By Kate Montgomery
In these crazy frustrating times we crave getting outside more, to breathe the fresh air, clear our minds, and look to the natural world for sanity. Maybe that’s why Beaver Brigade has been so successful in attracting eager volunteers to clean the trash from the Salinas Riverbed. They have accomplished a great deal over the past several months, and with such a happy attitude. The work has been grueling but it has been outside. The results are not only lovely, but long lasting. In a time when we’re struggling to find meaningful commitments, the impact of removing 6 tons of toxic unsightly trash from abandoned camps along five miles of the Salinas wildlife corridor is an inspiring incentive.
Since early last winter 2020 Fred Frank and I had been searching northern San Luis Obispo county for signs of beavers in the creeks and in the river. We loved our adventures and the exercise and never tired of the sights and sounds of the water in the midst of the worlds it supports. We found plenty of beaver sign, mostly fresh beaver chew marks on trees and sticks of all sizes, and big weathered stumps of willow and cottonwood cut in past years, now vigorously resprouting. We even occasionally caught magical glimpses of beavers themselves swimming in their clear quiet ponds, eating leafy plants together along the riverbank, and more than once we were startled by loud beaver tail warning slaps on the water.
We always enjoyed leaving the land nicer than we found it and picked up any trash we saw. But one day in July we discovered the first of what became a string of 8 large abandoned camps skillfully hidden and full of trash in the willows along the Salinas River in Atascadero. We realized the two of us were in this way over our heads. That’s when we went to Beaver Brigader Eric Finlayson, who along with Brigade founder Audrey Taub immediately agreed to help us and to round up other Beaver Brigade members to join bagging and hauling out the trash.
Meanwhile Terre Dunivent, also with Beaver Brigade, was getting press releases out. Within a few weeks we had a list of almost 40 volunteers ages 10 to 84 interested in cleaning up the Salinas. Between August and November we scheduled 7 big group river cleanup days, each attended by 10-16 people filling big heavy-duty 45 gallon bags. Volunteers with 4 wheel drive pickups hauled it to waiting dumpsters. As the weeks went by we kept thinking we were almost done, but the job kept mushrooming. As soon as we finished cleaning the last of the 8 camps we found 10 more sites further north. Then finally the last two of the summer. We celebrated each time after those hot afternoons by sharing Farmers Market iced watermelon. The trash we saved from river wildlife and the ocean was everything from clothes and heavy bedding, food and beverage containers, bicycle parts and household items, to toys and books, and included toxic batteries and, sadly, used hypodermic needles. Almost all of it was made of plastics that break down into smaller and smaller bits but never biodegrade.
Walking the now much cleaner riverbed in late December our hearts are lighter, we see water levels rising even without rain as deciduous trees go dormant. The beavers are maintaining their dams and long ponds that would be dry as the desert without their constant vigilance. We see kingfishers, wood ducks, egrets and herons, deer and cottontails, signs of wood rat, raccoon, possum, bobcat and mountain lion. We know there are muskrats and skunks. Thick growth of willow, poplar, mule fat, and cattail thrive and provide food and shelter, benefitting many species of fish, insects, and song birds. Humans aren’t necessary to this wildlife corridor much as we love it all. Probably our only useful roles are to keep it clear of our pollution and to be awestruck.
Fred and I get such satisfaction and joy from the river, our cleanups, the work with so many like-minded volunteers. And from admiring the skillful beavers who are doing more than their part. These gentle, busy vegetarian engineers are so constructive and so sane! While creating safe homes for themselves and their close knit families they clean and store water, recharging the aquifer that serves all the wildlife even during the dry months. Not to mention the beavers are also creating effective wildfire breaks. And preventing flooding downstream. And they use the very simplest tools —sticks, rocks, mud. Think about it! Their food staple, the bark of the most common local trees, is also their primary building material. They are resourceful, endearing, gentle, self sufficient and clever. It is the least we can do for them to repair as much of the damage we have caused as we can, leaving the beavers’ world as free of our waste and pollution as possible. So far they have survived as a species many millions of years longer than we have. Now we are their greatest threat. Beavers are not listed as endangered, though their numbers are far below what they were just 300 years ago. This decline is directly due to our hunting, trapping, and industrialization.
Looking to future Beaver Brigade projects, as if keeping our trash out of the river and the ocean downstream isn’t daunting enough, there are other ambitious environmental projects we could engage in to support beaver habitat. One is eradication of the tall, invasive nonnative reeds that choke the river and its banks making it inhospitable to just about any other species of plant or animal. We’re talking about nonnative Arundo and Phragmites, which can grow 20 feet tall and have spread into large patches of the Salinas in recent years. These Eurasian reeds use a lot of water and then become a fire hazard. They also increase the risk of flooding while out competing native vegetation and offering no wildlife habitat. The Arundo in Atascadero comprises the furthest upstream stands in the Salinas, and would be the logical place to start ridding ourselves of it. This process would be difficult, expensive, and labor intensive.
We still have plenty on our To Do list, though we have far exceeded our original expectations for this past ignominious year of 2020. We are so grateful for all the support and collaboration. It seemed wherever we turned people were eager to help us out. Many thanks to: Our amazing volunteers who should all be listed by name but I won’t because there are too many for that, Atascadero Mutual Water Company, Atascadero’s Wastewater Plant, Chicago Grade Landfill, landowner Chris Wesney, Rolling A Ranch, Schlegel Sand and Gravel, St. Williams Church, Raminha Construction, Ecologistics, Biodiversity First!, and those of the river dwellers who bag up trash for us.
If you just keep beavers around, it can’t be overstated, the enormous beauty that’s created …. This will refill your spiritual tanks every time you visit it. It’s full of life, it’s full of movement, it’s full of color, it’s full of song. It’s absolutely amazing.”Skip Lisle, wildlife biologist and inventor of the Beaver Deceiver flow device which has saved so many beaver lives.
- # of Beaver Brigade volunteer hours logged August to December 2020: 402
- # of Large 45 gallon bags removed from the Salinas by Beaver Brigade during those months: 419
- Most common type of trash found: cigarette butts and large beverage containers
- Surprising fact: Beavers are living just a few feet from river encampments.
- Another one: Almost all the alcohol containers littering the river are tossed from ORV traffic.
- Silliest: Number of gates Beaver Brigade 4WD pickups had to access to get the job done: 11
- Wildest: An adult mountain lion was tracked in Atascadero’s Salinas River last October.