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Voyage of the Beaver

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback in western U.S.

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The prevailing winds blow away the storm just in time for a scheduled evening hike into an adjacent county park to see a series of four beaver dams. Sunlight gains extra brilliance as it slants across the scrubbed air. Raindrops hanging from still-bare branches along the shoreline trail and falling from the needles of cedar and pine shine diamond-bright, adding extra dazzle.

It's a fine sight for Felix Aripa, an 86-year-old Coeur d'Alene tribal elder. Aripa says that beaver not only help with efforts to restore native cutthroat trout, they also encourage cultural restoration. Their presence often means that there are desired plants in the area, such as cedar, certain types of willows and medicinal plants that have become hard to find. Some of these plants have become so rare that they are GIS-mapped, Aripa says. Now, Coeur d'Alene children are taken out to observe and identify them in their native Salish tongue and do some harvesting.

"At language school, we want to tell about beaver, take classes to some of these different areas," Aripa says. "I'd like to teach our children what the beaver provides."

At the end of the hike, Aripa faces into the sun, observing the first of the beaver dams just off the trail.

"Years ago, they said there was a lot of red willow and birch trees here, and cottonwoods. ... (And) there was beaver all the way up there," Aripa says, throwing his arms wide. "This is beaver country."

As if on cue, a beaver appears, browsing, in its ring of shining water.

The dozens of people who made the hike stand transfixed.

Kevin Taylor writes for the Pacific Northwest Inlander in Spokane, Washington.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

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