When Europeans began arriving in what would later be called North America, they saw a land teeming with beavers — somewhere between 50 and 400 million. They craved fashionable, waterproof hats, so much so that they basically wiped out their own European beavers to do so. By 1900, their North American relatives had suffered the same fate. The Castor canadensis had dwindled to somewhere in the low hundred thousands — one per cent of their former levels.
This intersection of history and biology fascinated author and freelance journalist Frances Backhouse, who will be reading from her 2015 book, Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver, at the SHOAL Centre in Sidney on Oct. 20 along with fellow author Ian Gibbs, a guide for Victoria’s Ghostly Walks tours and writer of Victoria’s Most Haunted: Ghost Stories from B.C.’s Historic Capital City.
Backhouse, a former biologist herself, began researching her book in 2009, and a portion of the book served as the thesis of her master’s degree in creative writing at UVic. She did fieldwork in the summers, hiking into remote areas in the summer, while writing in the winter.
“I thought of them as a Canadian animal but they were practically everywhere in North America where there was wood and water,” said Backhouse.
It took six years, but she said that “If I hadn’t had deadlines I could have just kept gathering research.”
Beavers not only had an economic role for a fledgling colony, but an ecological role as well. When beavers build dams and hold back rivers, the water table rises, which affects vegetation.
When there is heavy rainfall of fast snow melt, a river dammed by beavers does not run as violently so there is less erosion and cleaner water.
The topic of the fur trade, particularly in modern times, can provoke strong reactions from people, but Backhouse said she tried to keep an open mind. She was interested in hearing the perspective of trappers, particularly in northern Saskatchewan, where trapping is still very much tied to First Nations culture. Her research took her to places like a trading post in La Range, in northern Saskatchewan, where she spoke to a second-generation trapper.
“I went into it wanting to hear both sides of the story and to present both sides of the story to readers so they could make their decisions, not go in with the judgment on the fur trade,” said Backhouse, though she “probably came down more on the side of letting beavers live” herself.
Backhouse is looking forward to reading aloud and meeting people who may have read the book before.
“It’s really great to be able to hear and see people react to my words, instead of just sending them out in a book and not having that interactivity with the reader.”
The reading, which starts at 7 p.m., is a fundraiser for the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival. Tickets are $10 and are available at www.sidneyliteraryfestival.ca/our-other-events/