Swimming with Beavers

Swimming with Beavers
Photo by Denitsa-Kireva/Pexels

A Book Proposal

By Steve Watkins

“When I was 10, I spent a summer swimming with a family of beavers in the woods nearby. It was a great time and the next year, when I was 11, I went to find the beavers and found that they had gone. Trappers had taken them all. That made me very angry, so that winter I began to walk the trap lines and free the animals and destroy the traps.” 

—Greenpeace Founder Paul Wats

Twelve-year-old Beckett Guthrie would rather be outside by himself, feeding his lunch to birds and squirrels, than hanging out in the noisy cafeteria. Once, he coaxed a dark-eyed junco, a kind of sparrow, to eat sunflower seeds right out of his hand. And he took an F one time in science class for refusing to dissect a frog. 

On weekdays after school, Beckett rides around in a lime-green truck with his dad, cleaning out disposal stations for their residential dog waste business, Poop There It Is. Something else he’s teased for at school, when other kids bother to notice him. In the evenings, his dad settles in front of the TV with his nightly six-pack, while Beckett heats up cans of creamed corn and Dinty Moore stew. Every other Sunday, he visits his mom at the Central Virginia Correctional Center, where she’s serving a three-year sentence for embezzlement—and still grieving, as they all are, the death of his little sister, Annie. Beckett visits the cemetery where they buried Annie, too, always remembering to bring their worn copy of Runaway Bunny, her favorite story that he read to her countless times during lengthy stays at Children’s Hospital. Some days when he’s not too sad, he leans back against the headstone and reads it to her again.

And whenever he can, Beckett escapes on his bike to a mostly forgotten tract of land, Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve, an undeveloped peninsula tucked between two Central Virginia tributaries that pour out into the wide Potomac River. His mom grew up near there, something Beckett thinks about as he spends his days hiking and exploring and paddling in a leaky kayak he found and keeps hidden in tall marsh grass—alone, until he unexpectedly meets a new girl at school who has her own deep love for nature.  

Beckett—and soon the new girl, Kai—find comfort and something like joy in the company of the migratory birds and fish and snakes and other wildlife in the wetlands and tidal marshes and ridges and ravines that make up the preserve, which is on the other side of a busy county road from rampant development of what were once thick forests and wide, sweeping farmland. Beckett’s favorite thing of all is sitting on a platform he wedged into the crook of a beech tree where he watches a beaver family that has built an architectural marvel of a dam, blocking one of the tributaries, Accokeek Creek, that flows close to the county road. Little by little, as he slowly lets down his guard, Beckett lets Kai into this private world, too.

Beckett knows a lot about beavers, and if anyone happens to ask, he’s happy to share everything he’s learned about their orange teeth that never stop growing and are made for stripping bark from trees and carrying logs twice the beaver’s size and weight; about their webbed feet and paddlelike tails that make them such awesome swimmers; about their amazing lung capacity that lets them hold their breath for 15 minutes underwater; about their instinct for dam-building and ability to sense and repair any breach as soon as it occurs. About how their ponds filter out and break down runoff pollutants from houses and roads and farms upstream, keeping much of it from ever reaching, and harming, the Chesapeake Bay. And about how beavers stay mated for life and keep their kits at home longer than most species, until the kits grow into yearlings. Sometimes the yearlings will even live with their parents for an extra year and help raise the next litter of kits before they move out to build their own dams and lodges and ponds. That’s the thing about beavers Beckett likes best, not that it’s any mystery why—the families staying together, the pairing for life. 

Once they become friends, Beckett and Kai start spending their Saturdays together at Crow’s Nest, spotting eagles, counting herons’ nests, laughing at otters, studying beavers, even swimming in the murky water of their wetland ponds. They’re at the preserve one overcast day, kayaking in the rain, when the county road floods, a perennial problem. Only this time, a wealthy driver on his way into town from his riverfront mansion on the Potomac foolishly tries to drive through. The car, a Mercedes, stalls, catches fire, and is soon burning to a metal crisp with the driver stuck inside—until Beckett and Kai, paddling nearby, help him escape. 

At first, the kids are heroes. Their pictures are in the newspaper. There’s a sudden surge of popularity at school. The driver, a developer, invites them to his Potomac estate for a day of sailing and jet-skiing and horseback riding. He gives each of them a $500 check and says they’re welcome back any time. He even offers to invest in Beckett’s dad’s business. Beckett can’t believe how lucky they are and can’t wait to share the great news with his mom.  

But things soon get complicated. Beckett’s dad is behind on his truck payments and borrows the money to pay off the debt. Kai’s mother insists she return the reward because it’s not right to profit from someone else’s misfortune—even if he drives a Mercedes. Beckett’s mom says you should never trust rich people, especially those millionaires with their giant mansions on the Potomac, because one way or another they’ll end up walking all over you to get whatever they want. 

And worst of all, with no other road going in and out to the housing developments and riverfront mansions, officials and residents—the developer among them—start looking for someone, or something, to blame for the flooding. Soon enough, they decide that the beavers are at fault for damming the creek and causing water to back up over the road, even though the more likely culprits are runoff from the developments, the dieback of the ash trees, sea-level rise affecting the tidal marshes, and the fact that the county road was built in a flood plain to begin with. 

When Beckett and Kai show up one Saturday and find the beaver pond destroyed and most of the beaver family killed—crushed and drowned in body traps—they’re devastated. All the old griefs in Beckett’s life, the ones he’s kept bottled up all these years, are let loose as well—Annie’s death from a rare childhood cancer; his mother stealing money to pay the exorbitant medical bills; her two years in prison, with another still left on her sentence; his dad’s drinking. Kai, too, has been struggling in her own way, with her parents’ divorce, her father’s absence, moving to a new town in the middle of the school year, sleepless nights, her deep anxiety about global warming. 

But just a few weeks after the devastation, when the two friends return to Crow’s Nest, they can’t believe what they find: a new colony of beavers already moving in to repair the dam and rebuild the lodge. The pond already filling back up. And not just one colony of beavers, but three others building their own dams further up Accokeek Creek, once again doing the important work of creating habitat for a variety of species and restoring the wetlands. Beckett and Kai are elated—and scared. Because surely it’s just a matter of time before the county brings back the trappers and demolition teams to do it all over again. 

So they take action: Petitions, signs, editorials. “Save the Beavers!” A children’s crusade, or at least that’s what the newspaper starts calling it. At first, they think it will work. A few kids from school go with them to a county Board of Supervisors meeting to make their case. They put up hand-painted banners on the county road. They talk about saving the beavers, and finding an alternative for traffic on the county road, to whoever will listen. They organize a rally, though hardly anybody shows. Beckett’s dad joins them—and tells Beckett he’s turning down the developer’s investment offer. “I doubt he was serious about it anyway,” he assures his son. Kai’s mother, a project manager with the EPA, also gets involved. Even Beckett’s mom—who he keeps visiting no matter what—starts writing letters to the editor from jail. 

But eventually, inevitably, their well-meaning battle runs headfirst into the adult world of property rights and safety concerns, vested interests and political expediency, climate-change denial, and money, and power. People lose interest. Or they never cared that much to begin with. This forces Beckett and Kai to confront the painful reality of how out of balance the natural world has become, even in the little corner of the world they’ve been fighting so hard to protect. 

But through it all, there’s something greater that they also come to understand, about hope and despair: That there’s something worse than losing what you love, and that’s if you give up on trying to save it. 

Not that the story ends there. I’m actually of two minds about where it might ultimately go. One way is for Beckett and Kai to learn another lesson, too: That sometimes, if you can hold out long enough, help comes from where you least expect it—even from out of nowhere. For Beckett and Kai and the beavers of Accokeek Creek, it takes the form of an old lady driving a dilapidated pickup truck pulling a flatbed trailer loaded with oversized pipe and heavy-gauge fencing wire: Their deus ex machina with long, gray hair and a sunburned face and her window rolled down.

“I hear you have a beaver problem,” the old lady says as she slows to the side of the road where they’ve been standing with their signs. “And by that I mean I hear your beavers have a people problem.”

Beckett and Kai can only nod and stare.

 “Sorry I’m so late getting here,” the old lady says. “Somebody sent me a newspaper article about your situation so I’m just now learning about what’s been going on. Thought I might be able to help.”

She hooks a thumb over her shoulder to indicate all the hardware on the trailer. 

“I’ve got the makings here of what you call a flow device,” she says. “Some call it a beaver deceiver, though I don’t particularly care for the sneaky sound of that. But no matter. It can let some of the creek water get around, or under, or through their dams without beavers being any the wiser. With the right kind of equipment and the right kind of help, I’m thinking we can set a couple of these up and maybe, just maybe, fix things for both of your primary species.”

“Primary species?” Beckett and Kai ask.

The old lady nods. “Your Homo sapiens and your Castor canadensis. Your humans and your beavers.”

And that’s what ends up happening.

Alternatively, the narrative might go in a much more dramatic and apocalyptic direction—with plenty of foreshadowing, and perhaps the introduction of a mysterious figure hiding out in Crow’s Nest, a hermit and self-appointed caretaker of the peninsula who crosses paths with Beckett and Kai, and who they fear might be in danger when hurricane season arrives, and with it a massive storm that threatens the entire area. 

The kids and their hermit friend—and maybe Beckett’s dad and Kai’s mom—seek desperate shelter to wait out the furious storm, winds and tidal surge fueled by sea-level rise from catastrophic climate change. The hurricane decimates most of the overdeveloped subdivisions north of the preserve, washes away the road, topples trees, floods the creek. Nature’s revenge.

And when it’s all over, and the floodwaters recede, rescue workers come in on boats to ferry out the refugees, most of whose homes, built where they shouldn’t have been in the first place, are no longer habitable. Beckett and Kai and their parents hitch a ride out with the rescuers, too, their kayaks nowhere to be found. The hermit, to no one’s surprise, stays on Crow’s Nest. 

Crossing Accokeek Creek, they see all manner of fallen trees and debris, and no sign of the beaver dams—all of them washed away in the flood. But the beaver families are still there. Some of them, anyway. And they come swimming out from their hiding places, already busy collecting sticks and logs, eager as always to rebuild their dams and their lodges and create the vital wetlands all over again.




The trick to getting a bird to eat out of your hand isn’t so much a trick as it is a way of thinking about things, which is that they’ll come to you when they’re ready—birds, things—if you hold still and wait long enough. Also, if you leave a trail of sunflower seeds on the ground.

That’s how I got this little dark-eyed junco to light on my hand. Kids like to make fun of me sometimes and say I’m feeding my lunch sandwiches to the birds at school, and it’s true, I have done that before. Birds like peanut butter, though you’re not supposed to give them the kind with a lot of salt in it like Jif and Peter Pan. TOO much salt is bad for birds. For people, too. Fortunately, the sunflower seeds I gave the junco were unsalted, so that wasn’t a problem. 

What I particularly like, besides the junco’s bright-white tail feathers and stubby pink beak and him being the shape and size of a baseball, is the scratchy, tickly feeling of his toes on the fleshy part of my palm. People think birds are flat-footed, but the truth is they don’t exactly have feet the way humans tend to think of feet. Most birds stand on their toes. Three in front and the fourth, called the hallux, in the back. There’s a word for it—for animals that stand on their toes—and the word is digitigrade. I didn’t even know that myself until I looked it up. 

The junco and I were standing on top of a berm—thick woods on one side, ten-foot slope down to the outdoor basketball courts on the other. Most kids were inside the cafetorium where it’s so noisy you couldn’t hear a junco chirp if it stuck its beak all the way inside your ear canal. The quieter kids at Walker-Grant Middle School sit outside at picnic tables in the courtyard. Usually I slip past them to the butterfly garden to feed the birds that hang out there—couple of wrens and sparrows, a kind of a finch called a pine grosbeak, at least I think that’s what it is. Bigger and stubbier than most finches. 

But the day before when I was there and had the pine grosbeak on my arm, this girl showed up who must have followed me and been watching in secret. I’ll give her credit that she kept still enough that she didn’t scare the bird away, at least not at first. And for a second I didn’t even mind the company, thinking she might be, you know, like me. 

But then she said, “You’re like the Birdman of Alcatraz.”

The grosbeak dropped its sunflower seeds and took off, flying so close that I actually felt his fingertip feathers brush my cheek.

“Sorry,” the girl said. “I just never saw anybody do that before.”

I looked at her and blinked. She had red hair and the kind of freckles that you see in cartoons on girls with red hair. 

My first thought when she said I was the Birdman of Alcatraz was, “Oh, great. Another nickname. That’s all I need.” My name is Beckett, but kids used to call me Dookie because of my dad’s business, Poop There It Is. Sometimes on the weekends if somebody sees me riding with Dad in the lime-green truck, hopping in and out at the collection stands to change out the disposal bags, they still do. 

“Who’s the Birdman of Alcatraz?” I asked, because I didn’t know what else to say now that the birds were gone. A couple of butterflies tried to take their place, but it wasn’t the same.

“Famous prisoner back a long time ago who was in solitary confinement for a million years,” she said. “His only friends were canaries that would fly in his cell. He gave them food and stuff and studied them and wrote books about them and even invented medicines for them when they were sick. They made a movie about him. I watched it with my mom one time. It was in black and white.” 

“And they would land on his arm?” 

“Oh, definitely. Sleep next to him. Sit on his head. Everything. He had maybe three hundred canaries.”

“Alcatraz is a prison?”

She nodded and held out her hand toward the butterflies, which immediately flitted away. They were yellow and black. Swallowtails. “It’s in the middle of San Francisco Bay, but it’s closed down now,” she said. “Back when it was open, anybody who tried to escape would drown in the currents, get swept out to sea. Get eaten by sharks and seals.” 

I hadn’t ever seen the girl before. I didn’t know anything about her. Most kids at my school talked about TikToks and other stuff and they were always looking at on their phones, and they hardly ever talked about any of it with me. I didn’t know anybody who knew about things like the Birdman of Alcatraz or watched old movies with their moms. Maybe she didn’t know anything about me, either. 

The bell rang. Lunch was over. The new girl left without telling me her name or asking me mine. I kind of wanted to see her again, but I mostly kind of didn’t. The next day, I avoided the cafetorium, the courtyard, the butterfly garden, any chance of running into her again. Skipped past all that to the basketball courts, which had about a foot of standing water on them from all the rain we’d been having. Climbed to the top of the berm.

Which is where I was when the assistant principal found me and ordered me back to the building and said he was going to have to call Dad to tell him I’d left school without permission. But I hadn’t left school without permission, as I tried to explain, not that it did any good. I’d just been up there at the edge of the woods feeding a hungry bird. 


Steve Watkins is co-founder and editor of PIE & CHAI, a professor emeritus of English, a longtime tree steward with Tree Fredericksburg, an inveterate dog walker, a recovering yoga teacher and co-founder of two yoga businesses, father of four daughters, grandfather of four grandsons, and author of 15 books, two of which are forthcoming in 2024. His author website is