance volunteer