Coyote Run Farm
The Man Who Would be Beaver

Southern Ontario is noted for its abundance of fresh water. Our temperate climate usually receives plenty of rainfall to feed the numerous streams, rivers and small lakes. As if that were not enough, the Great Lakes represent the largest single concentration of fresh water in the world.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter...

Despite this abundance of water, we had the well examined before purchasing the farm. We didn't want to suffer the fate of the Ancient Mariner. The existing well was apparently quite old, but no one seemed to know just when it was made. There was a standard concrete cover, which was fairly new. The well itself -- bearing in mind that a well is just a hole in the ground -- is about a four foot diameter circular hole. The tiles which form the wall lining of the well cap go down about five feet. After that, it is just a dirt wall all the way down to the bottom. How far is it to the bottom of this dug well? Try 56 feet. Think of a building almost six stories tall. Now imagine standing at the edge of the roof. I can't imagine what kind of lunatic dug the thing out.

The well had a good supply of water and recharged quickly. It had been used before to support a large number of livestock. All appeared (ahem) well.

In the process of installing the plumbing, it was determined that the pump in the well needed to be replaced. We placed the new pump in the cellar of the farmhouse for easy accessibility and so that we would hear if anything ever went wrong. The old pump had to be removed from the depths of the well and a new intake installed. We stressed to the plumber that we really didn't want him to go down the well himself. Among other concerns, if anything were to happen, we would not be able to dig him out for several weeks. His response was essentially: No worries, mate! So, down the well he went. He placed a ladder across the top of the well and tied a rope to it. At the end of this rope dangled another ladder on which he worked. He worked on a dangling ladder on a rope tied to another ladder and he did so fifty-six feet in the hole. Fortunately, the plumber survived.

Despite all of the grief being on a well can cause, it does has its benefits. For one thing, we can monitor the water level as it rises in the spring. We know from experience that when the water level gets to within six feet of the lid, the cellar floods. This gives us a chance to ensure any susceptible items are protected. We have since put a concrete floor in the basement. It can still flood. It's designed to allow the water through before the water bursts the floor asunder. That's an important point. You can't fight water. It is going to go where it wants to, and the best that can be done is to work with it or send it on little detours. With this in mind, and the drinking water secured, we turned our attention to other water-works.

This Pond Packed by Weight, not Volume

Spring was in the air, and a young man's fancy turns to hydrological engineering. There was a large pond, deep in the bush at the south end of the property. It was large because a beaver had built a dam there. Alas, beavers will only stay in an area until they've picked all of their favorite trees clean. Then they move to another location until the trees recover. Consequently, we had a beaver dam, but no beaver.

Undeterred, we cleared out some of the undergrowth to facilitate access and to allow for a place to relax (as if). The north side of the pond has a steeply sloped hill leading into the water. A large tree at the top of this embankment was used as the basis for a rudimentary tree-house. It was ten feet up a ladder on the back, and a twenty foot drop to the water on the front. Penthouse by the pond.

Shortly after this, the dam burst and the water level in the pond dropped to a pitiful level. Heck, we had grass growing out of parts of it. We had to do something about this. I mean, were we going to let some rodent's lack of civic mindedness ruin our pond?

First of all, we carefully examined the dam and noted that it was really just a large mess of sticks, logs and branches all woven into a tightly packed heap. If you're wondering how something like that can hold together, think of the last time you tried to unwind the extension cord in your garage. This was a problem because people just don't (intentionally) build things this way. We didn't have the kind of on-the-job experience that a beaver does.

However, digging out the entire mess and starting over wasn't an option. The water flow was far too much and we didn't have the right kind of equipment. That would be the kind that converts diesel into deep, throaty "vrooom" sounds. So, we had to patch up what we had. We were very concerned about the ability of water to work its way around obstacles. To counter this, we heaped huge quantities of earth and wood on either side of the dam and up the slopes. Remember that we didn't have any powered tools or vehicles. This was done with a pair of shovels and many pairs of work gloves. This was also done in the shallows of a natural pond. At the end of the day we looked like coal miners, but we had some rather organic smells about us.

After securing the sides, we placed many logs and branches into the central dam structure. We topped this off with a large hardwood barn board. It was old, strong, water resistant and thick. The idea was that it would resist the erosion of the water spilling over the top better than a weave of mud and sticks. Utterly exhausted, we retired for yet another day.

The same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.

When the rain finally relented several days later and we returned to the pond it was still low. Careful examination of the dam wasn't necessary. The large barn board and burst clean in two, and a good chunk of the dam had gone with it.

The Dam Busters

We had to quickly throw together a patch before too much erosion damage was done. As can be seen from the picture, we used lots of stones and lots of beaver technique. We also made a crude sluice gate to force the water to spill on to the large, relatively erosion resistant, stones.

This worked reasonably well for a time. Eventually the water found a way underneath the dam, and down the water went again. The problem is that these kinds of dams require constant maintenance. We could work on the dam every two weeks to ensure it stays in place, but I think we'll wait for the beaver to return. Perhaps someday we'll rip the dam out and begin anew. With the tractor we purchased years later, we could move large quantities of earth and other material quickly. We could divert or plug the water while we built a real dam. Why, once on dry footings we could use concrete, and we could build an adjustable sluice gate, and....

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