Posts Tagged 'Cache La Poudre River'

Go with the flow

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Cache la Poudre River just east of the Narrows, June 6, 2010 (photo by Terry Burton)

This year’s extended winter season, mixed with the quick onset of summer-like conditions, has created some interesting situations for the state’s rivers. Many are overflowing their banks and seeing a substantial increase in water movement. Measured in cubic feet per second, some rivers have increased their flow from an average of 400 to well over 1,000 cubic feet per second. What’s that mean?

There are roughly 7.4 gallons (28 liters) of water in a cubic foot. Now, imagine seven gallon-sized jugs of milk flying past you in a second’s time; or, if you’re lactose intolerant, 14 containers of whatever it is you like to drink that happens to come in a 2-liter bottle. That’s equivalent to just one cubic foot of water. A rate of 1,000 cubic feet per second; well, let’s just say, that’s a lot of diet soda moving past you.  Factor in that each of these cubic feet of water weighs approximately 61 pounds, and you have a formidable force of movement.

These were just some of the thoughts that went through my mind as my wife and I headed to the Cache la Poudre for a white water rafting trip this last weekend. I was aware of the risks that come with increased water flow, but my curiosity was also at a peak. I needed to experience the true force of the river to further my understanding of not only physics but local history. (Don’t feel too bad for my wife, the trip was her idea to begin with.)

The Cache la Poudre has played a huge role in shaping the development of Fort Collins. Starting as a military settlement along the banks of the Poudre, the soldiers established Camp Collins in 1862 to protect people traveling the Overland Trail. June of 1864 saw several days of heavy rainfall melting off the snow pack in the mountains. According to some reports, the Cache la Poudre became a twenty-foot high “wall of water” that washed away the camp. That fateful flood caused the Army to reestablish a few miles east of their original location, thus creating Fort Collins.

As we build the new home of the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, the Cache la Poudre figures prominently into our plans. Not only will the river help us illustrate the history of the region and demonstrate scientific phenomena ranging from biology to physics, the river itself will form a backdrop for the museum property. Watching the banks of the Cache la Poudre swell and overflow a short distance from our proverbial backdoor is, on the surface, a little scary. It’s also an important reminder of the power of nature and its ability to affect mankind, on a variety of levels.

Cache la Poudre River just west of College Ave. in Fort Collins, June 7, 2010 (photo by Terry Burton)

Conservation of our natural and cultural heritage: Leave it to Beaver

by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections 

(A personal disclaimer: I grew up in Oregon–the Beaver State; in Corvallis, which is the home of Oregon State University and, of course, the mighty OSU Beavers. Our family drove around with twin stickers on our back bumper declaiming “I’m a Beaver Believer” and “I’ve Got Beaver Fever.” I come by my love for these buck-toothed engineers honestly, and my “beaver fever” is unabashed.)

My experience with historical research has taught me that it can be almost impossible to pick up and follow a single topic: inevitably one thing is knotted on to another, tangled up with a dozen more, and sometimes tied on to its own tail. This has been the way it’s gone with my research on the beaver felt top hat of my last post. My research on that object made me curious to see what other artifacts of beaver history are preserved in the Fort Collins Museum collections. Turns out it is an impressive inventory:

  • 3 beaver felt top hats in addition to the one attributed to President Lincoln
  • 1 elegant felt lady’s riding hat
  • 2 wide-brimmed beaver felt Stetsons
  • 1 pair of beaver fur mitts
  • 1 bearskin coat trimmed at the collar and cuffs with beaver fur
  • 1 sweet beaver fur cape and muff set, made from beavers trapped on George Campton’s ranch in Livermore about 1910 for his sister
  • 1 old beaver trap, pulled out of the Cache La Poudre River and donated to the Museum in the 1960s
  • 1 pelt from a beaver trapped by the donor himself in Colorado and donated in 1979
  • 2 stuffed and mounted beavers (the largest and fattest dang beavers I’ve ever seen)
  • a set of beaver skulls
  • and, finally, various pairs of bright orange upper front beaver teeth

The presence of these beaver-related objects in the Museum’s collections reflects a steady involvement of the species in our region’s history, despite an economically driven “beaver fever” that severely depleted their numbers before Colorado had even become a state. The earliest historical trapping records of the Colorado Rocky Mountain region show sixty to eighty beaver present per mile of stream. By the turn of the 20th century the species’ population nationwide was as low as 100,000 individuals, very few of whom were here in the West.

Two sources I’ve come across recently not only decry the West’s loss of beaver populations, but advocate their protection and reintroduction as a means of conserving our region’s natural and cultural riches. Both recognize that in shaping the region’s waterways to their own purposes, beavers once played, and can play again, a vital role in maintaining the environments in which the region’s unique human history has unfolded. The first of these is Beaver World, a charming book by Enos Mills, a signed copy of which is in the Fort Collins Museum’s Local History Archive. Mills was a passionate advocate for the natural world, and an astute direct observer of wild animals interacting with the environment. Beaver World was published in 1913, and in it Mills not only gushes about the beaver’s emblematic industriousness, “He works not only tooth and nail, but tooth and tail,” but more insightfully recognizes the role the species plays in maintaining both a healthy ecosystem, and a landscape humans find welcoming and pleasing:

Beaver works are of economical and educational value besides adding a charm to the wilds. The beaver is a persistent practicer of conservation and should not perish from the hills and mountains of our land. 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.

The beaver’s role in maintaining healthy, functional Western ecosystems is the central focus in the much more contemporary article “Voyage of the Dammed,” carried in a recent edition of The High Country News. Writing at a time when water conservation is a high profile problem and many of its proposed solutions carry high price tags, author Kevin Taylor outlines the position of environmentalists and other concerned citizens who advocate, at least in part, leaving it to the beavers:

The humble, hardworking rodent, through its dams and ponds, can extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia.

The article extends the beaver’s vital restorative role to cultural values as well. Taylor quotes a Coeur d’Alene tribal elder, 86 year-old Felix Aripa, who sees within the native ecosystems restored by beaver activity the roots of cultural restoration: in the returning native plants, fish, and animal species are embodied the cultural riches of language and long-held cultural knowledge.

These two sources have whetted my appetite for learning more about this species, and for doing what I can to promote its ongoing presence in our region. I understand that in caring for the beaver artifacts which lie within the Fort Collins Museum collection — clothing, tools, and scientific specimens — we preserve the history of a species which plays a central role in the Native American traditions of this area, as well as in the story of the region’s surge in population and development in the 19th century. As I read the strong praise Enos Mills gives this species and the excited plans of those advocating its restoration, I’m thrilled with the possibility that within today’s beaver population is preserved a solution to our region’s compelling need to conserve both the health of the environment and the wealth of our cultural and historical heritage. “I’m a Beaver Believer” indeed.

beaver blog photo

 


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