Beaver Overthinking Dam
April 19, 2006 | Issue 42â€¢16
HUNTSVILLE, ONTARIOâ€”Local beaver Dennis Messner is spending an inordinate amount of time and effort in the planning and construction phases of building his dam, according to neighbors close to the project.
In the past four months, Messner, 4, has visited hundreds of other dams and drawn up detailed and extensive blueprints. He has researched topics ranging from advanced dome acoustics to the near-extinction of the North American beaver in the early 20th century, and plans to incorporate much of his research into his design.
Enlarge ImageDennis Messner
"There are two primary schools of thought on dam building: the instinctive school and the adaptive school," Messner said, studying the river's current. "I'm more of an integration-minded postmodernist. I don't believe that form should follow function, like most of my colleagues do. On the other hand, a dam is a celebration of beaver culture, and that is what it should reflect."
"It's a lot to think about," Messner continued.
Despite time constraints dictated by the changing seasons, Messner has spent nearly 400 beaver-hours stripping logs of their bark and foliage, and more than two weeks scouting locations up and down the Muskoka River. "I just want everything to be perfect," he said.
Longtime friend and fellow Beaver Lodge No. 913 brother Tim McManus, who is nearing completion of his own dam, took a more pragmatic approach to construction. "Work-work-work. Gnaw-gnaw-gnaw. Build-build-build. Must hurry," he said.
Messner has already overthought and razed two dams this season alone. He dismissed the proportions of the first as "aesthetically dysfunctional," and the second was built out of cottonwood, which he called "a mistake." But, according to Messner, the latter experience got him thinking about different woods in ways he had never considered.
"What woods are the sturdiest, or the most visually pleasing?" Messner said. "What does a birch dam say? Everyone seems to love sugar maple, but it's such an overfamiliar scrub tree. Would I be making a stronger statement with willow? I don't want this to be one of those generic McDams."
"What do I have to sayâ€”as a beaver and as an artist?" he added.
After much thought, Messner decided to reconstruct the anterior section of the dam with poplar wood on Tuesday, after he finished "highly necessary" preparatory work chewing the branches into uniform-sized interlocking sticks. Yet such tasks struck fellow lodge members as excessive.
"Get to work, get to work, build the dam, build the dam," Cyril Kyree said as he dragged a number of logs into the shallow lick of river where the rest of the lodge has built their nests. "Chew-chew-chew. Need a mate. Build the dam."
Enlarge ImageAn incomplete dam aborted over "symmetry issues."
An incomplete dam aborted over "symmetry issues."
Messner rejected the criticism. "Not everyone in this area cares or is even aware of how dam building alters an ecosystem," Messner said. "But I am, and, yes, I do wonder what kind of impact my dam will have on the environment. How can I make this the most positive experience possible, while still minimizing adverse impact on the wetlands? What kind of beaver would I be if I didn't take erosion science into consideration?" To that end, Messner has reached out to the local otter, fish, and waterfowl communities, and has incorporated their input into his design.
Despite some frustration with his efforts, Messner professed faith in the process.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm just treading water," he said. "Then I remember that a beaver near Baysville built a dam that was nearly 12 feet high. There's even one that's almost 200 feet long in Manitoba. I want to build something that I can be proud of."
This marks the third consecutive spring in which Messner has sought to build the perfect dam. Many in the area believe that Messner will fail and resort to burrowing a hole in the muddy ground where he will spend the rest of the season, as he has done the past three years.