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Episode 4: Why Are Beavers And Mountain Men Linked In History?

Kids Ask Why?
Kids Ask Why?
Episode 4: Why Are Beavers And Mountain Men Linked In History?

Photo: NPS/Bob Greenburg

Madison Burckhardt and Breann Berg wanted to find out more about why they think Wyoming is wonderful. Madison a nine-year-old from Cody, Wyoming is interested in beavers and interviewed biologist, Jerry Altermatt about how beavers influence the environment and why they sometimes have to be moved. By the end, she confirmed why she thought beavers were awesome and their influences on waterways and meadows. Breann, a ten-year-old from Rawlins, Wyoming became interested in mountain men while learning about them at school and wanted to know more. In the second half of the episode, Breann interviews Clay Landry, fur trade historian, to discuss her favorite mountain man, John Colter, and his adventures in the Yellowstone region.

Madison Burckhardt

Madison is a ten-year-old native of Cody Wyoming. Madison is a fantastic artist who loves wildlife, nature, and horses. Madison’s love for beavers began when she had the opportunity to help a Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist trap, care for and relocate a family of beavers.

Jerry Altermatt

Jerry Altermatt is a Terrestrial Habitat Biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Cody, Wyoming.  He has been working to enhance habitat for wildlife in the Cody Region since 1992.

Breann Berg

Breann is a fifth grader at Rawlins Elementary School. Like every true Wyoming girl, she is the perfect combination of warrior and princess. She loves to hunt, fish, and camp. She is active in the Carbon County 4-H program; where she participates in dog, geology, entomology, visual arts, and ceramics. She also races BMX competitively, and is a regionally ranked rider. Breann is also a dancer at heart and spends countless hours at her local studio where she studies ballet, tap, and jazz.

Clay Landry

An avid researcher of Rocky Mountain Fur Trade history, Clay Landry’s study and emphasis on the material culture items used by the men of the Rocky Mountain Fur trade has resulted in the authorship of numerous published essays and articles. A recognized authority on early nineteenth century fur trade material culture, he also conducts demonstrations and seminars on Mountaineer clothing, food, horse gear, and trade goods. His “hands on” knowledge of the life style and culture of the mountain men led to Clay being selected as the Wilderness and Historical Advisor on the Oscar winning film “The Revenant”.

Jeremy M. Johnston

Jeremy is the Historian of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the Hal and Naoma Tate Endowed Chair of Western History, and the Managing Editor of The Papers of William F. Cody. Johnston attended the University of Wyoming, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1993 and his Master of Arts in 1995. Johnston earned his Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2017. Johnston has collaborated on several books and has published various articles in Annals of Wyoming, Colorado Heritage, Points West, Readings of Wyoming History, and Yellowstone Science.

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NARRATOR: Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast where kids ask the questions. This is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 

MADISON BURCKHARDT: My name is Madison Burckhardt and I live just out of town up the South Fork in Cody, Wyoming. The reason I am interested in beavers is that I helped my mom trap and release beavers and I would like to know more about them. Today I am speaking with Jerry Altermatt. He is the terrestrial habitat biologist at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Cody, Wyoming.

MADISON: How long do beavers live in the wild?

JERRY ALTERMATT: In the wild? Well, in the wild, they live probably no more than 10 or 12 years. If they’re in captivity and they’re well fed and in really good health, I’ve heard of beaver living past 20 years. But there’s a lot of reasons why they don’t live that long in the wild. I have heard that the oldest beaver that’s been recorded in the wild was 21 years old. But that’s pretty rare for a beaver to live that long.

MADISON: Do beavers venture out of their den in winter?

JERRY: They do. A lot of people might think that since they never see beaver in the winter that beaver might hibernate and they don’t. They’re actually very active in the winter. But we don’t see them. They’re just as active in the winter as they are in the summer and they probably leave their den just as much in the winter as the summer. But we don’t see them, we don’t see evidence of them. Because all their activity is actually underneath the ice. A beaver dam usually has a couple of entrances. And there’s always one entrance that is below the water level. And of course in the winter, that’s below the ice. So a beaver leaves the den for the same reason that you would leave your room. You couldn’t stay in your room for an entire winter, you have to get up and go to the bathroom and get something to eat. Beaver are the same way. So all their food is not kept in the den. It’s actually stored at the bottom of the pond in what’s called a food cache. And so every day, maybe even several times a day, they’re leaving their dam and swimming out of their den to the bottom of that pond, grabbing some of that food and bringing it back inside the den.

MADISON: What are the predators of beavers?

JERRY: Well, they have lots of predators. So all of the big predators that we have in Wyoming will eat beaver. So that includes grizzly bear, black bear, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, even red fox will take beaver kits. Almost everything loves beaver meat, in fact our bear people use scent from a beaver to attract bears to their traps. Everything’s attracted to the smell of a beaver. But they have to leave the water, to forage, to find things to eat. And that’s when they’re the most vulnerable. In fact, you can walk faster than a beaver can run at its fastest. And that’s why one of the reasons they build dams is to actually bring the water to their food source. They don’t have to venture very far from the water to get their food so they have less chance of being eaten by a predator.

MADISON: How do beavers help streams?

NPS / Neal Herbert

JERRY: Oh, that is a great question. So when you say help streams, maybe we ought to talk about what a stream does, why is the stream important, and what it does. A stream basically moves water from one place to another. And what beaver do, or more what we should say is what beaver dams do, is to change the way that water is moved. So anytime that water can be slowed down, that’s usually a good thing for both the stream and for all the things that depend on that stream. So really simply put, what a beaver dam does is it slows water down and stores it by backing up water behind a dam, and that does a lot of really good things. It also helps flooding so when you have a storm event like a big thunderstorm that puts a lot of water into a creek and it’s going really fast. And that can cause a lot of damage, it can cause flooding, and it can cause a lot of erosion in the creek. And so what that beaver dam does is it just holds back that water and takes all the energy out of it, and slows it down. But one of the most important things that it does, water is really important in Wyoming, whenever you see a stream or creek or a river, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of vegetation around it, it’s always greener. So what a plant needs is to have its roots get into at least moist soil. And that’s why plants around a creek are usually greener and bigger, and just more of the vegetation. And the other thing that they do, is kind of on the opposite side of the flooding thing, is that you increase the water that flows in late summer. A lot of these creeks without beaver dams would just go dry in the summer.

MADISON: What’s your favorite thing about beavers?

JERRY: My favorite thing about beavers? Well, one of the things that’s kind of neat about beavers is that when they find a mate, they usually keep that mate for life unless that mate dies. So when a male beaver gets together with a female beaver, they’ll stay together unless one of them dies. And that’s kind of neat. You don’t see that a lot in the animal world.

WY Game and Fish

MADISON: After I spoke with Jerry, I thought beavers were especially cool because they helped habitat. Beavers are not living in streams where they historically were found. In order to get beavers and streams where they used to be, they are trapped out of problem areas, such as irrigation ditches. Once all the family is caught, then they’re released into new streams where they can benefit a stream.

BREANN: Hi, my name is Breann Berg. I live in Rawlins, Wyoming and I’m a fourth grader at Rawlins Elementary School. The reason I am interested in John Colter, Yellowstone, and Mountain Men is because I read about them in my Wyoming history book and I wanted to learn more. 

John Colter joined the Corps of Discovery led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark. In 1804 through 1806 he had to enlist in the army as a private since it was a military expedition. He quickly became one of the most trusted members and was relied upon for his tracking and hunting skills. In 1806, Colter asked to leave the army and the Corp of Discovery early to join the trappers, Horace Hancock and Joseph Dixon. Lewis and Clark agreed and Colter began his years of adventures in the Rockies. In 1807, Colter broke from Hancock and Dixon and joined Manuelle Lisa’s trading company. While with Lisa, Colter helped find new areas for trapping beaver whose pelts were wanted for hats. 

I am speaking with Clay Landry. I am interviewing Clay because he’s one of the top fur trade historians and the historical advisor on the movie, The Revenant.

BREANN: When John Colter was in Yellowstone, do we know what part of the park he actually explored?

CLAY LANDRY: Well, his exact route once he left the Shoshone river, he went south down to the Wind River and went up over Togwotee Pass into Jackson Hole and came into the park from the south, from Jackson Hole. And most of the maps, the treks that are shown on William Clark’s maps indicate this. Some of them get a little fuzzy and some historians are debating the exact route. But most people are pretty sure or agree, most historians agree, that he came into the park from the south and went along the western edge of Yellowstone Lake and followed the lake till he hit the Yellowstone River. He saw the Yellowstone Canyon cross there and worked his way back over to the east towards Sunlight Basin and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone. That’s kind of the route that we can surmise from the indications of William Clark’s map.

BREANN: How did he describe Yellowstone and his experiences there?

French Trapper by Frederic Remington (61.72)

CLAY: Well, you have to remember that people of this time period we’re not used to seeing geysers, and boiling pots, and mud pots, and stuff. And so one of the things that’s pretty evident from the accounts that Colter left about what he saw in Yellowstone is that they are very scarce. And he’s really guarded about what he tells people about that area. Because he didn’t want, quite frankly, he didn’t want them to think he was crazy. That he’d stayed out in the mountains too long and he got a little problem with his imagination, making things up. He did relate to several people, one of them a naturalist that recorded in his journal what he saw. The geysers, and the mud pots, and the boiling springs, and all that stuff. So he was one of the first, probably the first, that we can document, that related to other people of that time period, who recorded in their journals, that this magical place in Yellowstone existed that people had never seen the likes of in the United States at that time.

BREANN: Did people think he was crazy when he told them about his discovery?

CLAY: Yeah, not necessarily crazy but they thought that he was embellishing on what he saw, most of the people he was talking to had no experience with geothermal features, the geysers, shooting water hundreds of feet, you know, several feet out of the ground and things like that. So it was strange to anybody he would have talked to, it was quite natural for people to question what he really saw. But as more and more mountain men filtered into that part of the country in search of beaver, the truth became very common.

BREANN: After Yellowstone’s discovery, what did John Colter do next?

CLAY: Well, he went back to Manuel Lisa’s fort at the mouth of the Bighorn River where it entered Yellowstone. And he operated as a trapper out of that fort in spring of 1808 and he operated there until 1810 when he eventually decided to leave. He had some very tough times with Indians going into the Three Forks area, in 1808 and then again in 1810, when he led an expedition back into the Three Forks. So he was a busy man for those years and he had enough close encounters with death that he decided to quit the mountains.

BREANN: Is the legend of John Colter and the Indians true?

CLAY: Yes, there are two different accounts of the same story and they’re very legitimate.

BREANN: Joining this interview is Jeremy Johnston, Historian at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, who will be telling about Colter’s famous run for his life from the Blackfeet Indians.

Blackfoot Captive by W.H.D. Koerner (18.77)

JEREMY JOHNSTON: John Colter’s run in with the Blackfeet occurred on the Jefferson river, one of the three forks of the Missouri River. He was trapping there with a trapper by the name of Potts, and the two men were going down the river in their canoe, collecting their traps when they ran into a Blackfeet encampment. Warriors from the camp rushed out, grabbed the canoe and started helping themselves to the trappers’ belongings. One of the warriors grabbed Pott’s gun. Colter responded by grabbing the rifle back from the warrior handing it to Potts. But Potts aimed the rifle at one of the warriors, fired, and killed him. And as a result, the rest of the warriors filled Potts full of arrows. You got to keep in mind John Colter had fought the Blackfeet a little while ago before this occurred, and he had joined the Flathead and the Crow Indians against the Blackfeet, marking him as one of their enemies. One of the warriors asked John Colter if he was a fast runner. Colter, having some suspicion as to what was going to follow, said no, he was a terrible runner, knowing that he could hopefully outrun most of the warriors. So a race was designed. John Colter in his naked condition was given a head start. Warriors from the Blackfeet encampment started chasing him, and John Colter was able to outdistance all but one. One warrior with a spear was right behind him. John Colter was able to spin around, catch this Blackfeet warrior off guard, grab the spear, kill him, and continue fleeing towards the river. John Colter jumped into the waters. He found a log jam and crawled underneath the log jam for cover to hide out. And with his body just submerged below the water, John Colter sat there for hours as the Blackfeet scurried around some even crossing on top of the log jam, trying to find him. Once dark occurred, John Colter set off towards Lisa’s post at the mouth of the Big Horn. It took him seven days walking without any cover on his feet, without any sunscreen through all of the elements. And by the time he got to Lisa’s post, he was in such deplorable condition that many of his fellow trappers thought he was a sick Indian, and offered to shoot him and put him out of his misery until they realized that it was John Colter. John Colter nursed his wounds recovered, and believe it or not, went back to the Three Forks region again. John Colter shared his adventure with John Bradbury, who was an English botanist exploring the West looking at various plants. Bradbury wrote about this in his journals. It was then picked up by Washington Irving, the famous author of Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, who included it in his history of the early fur trade in a book titled Astoria.

BREANN: Do you think he inspired others to explore the West?

CLAY: I definitely think he did because both he and Drouillard had ties to William Clark, and
Drouillard when he would go back to St. Louis, Clark always wanted to see the men that had been on the expedition with them. Whenever they’d come back from the mountains, [he wanted] to gain more information about what they saw and where they went, and update his map. And just that alone, what they saw, the animals and things like that, they bring those stories back to St. Louis. Colter was legendary before he died. People, like I said, the Astorians stopped on the river just to visit with him when he was at his farm to talk to him about what he saw and what he did. So, yes, he inspired a lot of people to see the upper Missouri country and explore the Rocky Mountains.

BREANN: Thank you. That’s all I have.

CLAY: Okay, well, thank you.

BREANN: After I spoke with my expert, I realized John Colter was more than just a mountain man. In school, I learned he was famous for discovering Yellowstone, but he did a lot more. He was very adventurous. He discovered Yellowstone but he helped tell the Crow about the new fort. Plus, all his adventures inspired other mountain men.

MADISON & BREANN: And that’s why we ask why.

NARRATOR: If there were no pictures or videos how would you describe a beaver and where it lives to someone? Share your answers with us on Facebook, at the Kids Ask Why podcast page, or at Twitter @centerofthewest

Thanks for listening to this episode of Kids Ask Why. If you want to learn more about beavers and mountain men, check out our website at where we have lots of different resources.

And again, thanks for listening. Tune in next week.

NARRATOR 2: This podcast is produced by Emily Buckles, Gretchen Henrich, Megan Smith, and Kirsten Arnold. Our executive producer is Kamila Kudelska. Levi Meyer and Anna Rader are our digital consultants. Kids Ask Why is a production of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Wyoming Public Media.

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