I stood daydreaming with my back to the river when a loud slap broke from behind me, the sound of something smacking the surface of the water. It was pushing toward 100 degrees and I had just climbed out of the stagnant pool.
I turned quickly, falling into a crouch on my toes with fingertips spread on the stone for balance, a conscious reaction but seemingly driven automatically by instinct.
I do not like being the odd item out in the woods, a focal point, a target, attracting unnecessary attention. I like to be quiet, to blend in, become part of my surroundings rather than stand out from them.
The surprising noise, while not directly threatening, triggered a sense of apprehension. Thoughts sped across my mind like stock quotes on a ticker tape on fast forward. For a fleeting moment I thought somebody was playing a mischievous game, throwing something from the nearby cliff into the water to startle me.
I once was attacked by three heavily tattooed thugs from Lompoc not too far from where I was, one throwing a rock that slammed into my shin and drew blood. They surrounded me, getting off on cowardly intimidation and threatening further violence.
Following the slap on the water, the thought of some punk maliciously toying with me from the high ground was unsettling. I was out in the open. Imagine quickly scanning the high hillsides of a wide forest while standing on low ground and thinking somebody is out there hidden from sight spying on you. Not a good feeling.
A moment later, ripples radiating out from a point in the middle of the eerie looking deep green pool, I wrote it off as a large carp. The water is full of them, and I had just been gazing down upon several lazily swimming around just the below the surface of the water.
I knew that sound, however, and it was not a carp or any other fish, but I couldn’t believe what my mind was telling me after it had time to settle and add up the equation. So I rejected it. Yeah, right. No way.
I clambered down the sandstone outcrop I had been standing atop, stepped back into the cool, refreshing water and lunged out into its depths swimming back to the far shore, along a rocky cliff and up onto the gravel shoreline. I was comfortably back in my element, alone in the woods, the previous thought of another person of some unwanted sort dismissed.
I walked back to the line of riverside brush and young trees where I had stashed my backpack and sat in the shade. It was hot, but I’ve come to appreciate hiking in 90 degree temperatures.
I noticed beside me a telltale clue that further confirmed my previous conclusion about the source of the noise in the water, but which I had rejected. I knew immediately upon seeing the branch what it was that made that slapping sound, but yet again my mind refused to accept what the clues confirmed. It just couldn’t be.
The branch had been recently gnawed in half and carried away for it was nowhere in sight. I scanned the immediate area around me and suddenly realized I was surrounded by numerous nubs of freshly gnawed branches sticking up from the riverbed and other old ones, too.
I wondered how I had missed all this obvious sign when I first hid my backpack and stripped off my clothes for a swim. It bothered me that I’d been so negligent, so lacking in situational awareness, oblivious to my surroundings. The roughly cut branches were everywhere. I must have been too hot, fatigued and ready for a swim.
On closer inspection I could see the wide bladed teeth marks that had smoothly slid through the wood in singular passes and with ease. Obviously whatever the animal was that made these marks had remarkably sharp teeth and powerful jaws.
I knew what it was that made the marks, that cut the branches, that removed them to another location. Yet I still would not accept what my mind was telling me. I had been hiking through or around this general area since ever I could remember. One of the first hikes I remember was to this very location when my dad and uncle, the Brothers Elliott, dragged me down the trail here one day as a young boy.
I recall watching my dad dive off a notably high cliff-side perch into the deep river with near perfect form. That same perch was now right before me some yards away. They had pointed out fossil seashells along the way, which to me as a young boy were a great fascination and to this day those images still remain on my mental hard drive. The water was deep and rushing loudly that day.
Years later, as a teenager after I got my driver license, I hiked back to this area of the river frequently, sometimes with friends, but many times alone. It was a favorite backcountry hot and sunny spot in late spring and early summer when the coast is often buried in a cool, foggy marine layer. I’d spent many afternoons swimming and diving off the rocky cliffs and swinging from rope swings into the deep water. I’d caught and eaten trout and crawdads and saw big bass and carp.
I saw many things, but in all those early experiences I’d never seen any beaver nor sign of them. And in all the years since, while I knew there were beaver on the lower sections of the river and also in the upper Sisquoc River of Santa Barbara County, and I knew of historic accounts of beaver, and had also seen a Chumash pictograph that purportedly represented a beaver, I had never heard tell of beaver in this particular area in my lifetime.
But that’s what had slapped the water behind me when I was on the rock, not a carp or somebody throwing something. That’s what had gnawed through and carried away all those branches.
Yet it was not until a few days later, after I had emailed a friend who is in a position to know, even if he had never seen them personally, that I finally allowed myself to accept what my mind had been telling me all along. After a couple of email exchanges I was thrilled to know that, yes, he had heard of beaver here and so, indeed, that is what I had heard and seen sign of that day.
I returned soon afterward and while I did not see any beaver, as I arrived at the very spot where I had hidden my backpack the week before and sat to rest in the shade, an animal went charging loudly through the brush down the riverbed. I could see a trail pressed through the reeds and branches leading from the water. It had to be a beaver.
I doubled back downstream and tried to walk back up the riverbed to sneak up and get a look at it, but the brush was too thick. Rather than continue the pursuit I decided to return another day at a better hour and hopefully catch sight of the animal in the water. The hunt to photograph the furry critter continues.
And so this late in my life I am still discovering new surprises in areas of the Los Padres National Forest that I thought I knew, and that I have spent much time recreating in and exploring since the earliest days of my youth, and which lie less then 100 miles from the nation’s most populace county.
It is wilder out there than I had thought.