"Has everybody had a chance to feel the beaver pelt?" Huntley Meadows Park naturalist Ken Garrahan asks a huddle of children and adults who have learned some beaver basics and touched a dead beaver's fur and toenails in the parking lot and are ready to trek out in search of the living, swimming, building animal. We carpool to the end of a dirt road, then hike to the end of a trail that leads to a partially submerged catwalk that leads to a boardwalk that floats on a marsh filled with cattails, rosehips, winter berries and button balls. Garrahan dubs the kids "official button-ball propagators" and charges them to break up the circle-shaped butters and scatter the seeds in the marsh. This helps pass the time until we get to beaver territory.We are also supposed to look for muskrats, which have built their lodge under the boaardwalk. "I think I see a muskrat!" calls seven-year- old Fraser, who, when the group stops to see it too, adds: "Well, I saw some bubbles in the water, anyway." But our real quarry are beavers, which, Garrahan tells us, have built one dam and three lodges in the 1,200-acre park. Recently, the naturalist adds, they have turned their energies to freeway building. "What we have here is the Beaver Thruway," says our leader, stopping to point out a path chewed out of the cattails from one beaver lodge to another. For a better view of the mini-city the beavers have built we climb an observation tower and pass around binoculars. "You can see the dam on the left," says Garrahan. "And that mound of green vegetation is their old lodge. We think they've abandoned that lodge. When a lodge goes into disrepair, they usually build a new one. Their current lodge is that mound of sticks almost directly in front of us, and they seem to be building a new lodge over to our right. We're not sure why, exactly, but the oldest female is dominant in a lodge and when her new babies are about to be born she kicks the male juveniles, her two-year-olds, out. The juvenile males build their own lodges and wait for a female to come along. The piles of sticks over there in back of the lodge are like their grocery stores. They don't hibernate, so they store food here for the winter. They even dig underground trenches so that if the pond freezes they can still get to their food supply." "What do they eat?" asks a child, and Garrahan dispels any visions of shelves lined with canned goods: "Mainly tree bark and weeds, they're strictly herbiverous." "You mean they're vegetarians," adds the child. There are about 14 beavers in a lodge, and Garrahan is sure we'll see at least one. "We can't contract with the beavers, but they usually come out of the lodge at dusk and work through the night," he encourages us. "Just look for waves and a head sticking out." Suddenly, as if on cue, some bubbles surface near the underwater entrance to the lodge and a beaver appears, floating on its back among the weeds. "You mean that thing that looks like a log?" asks a child and, as if in answer, the beaver flips over and dives beneath the murky surface. "Thank you, thank you," cheers Garrahan, leading the applause of an appreciative audience -- but one whose lust for beaver has been increased rather than satisfied by that brief appearance. "They can stay under water for five minutes," Garrahan tells us, quashing hopes of a quick curtain call. Meanwhile, eight- year-old Mandy comes to the naturalist's rescue with a question: "What do they use their tails for?" "They use them to steer when they're swimming," replies Garrahan. "And also as a signal -- to warn other beavers of obligingly, though fleetingly. But the best is yet to come. As darkness closes in and we reluctantly gather up our things for the trek back to our cars, another beaver emerges, floats on its back and then, instead of disappearing again, turns over and swims with its head above the water all the way across the pond. Darkness and cattails soon engulf the beaver, but everyone is grateful for the long swim. "That was neat," says Mandy. "I never saw one before." SIGHTING THE BEAVERS
The next beaver watch at HUNTLEY MEADOWS PARK in Alexandria is scheduled for a week from Saturday (November) 14 at 4. The program is free, but reservations are necessary. If there is sufficient interest, additional programs may be scheduled. Call 768-2525. PRINCE WILLIAM FOREST PARK in Triangle, Virginia, also has an active beaver population and on Saturday, November 14, at 2, visitors are invited to watch a film on beavers at the Nature Center and then hike to the beaver pond with a naturalist. The program is free and no reservations are necessary. Take Shirley Highway (formerly I-95, now I-395) south to Route 619 west to the park entrance.