The Rappahannock was low. We stood on the sandy bank overlooking our favorite swimming hole, trying to ignore the sad state of the stream. The drought had sucked away any semblance of a deep end. Formerly submerged rocks poked their slimy domes through the surface. Algae choked the water.
We were out in the country for Labor Day weekend, at the farm. For 20 years, my brother, Ellery, and I have joined our friend Daniel here, where the rolling hills of the Old Dominion wash up against the Taco Bells of new suburbia. We always felt, without questioning it, that the woods and the river belonged to us.
Daniel, gaunt and scruffy with an ironic Poison tattoo showing on his lower back, paused and lit a cigarette. The air was freakishly cool for summer in Northern Virginia, and he was in no hurry to get wet.
Ellery slung his towel on a branch and approached the water’s edge. Drought or no drought, he was less than 24 hours out of New York City, and he was going to revel in the natural world, even if it meant stepping in ankle-deep mud. Warily, he eased into the sluggish current.
The water was a couple of feet deep. I wasn’t hot enough to swim, but I was itchy. We’d been playing whiffle ball, and I’d flopped on the grass, shirtless, pursuing a grounder. Pushing thoughts of water moccasins from my mind, I half-dived, half-crumpled into the muddy brown stream.
“I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote. “I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.”
Yeah, grand. The water was cold and sticky, smelling like clay and mashed earthworms. My brother and I splashed around, pretending it wasn’t too shallow for swimming. After a few minutes, we gave up.
Daniel’s dog, Oggi, followed us in and stayed there, dog-paddling. Oggi is a black dog—apparently part Labrador, part German shepherd—who looks perpetually ecstatic. Her tongue is oversized and dangling. She tends to slobber and chase her tail. Before long, she was joined by the neighbor’s dog, a big ball of fluff named Tillie.
While the dogs cavorted, I got out and sat on a rock at the head of the watering hole. Ellery climbed onto a boulder about 10 feet downstream, to my right. Daniel stayed put on the shore, trying to figure out how to deal with a horde of baby insects that had started colonizing his leg.
The rapids upstream gurgled softly. And so, as we basked in the Walden-like setting, waiting for our epiphany, we talked to each other across the stream. We were contemplating the health of the Redskins’ offensive line, when—thwack!—a loud smacking sound ricocheted through the air.
Then we saw it, swimming upstream. A slick brown log of an animal, with a triangular head, beady black eyes, and a twitchy nose. The tail, gliding behind it like a sheathed tennis racket, tipped us off to the animal’s identity: beaver.
Interactions with wildlife, outside of a zoo, fall into two categories: (1) You run, or (2) the animal runs. This seemed like a Type 2 interaction. Beavers attack trees, not humans. Unless you’re one of those activists who gets dressed up as a redwood to protest the president’s logging policy, beavers aren’t a threat.
But much to our befuddlement, the beaver continued swimming in our direction until it was smack in the middle of the three of us.
While we gawked, the dogs made the first move. Legs churning, eyes fixed and wide, Oggi and Tillie swam straight for the beaver. I stood up and watched, anxiously, concerned that our brush with nature would end in beaver bloodshed.
A few seconds before impact, the beaver turned its back to the dogs, flapped its tail on the water—thwack!—and dove out of sight. The dogs—perhaps not well versed in the art of subsurface swimming—glanced around in complete confusion.
The beaver resurfaced upstream, and Oggi and Tillie resumed their chase. This time, Oggi got within inches of the beaver and made a lunge, only to chomp down on a mouthful of water.
We all chuckled, and I sat down. No way those dogs are getting that beaver.
The beaver popped up a few feet behind the dogs. The dogs turned to chase it. And so the spectacle went on, for the next 15 minutes:
the beaver as daring matador, the dogs as stubborn bulls.
Daniel studied the situation. He is something of an expert on wildlife. For the past couple of years, he has worked off and on as a freelance editor at the Discovery Channel, cutting film for countless Wild Discovery programs: on wild dogs, lions, spiders.
Now, in the Animal Planet tradition, he sat back to watch and provide some on-point analysis. “That beaver’s having fun,” he said.
I, too, pretend to be something of a trained naturalist. During college, I dabbled in ethology, studying both the ants of New Caledonia and the spiders of Costa Rica. Drawing on my years of rigorous academic training, I sized up the behavior of the Castor canadensis. “It’s messing with their minds,” I noted.
After one especially busy flurry of splashing, the beaver vanished. For about five minutes, we sat agog, rehashing the incident. Then, just as suddenly as the beaver had disappeared, it reappeared midstream. Tillie was tired and watched from shore. Oggi couldn’t resist more beaver.
The dog-and-beaver cat-and-mouse game resumed: Oggi advancing, the beaver retreating. Oggi lunged at the beaver. The beaver dived.
Oggi yelped. She splashed about desperately and then hobbled to shore, blood streaming down her left hind leg. Like an adrenaline-charged mother protecting her young, Daniel scooped up Oggi and took off running.
Ellery and I would have followed, but we were now stranded on the wrong side of the river—or, more specifically, on the wrong side of the beaver. The beaver now glistened with palpable menace. Floating midstream, it sized us up like a couple of rotten elm trees.
For several minutes, the Brothers Gillette stood waving at the beaver with the universal, backhanded gesture for “shoo.” When that didn’t work, we resorted to throwing stones. But even after we skipped several rocks off its body, the beaver wouldn’t budge.
What could we do? We retreated. By circumnavigating the swimming hole further upstream, we managed to avoid the beaver with our limbs, if not our pride, fully intact. (Ellery suggested that we omit this part of the story in subsequent retelling. “It makes us look like [wimps],” he noted. Well, yeah, and—depending on your view of chucking rocks from close range at small animals—barbarians.)
Half an hour later, with Oggi losing blood at the rate she usually loses slobber, we pulled into the parking lot of a veterinary clinic in Warrenton.
Karen Putnam, a practice manager at the clinic for more than two decades, recalls only one prior incident of a beaver biting a dog. “We see a fair number of dogs who have had run-ins with wildlife,” says Putnam. “But mostly, it’s groundhogs that do the biting around here, not the beaver.”
In retrospect, the beaver’s actions seem clear-cut. It was defending its territory—not playing games. In the beaver’s oversimplified worldview, we were invading its space, swimming in its back yard, muddying its waters. Humans belong in the city. Beavers belong in the wild. Memo to Oggi and her owner: Get out.
In this self-flagellating era, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to always sympathize with nature—to fall on the side of the beaver. But beavers aren’t exactly nature’s best citizens. Their whole MO is to seize prime real estate along a river, build a dam, create a logjam, and alter the entire ecosystem to serve their own purposes.
Furthermore, it’s not as if the beavers respect our city space or value our traditions. Three years ago, they colonized the Tidal Basin, cutting an alarming swath through the blossoming cherry trees. So much for the wisdom of the natural world.
At the farm, we take trees seriously. We also value tradition. Since the early ’70s, when Daniel’s dad bought the house on the farm’s high ground, little has changed. A cordless phone has replaced the old rotary one; the picture of Fidel Castro over the fireplace has yielded to a photo of Daniel’s dad and his second wife. That’s it. Same old badminton rackets with busted strings. Same old stacks of vinyl ’60s rock. Same old hammocks.
By biting Oggi, the beaver was staking claim to the swimming hole we’d been frequenting for 20 years—which is approximately two centuries in beaver years. In so doing, the beaver sent us an unambiguous signal.
It was time to make room for our paddle-tailed neighbor—preferably stuffed and sitting on the mantel. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Deb Hoeffner.