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  The Late Show With the Beav

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 1999; Page A1

On Beaver Patrol, nature's battle rages.

Here in the Tidal Basin, it's beaver against cherry trees, industry vs. tradition, fits of motion alternating with stretches of languorous wait.

It's a war out here, witnessed largely by lovers. And this night, there is news in the water. Sightings. New developments in this most troubling of Cherry Blossom Festivals.

Everywhere, people watch the water. The beaver's work, the wanton destruction of the nation's treasured cherry trees, is legend by now, and the people are rising up as one. At least to have a look.

Including your correspondent, with note pad, cheap camera, cheaper flashlight. Beaver Patrol.

The evening is quiet, the ripples unremarkable. Then, at 8:44 p.m., sticks are seen floating over toward the 14th Street bridge. Sticks that might be branches, branches that might be evidence of the beaver's crimes. A small crowd gathers. A National Park Service ranger is summoned. He inspects.

"Sticks," he says.

The crowd disperses. But not before the ranger reveals this previously secret information: "We've had beavers here before, couple, three years ago. Eventually, they went away."

Did they really? How does he know? What does the government really know?

By 10:20, the last of the tour buses pulls off. The jewel-like Tidal Basin is left to its denizens, and they are, almost without exception, lovers. Couples entwined on the benches overlooking the water, couples hand in hand on the walks, couples sprawled across the marble base of the Jefferson.

Jill Dailey and Robert Chertoff loudly hum the menacing theme from "Jaws" as they peer over the retaining wall. "We've got hawks eating ducks. We got beavers. Amazing what makes news these days," she says.

Beaver Patrol moves away from the memorial, away from the light, hoping to find the perpetrator in the more secluded northwest sector. Here, the boughs, heavy with impossible puffs of blossoms glowing pink even under a moonless sky, lean down nearly to water's edge.

Mike Duffy, of Alexandria, showing around his visiting sister, Therese Zembik, of Atlanta, breaks the midnight still. They are watching the water and walking briskly, with such alacrity that they draw the attention of your alert Beaver Patrol.

"He's been stopping to grab clumps of cherry blossoms," Duffy says.

"He?" your correspondent replies suspiciously.

"The beaver," Duffy and Zembik say in unison.

Inspection by flashlight reveals:

Beaver. Three feet long. Swimming. Round, gleaming eyes. Possible smile. Definite somersault. The laughter is perhaps a late-night anthropomorphic hallucination.

"We were over at the memorial, joking around about the beaver, and sure enough, there he was," Duffy says. "He just swam right alongside us."

We proceed along toward Independence Avenue, the beaver keeping – or perhaps setting – the pace. "He swims at exactly walking speed," Zembik says.

A photographer folds up his equipment and joins our unit. "Oh, there's about a million of them out here," he says. A million?

"I've seen three tonight."

Three? The government has reluctantly acknowledged sightings of two assassins, but three?

"Three," he says. "Saw them with my own eyes."

A few yards along, three men from China confirm. "Three beaver," they say. "Three swim. Together." They say this together, the three men do.

Beaver Patrol can offer no independent confirmation, but triangulation of sources lends considerable credence to the claims.

Then, as we speak, the beaver takes advantage of the confusion and gives us the slip. We resolve to wait it out. It's got to breathe eventually. Five minutes go by, 10.

Finally, somebody sees it, tucked into a gap in the wall, one of its satellite storage facilities. It's shoved some sticks in there. And now it's out again, trying to climb the wall. Beaver Patrol prepares defensive measures, but they prove unnecessary; the beav can't scale the wall.

Something of a crowd gathers as we follow the brazen tree murderer around the perimeter of the basin. Conversation reveals a crude but clear gender gap: Men root for the beaver, women for the cherry trees. Guys see the beaver as a champion of industry, a builder, an underdog, Quixote. The ladies side with the pretty blossoms, with the trees that have stood their ground for so long, hurting no one, seeking only to please.

Debate continues as the beaver cruises along. Tim Pfabe, of Washington, is pleased "to see this water's clean enough to be his habitat." His friend Mary Ann Bagnell counters, "They should just move him to some other place and save the trees." (That is the plan; the feds began their trapping campaign yesterday.)

At 11:40, the creature offers one last burst of entertainment, a sort of double somersault (it wins 8s and 9s from the District judges; the woman from McLean sniffs and awards only a 5.4), finds another of its armories and emerges a few minutes later with a towering cluster of branches. It glides along, pushing the woodpile toward the Independence Avenue bridge.

And there it vanishes, under the bridge, not to be seen again this night.

Back under Mr. Jefferson's gaze, several dozen midnight visitors read his words of wisdom ("I shall not die without the hope that Light and Liberty are on steady advance"). Ranger Harry Gedney answers questions about the third president and the two – or perhaps now three – beavers. The government declines to alter its position; it will take the new claims under advisement.

The new day brings a shift change – Park Service out, Park Police in – but Beaver Patrol takes no breaks. Under the statue of the president who never sleeps, a man from Southeast who goes only by Ray settles in on a marble bench with his night's reading – tonight, some poetry, a bit of history and, as ever, the Bible. "Plenty of light, always a breeze and all the inspiration a man could need," Ray says of his choice of alfresco reading room.

Below, at the lip of the memorial, Dan March, who works in a Virginia bike shop, and Megan McCarthy, who is employed at the Air and Space Museum, continue the age-old battle of the sexes.

"They shouldn't trap him," March says. "He's the best news this spring. I hope he outsmarts them. He's part of nature, too."

"Beaver on the lam!" McCarthy says with a laugh. Then she reveals her sympathies: "These poor trees, they took so long to grow. He's killed nine of them. Nine!"

Into the small hours, couples talk and walk, smooch and falter. And every ripple in the water creates a pause, as eyes cast out in search of the Terror of the Tidal Basin. One woman, mid-kiss, glances out at a disturbance on the water and says, "Ducks, not beaver."

A few couples linger until 3 a.m., as a lone mad bicyclist makes slow circles around the water, but despite the solitude, the beaver does not show itself. After 4, the breeze picks up, and then a couple of brisk showers send countless petals fluttering into the water, where they bunch up, forming a pretty foam that bobs on wind-swept wavelets.

By 6:30, Friday's first light comes battleship gray, the world once more born new. With startling suddenness, bikers and walkers, joggers and jet planes appear. The Park Police rush by. The still falls victim to huffing breath and strident steps, whizzing wheels and whining engines.

This is no hour to loll about. The beaver knows best. Others are in charge now. Its work must wait.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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