Smartphones and beaver hats

Paul Smith
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It’s amazing what you can learn over a cup of morning joe

Isn’t technology just wonderful? I’m fascinated by what I’ve learned this morning while getting my Sunday morning fix of caffeine.

A beaver thinking over some building plans. — Photo by Paul Smith/Special to The Telegram

Before smartphones and Wi-Fi, I would have just sipped my coffee while peering outdoors at the raging storm of ice pellets, and my backyard evergreens plummeting about to a gale-force southeasterly.

We live in an age of multitasking and instant information, and for better or worse, I’ve embraced the times. My mental health may suffer in the long haul, but I just can’t help myself. I want to know stuff fast, and the means fits conveniently in my hand. It is always there, at my fingertips, tempting me to Google this or that.

Imagine having to walk to the local library to learn the ways of stronger more pungent java. There was a time not that long ago when this was so.

I’m sure you all know of the snowball rolling downhill metaphor. Of course, the snow needs to be sticky, the sort kids love for forts and Frosty replicas. I think technology is like a snowball descending the perfectly inclined hill in optimum snow conditions, making your life more and more complex. Is this good or bad? We must all answer that for ourselves.

Think about stuff you know and things you do nowadays that would be virtually impossible, or at least highly unlikely, without the all-knowing Internet.

On a moment’s whim you can learn what flies to tie for bonefish in Belize. Then you can watch a video on how to tie them while you enjoy your morning coffee. Twenty years ago, such knowledge would be tough to come by.

What rifle calibre will I need for my African safari? Maybe you are really going, maybe you’re just curious. Either way, you can discover what the experts have to say through mere finger taps.

So, I’m sitting here this morning, brewing my coffee, which incidentally has become far more time consuming because of the phone on my table. But no matter, I can use the time to learn more stuff, keep up on the news, check the weather, see how Canada is fairing in Sochi, and so on.

Sometimes I read about coffee while making coffee. You see how this can snowball. My coffee routine takes about 10 to 15 minutes. I’m brewing coffee one cup at a time these days. I bought a funnel-like device online and it sits atop my mug. You put a cone shaped filter in it and then add a couple of heaping spoons of freshly ground choice java beans. Slowly pour hot water into the coffee and let it soak through the grind. The pouring pattern and speed is critical to getting that rich creamy texture that’s so coveted by aficionados of the bean.

If not for the Internet, I might still be sadly drinking instant.

This morning I wondered what to write about while meticulously pouring. I think I need a better kettle, one that gives me a bit more control.

Anyway, I thought of some beaver photographs that I took last summer on Pinware’s tidal pool.

I thought it an odd location for a beaver dwelling, but who am I to question nature’s premier engineers? It will be interesting to see if they are still living there next summer.

On my smart device, I queried beaver habitat, to see if beavers normally build houses in salt or tidal water. The answer is emphatically yes — quite common, apparently. In spite of nearly a decade of beaver trapping on my part, I did not know that.

I noticed another link about beaver felt hats. I knew that beavers were originally sought for fashionable hat production, but I didn’t ever fully understand how a beaver hide could become a hat for ladies and gentleman of higher social standing.

I had imagined a cold weather bomber hat sort of garment. The phone was about to set me straight. By this time, I was actually sipping my coffee and reaping its soothing and mellowing effect.

Apparently, I had been totally ignorant of what European hat makers did to those valuables beaver pelts. They didn’t use the intact hide at all. Rather, the hairs were scraped from the skin and manufactured into a felt material.

I had imagined a hat just sewn together from natural beaver skin, a Davy Crockett sort of affair. Beaver hats — the driving force behind the settling of Canada, the product that built one of the richest companies in the world, the Hudson’s Bay Company — was a hat of much sophistication and clever human ingenuity. My phone told me the whole story while I soaked in the effects of wonderful Costa Rican java. Ice pellets battered the window, creating a cosy indoor atmosphere.

Like salt cod, beaver pelts came in different grades. The finest of all was referred to as castor gras. These were pelts trapped in early winter and worn by trapper folk through the remainder of the season. Human sweat and general abrasion actually rendered a superior product.

I truly would have never guessed this. I might have worn beaver skins in my trapping years if I had been so enlightened. Ah, but I suspect the times had already changed. A better price I’m likely not to have fetched at auction in North Bay, Ont. And I have no idea how to sew a beaver coat.

The next grade of pelt was labelled castor sec, the regular fleshed, stretched and dried beaver pelts. These are the sort that I trapped and processed in my backyard shed throughout the 1980s.

I wish I’d taken photos of all those hooped pelts, hung on the wall and drying, the smell of beaver fat mingling with billets of spruce and birch firewood. It was a most earthy aroma, much like fine Latin American coffee. I love smells of the earth.

Finally, there was a grade reserved for those who didn’t do their jobs correctly. I suppose these sort of folks, the few who take no pride in their work, will always mess up a good thing.

There will always be floors and walls with insufficient nails. Some beavers were left with flesh and fat stuck to the pelt. They often turned up in Europe stinking and rotten. They were called bandeau.

The beaver hat industry was lucrative and employed many skilled people. The guard hairs were plucked from the pelts and then the under fur was shaved off. This stage was called pulling and shaving and the resulting raw hat-making material was called beaver fluff.

Remember what I said about human sweat making better hats. That’s because it breaks down the keratin in the hair fibres and lets them bond together more readily in the felting process.

Fine and dandy, but later in the beaver hat-making era they discovered a better way. Better for big business I suspect. By mixing a solution of mercury salts and acid into the fluff, the same keratin neutralizing effect could be realized.

The problem was that in the name of progress, folks working in the industry were poisoned and suffered permanent damage to their nervous systems. Mercury fumes are very nasty. Hence the phrase “mad as a hatter” was coined, an industrial disease of the fur-trapping trade. At least that’s what my phone tells me.

Through a complex and seemingly well thought out multistage process, this pile of beaver fluff ended up as a tough-wearing, waterproof, breathable, warm and very sought after material.

Beaver hats were all the rage in centuries past, and everybody who was anyone had one, or at least wanted one. Maybe like sealskin boots here in Newfoundland this past Christmas. The demand was high, a fashion statement, and practicality all in one. There’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s good reason why a beaver is depicted on the Canadian five cent coin. And why there’s a sculpture of our famous rodent over the entrance to our Parliament building.

The lucrative fur trade was a fundamental factor in the exploration and early settlement of Canada. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which was founded in 1670 and is still in existence, made its fortune through this trade.

I thought little about these lofty things while setting traps under the ice on bitter cold January mornings. That’s a whole other story that I’ll tell you about another time. I’ll need no search engine for that one.

Incidentally, I’ve decided to Twitter with my morning coffee. You can follow me at @flyfishtherock, if you are into that sort of thing.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at or follow him on twitter: @flyfishtherock

Organizations: Google, Bay Company

Geographic location: Canada, Belize, Sochi North Bay Europe Newfoundland

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