Beaver dams inspire bad ideas

Beaver dam
Beaver dams like this one can hold back enormous amounts of water and inspire no shortage of bad ideas. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Setting off an explosion that floods your neighbors’ property sounds bad. I guess it is bad. But I see how it might happen.

Last month in northern Michigan’s Montmorency County, a man shoved a large block of Tannerite into a beaver dam near his property. Tannerite is a kind of explosive used in firearm targets. He fired several .308 rifle rounds at the payload until finally striking it. The resulting explosion atomized the erstwhile palace of rodentia castor canadensis.

That was the man’s plan, and it worked perfectly. But few plans anticipate all consequences. As many know, beaver dams require impressive engineering on the part of these oily water rats to hold back a tremendous amount of water. Beaver dams change landscapes and even the path of rivers. Not surprisingly, this often inspires people to blow them up.

Neighbors initially reported numerous gunshots and an explosion that shook their houses. But then the exploded dam loosed a torrent of water into Crooked Creek, which caused significant flooding downstream. Winter flooding is a special kind of problem because the water has nowhere to go. An investigation revealed several shell casings at the former site of the beaver dam, which led authorities to the shooter. Charges are pending.

If you saw this story online as I did, you probably experienced it in the context of an implied chuckle. Americans love tales of overzealous application of explosives and firearms, either because we deplore their irresponsible use or imagine ourselves using them irresponsibly.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Anyone living north of Highway 2 knows several people who could easily find themselves in just such a scrape. My family’s hunting shack borders a beaver pond and 90 percent of our lore has something to do with the dam therein. Certain laws prevent my sharing much more than that. They include the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Parent-Child Privilege Act of 2003.

This story in Michigan is hardly an outlier. Last December, the Blandin Paper Company in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, filed a lawsuit against the United States government after a larger scale version of the same kind of story.

In October 2019, residents on Lake Pokegama complained of flooding and sediment coming down the Mississippi River. Blandin — owned by UPM-Kymmene — operates a dam up river, so they took the blame. Northern Minnesotans have a long history of complaining about environmentalists until someone mucks up their lake. A primal beast stirred within the lake association. The state required the company spend almost $818,000 to dredge out sediment and repair shoreline damage.

But the company later discovered that two licensed beaver trappers had detonated an upstream beaver dam on its land. This was legal, but the company alleges that the trappers failed to account for a second beaver dam down river. When the flood hit the second dam, the company says it dislodged significant amounts of sediment and caused much of the damage downstream.

So now Blandin is suing the federal government on the grounds that they issued licenses to the trappers who actually blew up the beaver dam. Suddenly a simple story involving greasy rodents, sticks and small explosives grows impenetrably complex.

I remember a conversation with our plumber years ago. He described the feeling after his assistant screams to turn off the water but before the water was done draining down on the person’s face. There’s nothing you can do. Fate prevails.

So it goes for those who respond to the siren’s call of unexploded beaver dams. Bad ideas rule the moment. Consequences rule tomorrow. Eventually, beavers again rule these inland seas of their own creation.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, March 4, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.