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Celebrating one of Nature’s Greatest Engineers: The Martinez Beaver Festival
People line the small footbridge bridge that crosses Alhambra Creek in downtown Martinez, eagerly scouting the water for a look at the city’s star attraction. One young girl starts pointing excitedly at the water and exclaims, “I see bubbles! I see bubbles.” Soon after the telltale ripples appear on the surface, reflecting the setting sun and announcing the arrival of the creature we have all gathered to see.
“A beaver! There’s the beaver!!!” yells a teenage boy next to me.
As someone who works to get kids connected to nature and the outdoors, it was heartening to watch this group rush from one side of the bridge to the other to follow the swimming beaver, and shout in an enthusiastic voice usually reserved for a Justin Bieber sighting, “There he is!” And we adults were shouting right along with them.
Watch the Martinez Beavers make an appearance:
Most of the “eager beaver” (sorry-I could not resist) watchers had attended the sixth annual Beaver Festival that afternoon in the area next to the creek affectionately known to locals as “Beaver Park.” Worth A Dam, the non-profit that hosts the event, assembled over forty area wildlife groups to help celebrate one of nature’s best engineers. A documentary film company, Tensegrity Productions, even filmed the festival for inclusion in their series, “The Beaver Believers.”
“We were amazed by the turnout, and heartened to see so many people interested in our resident beavers. Lots of people learned yesterday how beavers are good for creeks and wildlife,” said Heidi Perryman, President & Founder of Worth A Dam.
Yet the festival is also meant as a testament to how the Martinez community rallied around the beavers, who were slated to be removed in 2007 after being deemed a flood hazard. Alhambra Creek runs right through the middle of town. The Amtrak station is a stone’s throw from the creek, and many businesses sit on its banks, including the Creek Monkey Tap Room, an excellent place to have a brew while watching beavers (and you might try the fried Oreos for dessert-I did).
To save the beavers, Perryman formed Worth A Dam, a group dedicated to maintaining the Martinez beavers in Alhambra Creek through responsible stewardship, creative problem solving, community involvement, and education. In a town that boasts the home and final resting place of John Muir, it seems appropriate that a modern conservation battle was waged here. Muir would be proud of the tireless crusade Perryman and other community members have fought to keep the beavers a part of their city.
The solutions in Martinez have ranged from sponsoring civic art projects honoring their most industrious residents, to working with a beaver biologist, to installing types of “beaver deceivers” that trick beavers into stopping their dam building, to painting trees with “sand paint” as a deterrent.
And now Martinez is proud that their successful experience can also help educate other urban areas about co-existing with beavers. “This is our sixth festival and definitely our biggest. Last year there were four festivals modeled after our own nationwide and two in Canada! We are so happy to be reaching out to cities all across the state teaching them how and why to live with beavers,” observed Perryman.
After the festival, I stood on the bridge for an hour watching an industrious beaver family swim back and forth, at one point carrying a branch to add to their already impressive dam. An onlooker on the bank got a little too close and was warned back by a volunteer—and a beaver. We got to hear that famous beaver tail give a very loud warning slap on the water—it sounded like the splash of a person doing a cannonball.
Beavers are pretty remarkable animals. The largest living rodent in North America, beavers can weigh up to 70 pounds. They are excellent swimmers and can remain under water up to 15 minutes. Their monumental feats of engineering are rivaled only by humans in the animal world, as Alice Outwater notes in her book, Water: “Beavers do more to shape their landscape than any other mammal except for human beings, and their ancestors were building dams ten million years ago.” Several generations of beavers have been working on a gigantic dam in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park since the 1970’s—it currently spans about 2,700 feet and can be seen from space.
Once almost hunted to near extinction for their pelts, the beaver has made a partial comeback in North America, although the current estimation of 6 million beavers living on the continent represents a far cry from their pre-European levels of a possible 60 million. Their historic reputation for being forces of destruction, gnawing their way indiscriminately through forests has also changed over time, with scientific research now demonstrating the animal provides a host of benefits to both wildlife and people, such as creating wetlands that allow for natural flood control, and fostering healthy habitat for an array of birds, amphibians, fish and other creatures.
So let’s hear it for the beaver, and start celebrating this remarkable animal. As the naturalist Enos Mills wrote in 1914, “Altogether the beaver has so many interesting ways, is so useful, skillful, practical, and picturesque that his life and his deeds deserve a larger place in literature and in our hearts.”
And what better way to celebrate than to attend next year’s Martinez Beaver Festival. I promise you’ll have a dam good time.
Check out NWF California Director’s Facebook album for more photos of this year’s Martinez Beaver Festival.
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