Elena Passarello’s column is about famous animals from history. This week: Geronimo the beaver takes flight.
The plane makes a careful approach, ready for the drop. Now into the air and down they swing! Down to the ground near a stream or a lake. The box opens and a most unusual and novel trip ends for Mister Beaver.
—from Fur for the Future
Poor fellow! He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again.
—Elmo Heter, Idaho Fish and Game Department
Species: Castor canadensis
Years Active: the late 1940s
Distinguishing Features: four orange front teeth, impressive work ethic, pungent odor
Skills: landscape architecture, family planning, no detectable fear of heights
Habitat: The Idaho backcountry
I’ve spent the past week wondering how this country might have turned out differently if, two hundred years ago, we’d made our national symbol the North American beaver. Thomas Jefferson reportedly selected the bald eagle for its visage—that focused, Gregory Peck glower. The beaver face, on the other hand, is much more comically designed: it’s myopic and weak-chinned, with Paul Giamatti cheeks. Though graceful when swimming the depths of the ponds they help dredge and fortify, on land (where most humans observe them) beavers only waddle through the mud, cutting quite the opposite figure than certain iconic birds of prey gliding on canyon updrafts.
Beavers, unlike the bald eagles who filch their food from fishing birds, know an honest day’s work. Labor is so hardwired into those furry bodies that the mere sound of running water unleashes an insatiable urge to chew. No animal (other than humans) can even approach a beaver’s ability to toil at its landscape until the place changes, for better or worse. Within that dumpy frame lies a gob-smacking vision to revise—to revolutionize, even!—entire earthly vistas.
Just imagine: our nation symbolized not by a formidable, high-flying scavenger but by thirty goofy pounds of oily fur and stinky glands. See America as a slapping, leathery tail and a pair of iron-coated teeth that never stop growing or chewing. Picture the American dream embodied in beaver lodges—ingenious piles of scented mud designed with multiple rooms, hidden underwater entrances, and cold storage—all built with a beaver’s bare hands. See American family values made manifest in a beaver’s slow-rearing of her young—two full years teaching each kit the family trade, and then, along with her mate-for-life, floating that offspring out into the world to start its own cottage industry.
So I ask you, dear reader, why not choose this keystone species over a bird that merely looks menacing on a flag topper? Just because an eagle can soar? Fine, then. Allow me to demonstrate that beavers, as history shows, can and have taken on the challenge of flight.
During postwar expansion, as hundreds of new houses were springing up around Idaho’s sleepy Payette Lake, the Fish and Game Department had to find something to do with the area’s beaver population. Though the rodents make welcome ecological inroads among myriad wild spaces, they can cause problems around human dwellings, as their dam building occasionally flooded neighborhoods and roads.
Idaho Fish and Game decided simply to transport the furry rodents to deeper parts of the woods. Each summer, Idaho trappers and rangers would lure beavers from around the lake into temporary wire traps and then truck them to some open meadow. But the Fish and Game officials soon saw a need to transplant the rodents even further into the backcountry, where they could enhance the ecosystems and, eventually, bolster the fur trade. The problem: no human roads had been (and still aren’t) cut that far into the Idaho wild.
According to a 1950 report in the Journal of Wildlife Management, the Fish and Game Department first tried packing out the beavers to the Chamberlain Basin, strapping an odorous pair to the back of a donkey and walking them for days. But the beavers often overheated on the long journeys or became so “dangerously belligerent” (and stinky) that they distracted their mounts. Sometimes they arrived in their new meadows ill from the trip and unfit for the arduous work that comprises any beaver’s survival.
Then Fish and Game employee Elmo Heter got an idea. Perhaps it came to him after noticing the surplus of rayon parachutes housed at the Forest Service, leftover from the war. Why not hire a Travel Air plane, attach a few dozen beavers to the chutes, and drop new colonies of the critters at their new homes? Rather than hiring a mule team to spend days moving one flat-tailed-beaver pair (a considerable expense), dropping a dozen pairs in the woods over the course of one afternoon would cost taxpayers only seven bucks a beaver—less if rangers could retrieve the chutes.
Heter got to work designing a perforated wooden container made from “two lidless boxes fitted together to open as a suitcase does,” with ropes attached as hinges, rigged to release with the nudge of a beaver’s nose. Before his invention could be put into practice, though, Elmo Heter’s newfangled beaver box needed a few test runs. He trekked to Payette Lake, trapped an elderly male, named him Geronimo, and the two took off for the airstrip. After safely nestling Geronimo into his parachuted container, Heter tossed the beaver out of the plane to a landing field six hundred feet below—a jump the beaver survived. So Heter put Geronimo on the plane again. And then again.
With every drop, the twenty-four-foot rayon parachute caught enough wind to float Geronimo to the ground, where he hit the grass with a soft thud. A ranger was always at the drop site to usher the furry flyer back to his box.
That fall, the Fish and Game commission trapped seventy-six beavers at the lake and dropped them (including Geronimo), two-by-two, far into the backcountry. All but one survived their flights. As payment for his service as a beaver guinea pig, Geronimo landed in his new home not just with a single female but with three. A year afterward, his stretch of the Chamberlain Basin was stocked with beaver, the descendants of which still work the area today.
Recently uncovered archival film of the short-lived Geronimo project shows a beaver skydiving to his new home. We first see a canvas parachute as viewed from below, pulsing white in the Idaho wind, suspended above the tiny boxes with bright tension ropes. Then the film cuts to an aerial view of two downed parachutes atop a hill, and then a medium shot of a just-touched-down beaver poking his goofy, bucktoothed face from the box, looking left and right. He raises his lumpy body up over the lip of the box and stretches a tentative hand out and down to the earth. Finally, the beaver steps across the downed chute and waddles, slightly woozy, out toward the horizon.
According to Heter, Geronimo “stayed in the box for a long time after his harem was busy examining the new surroundings” upon his final landing. Maybe he was taking a moment to consider his stint as a beaver in the sky. Perhaps he knew his airborne career had come to an end, so we might see that outstretched hand in the video as a little beaver salute to Heter and company. Moments later, Geronimo heard the sound of running water and that old American ache kicked in, sending him in the direction of the first nearby stream. There was so much more work to do.
Elena Passarello is a Whiting Award winner and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses, which was released from Sarabande Books this week. She is one of the Daily’s correspondents.