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Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver

By Frances Backhouse

Review By Ezekiel Gow

December 9, 2016

BC Studies no. 195 Autumn 2017  | p. 174-175

In Once They Were Hats, Francis Backhouse, who teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria, invites us to join her in exploring the multifaceted history of the beaver. She recounts personal stories about trips to museums, hat makers, Indigenous elders and mosquito-infested woods. She concludes that the beaver is not just a resource to be harvested, but a creature that has shaped our environment, our culture, and our history.

The greatest strengths of this book are the charming and informative trips Backhouse describes. Journeying north, she visits Ida Calmegane in the Yukon, where she hears the oral histories that Ida learned from her mother and grandmother, culminating in a moving song carried through generations, which tells of a beaver who dug under a town and, with an almighty slap of its tail, caused the town to fall into the lake. It is absolutely critical to include and learn from oral histories such as these. Indeed, if this book disappointed me in any way, it is that it did not include more visits to elders to learn the varied and complex histories of beavers told across Canada by Indigenous peoples.

In nine chapters, each exploring a different aspect of human interactions with beavers, Backhouse guides us through her adventures. In the first chapter, she introduces us to the romantic notion of “Beaverland,” or what remains of it. She invites us to share in her desire to witness a pre-European “erstwhile watery Eden” (5). In Chapter 2, Backhouse retreats to the Canadian Museum of Nature to discover the physical evidence of beaver ancestors – especially the sticks they chewed on – from four million years ago. Chapter 3 is the most moving and powerful. Ida Calmegane’s stories and songs captive and educate. Backhouse uses a gentle authorial hand to share Ida’s knowledge, drawing readers into the immense wealth of the elder’s wisdom. Chapter 4 dives into the history of beaver conservation, making an (almost) mandatory stop at Grey Owl, a.k.a. Archibald Belaney, who spearheaded early conservation. This is a sweet chapter; who isn’t captivated by stories of beaver pups?

The fifth and most interesting chapter explores the famous beaver hat, the driving force of much of the fur trade. Backhouse takes us into the workshop of the famous Smithbilt Hats of Calgary, where craftspeople shape the finest beaver felt into works of art. The descriptions of decades-old wooden hat blocks and machines worn smooth by years of countless labour are enthralling; they are capped by the dramatic image of a final step in the craft – a burst of flame to shorten wayward beaver hairs on the hat. From here, Chapter 6 takes us to the modern fur trade, with buyers in Toronto bidding at auction to obtain countless types of furs. In Chapter 7, we witness Backhouse, with the help of a trapper, learning to skin a beaver. Having skinned a beaver myself, I can attest that this is not an easy task. She perseveres, and makes history very real both for herself and the reader as she grasps the knife and prepares yet another pelt for auction. The eighth chapter explores how the beaver is needed for ecological and hydrological systems to function. Chapter 9 is a plea for better understanding of our beaver neighbours, and how their reintroduction or expansion could help restore water systems. Backhouse ends by writing “The Mighty Beaver is a superhero in its own inimitable way” (224).

This book is a welcome addition to the ranks of accessible histories. The author uses the beaver as a theme to unite science, indigenous knowledge, history, economics, and craftsmanship. Anyone interested in Canada – from beaver biologist to historian of the fur trade to high school student seeking to learn more about Canada’s national symbol – should accompany Backhouse as she expertly guides us through woods, ponds, auction halls, and laboratories, tracking the Mighty Beaver.

Publication Information

Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver
Frances Backhouse
Toronto: ECW Press, 2015. 256 pp. $18.95 paper.