Imagine this: A blizzard's raging outside, and snow lies several feet deep, blocking your windows and doors. But you're safe and dry inside your little, two-room house, just you, your parents, and a half dozen of your siblings, all of you huddled together for warmth... for the next six months.
And oh, did I mention that you have lots of food to get you through the winter, but to reach your cache, you have to jump into frigid water?
If that doesn't sound appealing to you, you probably don't want to spend the winter as a beaver in Maine.
As a kid, I was obsessed with author Laura Ingalls Wilder's series about growing up on the prairie in the late 1800s. I find myself as an adult revisiting each winter The Long Winter, in which Wilder tells the story of an especially severe winter in a South Dakota frontier town. Blizzards raged every few days for over six months, blocking trains, and the community almost starved to death. Wilder and her family are trapped inside their un-insulated shanty for weeks on end with limited food and fuel. The winter lasts so long they resort to twisting hay into "logs" to burn in an attempt to stay warm. Pa has to tie a rope to the house so he won't get lost in the disorienting storm while digging his way to the barn to take care of the livestock. Before winter's over, everyone in the town is gaunt with hunger, depressed, and cranky. Pa won't even play his fiddle.
That's the scenario I think of when I try to imagine a winter spent inside a beaver lodge.
While the beaver family knows no other life, it certainly seems telling that come spring the parents kick out for good all their older offspring. Or maybe it's the young adult beavers, eager to break out on their own, who can't live any longer in such close quarters with the rest of their family. Most of us can surely relate. (The younger kits stay with their parents through another winter, to help them raise that spring's young.)
To build their lodge, beavers pack mud over a huge pile of branches and rocks, then excavate the interior from the bottom up. They leave mud-free an air vent that opens at the top through the woven tangle of sticks. I've heard that if you visit an active winter lodge on a cold day, you can potentially see the beavers' breath rising from this opening.
Though it's easy enough to spot the mound of a classic beaver lodge out in a pond, its full size and solidity is not always apparent. The whole shelter can rise seven feet or more above the waterline. When the mud hardens, and then freezes, the walls become brick-like. Add to that underwater entrances near the lodge's bottom, so no predators will see the beavers coming and going, and the lodge becomes an impenetrable, well-insulated rodent fortress. A good lodge may be repaired each fall and lived in for generations.
Scientist Bernd Heinrich, who has spent part of his career in Maine, recounts in his book Winter World (2003) how early 19th-century wilderness explorer John Colter apparently once hid from pursuing natives inside a beaver lodge. Inspired by Colter's story and armed with a flashlight, the insatiably curious Heinrich decided one dry summer to check out the inside of a beaver lodge for himself.
The lodge interior typically contains one or two small chambers. One of these is a bedroom shared by the whole family: the monogamous parent pair and two years of their kids, up to a dozen animals altogether. (As you picture this, keep in mind that an adult beaver can weigh as much as 100 pounds!)
The other room may be used as a sort of entryway/dining room, where the beavers haul tree branches from their underwater food stash and dry off. Heinrich described the two chambers within the lodge he visited as "platforms," one above the other, within a dry space big enough for him to turn around in and, except for scraps of wood from the beavers' meals, clean. (He mentions later in the book that beavers eat their own droppings as a way of maximizing the nutritional content of their strictly vegetarian diet. That's one way to keep the house clean.)
As soon as the pond ices up for the winter, the beaver family is essentially stuck inside their mud igloo until the spring thaw. They're not hibernating, either. These animals are the very personification of "busy," so what do they possibly do with themselves, crammed together in the dark for months on end?
It's not like they're dancing to Pa's fiddle, but young beavers do play. Being primarily nocturnal, the creatures probably aren't hindered too much by the constant darkness, either.
But a beaver's only serious winter exercise—diving into the icy cold depths to access its next meal—probably takes place as quickly as possible, as even that famous fur coat can only keep the animal warm for so long underwater. Beaver fur needs ongoing grooming to retain its waterproofing, so we can imagine they also spend a lot of time grooming each other.
Six months spent sleeping, eating trees, and combing each other's hair... Not an ideal life. Still, as much as we like to project our human lives onto every living thing around us, as Heinrich says, the beavers are "probably placid creatures, and likely not as claustrophobic as I." And perhaps, too, they share their own versions of The Long Winter over the weeks and months they huddle together in their warm, dark winter stronghold.
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.