A fascination with Klondike gold rush history led Frances Backhouse to write her bestselling first book, Women of the Klondike (1995), and her second, Hiking With Ghosts: The Chilkoot Trail Then and Now (1999). Her follow-up is Children of the Klondike (2010), mostly drawn from letters, journals. It was named the winner of the 7th Annual City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. According to publicity materials: "From the discovery of gold in 1896 to the emergence of Dawson City as a post-gold-rush town in the early twentieth century, Children of the Klondike chronicles the stories of individual children. Drawing on letters, journals, contemporary accounts and memoirs, it looks at the lives of youngsters who witnessed the treasure hunt of the century firsthand. With anecdotes that range from humorous to heartbreaking, it paints a detailed picture of what it was like to grow up in a rough, yet cosmopolitan northern frontier community populated by lucky millionaires, down-and-out dreamers, "scarlet"; women, and a few adventurous families."

Educated as a biologist, she has written extensively about wildlife, ecology and environmental issues throughout her professional writing career, which began with a feature story in Canadian Geographic in 1985. She is the author of Woodpeckers of North America (2005). Backhouse has been a member of the Association of Professional Biologists of B.C., the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Professional Editors Association. Her articles have appeared in numerous magazines since 1985.

Once upon a time there probably 60 million beavers in North America. But the arrival of European fur traders almost wiped the chubby, industrious rodent off the map. Frances Backhouse shares both quirky facts and deeper truths about the reviving species in Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver (ECW $18.95) After the state or Oregon officially adopted the beaver as its state mascot, Canada passed Bill C-373 in 1975 "to provide for the recognition of the Beaver (Castor canadensis) as a symbol of the sovereignty of Canada." 978-1-77041-207-1

CITY/TOWN: Victoria, BC

DATE OF BIRTH: July 20, 1960

PLACE OF BIRTH: Peterborough, Ontario

ARRIVAL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: 1984 (Hornby Island)

BOOKS:

Women of the Klondike (Whitecap Books, 1995). The story of the adventurous women who joined the Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th century, drawn from diaries, letters, memoirs and newspaper accounts. Updated with a 14-page epilogue and additional photos in 2000. ISBN 1-55285-089-7. $16.95.

Hiking with Ghosts: The Chilkoot Trail, Then and Now (Raincoast Books, 1999). A portrait of the famous gold rush route, now a popular backpacking trail, based on first-hand experience and extensive research into the human and natural history of the area. ISBN 1-55192-276-2. $26.95.

Castles of the North: Canada's Grand Hotels, edited by Barbara Chisholm (Lynx Images, 2001). This book and the accompanying documentary film celebrate the history of Canada's most elegant and opulent hotels. Backhouse was a co-author, contributing three chapters on Early Dining Stations, the Banff Springs Hotel and Château Lake Louise. ISBN 1-894073-14-2.

Woodpeckers of North America (Firefly Books, 2005). This definitive reference book describes the history, habits, adaptations and future prospects of North American woodpeckers. In addition to chapters on anatomy, communication, nesting, feeding, community ecology and conservation, it provides detailed profiles of all 28 species found in Canada, the U.S. and northern Mexico, including the recently rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker. Colour photos and line drawings complement the fact-filled text.

Owls of North America (Firefly 2008) contains detailed profiles and range maps of each of the 23 species of owls found in North America, including norther Mexico. $34.95 978-1-55407-342-9

Children of the Klondike (Whitecap 2010). See press release below.

Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver (ECW $18.95) 9781770412071

Beavers: Radical Rodents and Ecosystem Engineers (Orca Wild, 2021) $24.95 9781459824690

[BCBW 2021] "Outdoors" "Women"

Review of the author's work by BC Studies: Once They Were Hats

Beavers: Radical Rodents and Ecosystem Engineers by Frances Backhouse (Orca Wild $24.95)
BCBW 2021

Beavers are the world’s second largest rodent. Only Capybaras found in South America are bigger. Rodents they may be, but beavers are also a keystone species that support many other animals and keep ecosystems healthy and functioning properly. If they are removed, the ecosystem is weakened and can break down completely.

Pretty important for an animal that Frances Backhouse describes as “kind of goofy-looking” in Beavers: Radical Rodents and Ecosystem Engineers, a crossover book for young adult readers aged 9–12 and older people interested in nature. “They have big orange buckteeth, front feet that don’t match their back ones and a tail that looks like it was run over by a tractor.”

Backhouse also calls beavers amazing. “They can build structures that are visible from outer space,” she says. “They can turn streams into lakes and change the shape of valleys. They can gnaw right through the trunks of trees that are as tall as flagpoles. And they do all this with nothing more than their sharp front teeth, nimble paws and powerful muscles.”

Typically about three feet from nose to tail tip, and weighing about 16 to 32 kilograms (35 to 70 pounds), beavers are known for cutting down trees and building dams, which no other animal does other than humans. Beavers do so because, as semi-aquatic animals graceful and fast in the water, they are awkward movers on land and vulnerable to enemies like wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears.

“If they meet one of these predators onshore, their chances of escaping on foot are slim,” says Backhouse. “Beavers can gallop for a short distance if necessary but their normal gait is a slow waddle. A cornered beaver is unlikely to win a fight, even though its tree-cutting incisors can slash like a knife.”
But venture onto land they must in order to get to their food sources and gather building materials for the lodges they build to live in, surrounded by the safety of water.

However, not all beaver lodges are in the middle of ponds as “some locations aren’t suitable for this kind of construction,” notes Backhouse. “Beavers that live in wide, fast-flowing rivers or deep lakes have to settle for a home that is anchored to land on one side.”

These bank dens, as they are called, are usually temporary homes. Beavers have evolved to change their environments with dams that spread water out across the land, making shallow ponds with slow-moving water. It is in such places beavers can make their ‘castles encircled by a moat’.

“Beavers often build a series of [dams] along a stream or river, creating a chain of ponds like beads on a string,” says Backhouse. In the process of forming their ponds, beavers create wetlands that are “among the world’s most biologically productive ecosystems, right up there with rainforests and coral reefs,” says Backhouse.

Wetlands provide essential habitat for many plants and animals as well as purifying water by filtering it through plants. Plankton and insects nurtured in the ponds feed fish and tadpoles, which are in turn eaten by herons, kingfishers, minks and racoons. Beavers also provide safe living spaces for turtles and other mammals.

Many wetlands and mature beaver meadows were lost after the beaver was almost hunted to extinction for its furs in the nineteenth century. Called “brown gold”, beaver pelts were historically valued by Europeans to make hats.

Indigenous stories tell of the changes wrought by such ecological destruction including those from a member of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation nicknamed Lala. She was born around 1830, “about the time the fur trade and European settlers reached [the Chilcotin Plateau],” writes Backhouse. “She had witnessed big changes to her people’s way of life during her early childhood.”

Lala told her children and grandchildren about the beaver ponds that had been home to enormous trout and abundant wildlife “including muskrats, minks and otters. In the spring and fall, migrating ducks and geese covered the water. But those days were over. Fur seekers had killed off the beavers, and the ponds had dried up.”

Lala’s biggest wish was to have the old habitat restored and “give it back to the beavers.”

In Beavers, a story is recalled by Veasy Collier of his father Eric (who had immigrated from England at the age of 17) meeting Lala when she was nearly 100 years old. “Eric learned a lot about his new home from Lala,” writes Backhouse and Lala inspired him to repair the old beaver dams. Collier was only seven when he helped his father and mother laboriously use hand tools to fell trees, drag them to the dams and put them into place. “When the next rains came, the old beaver pond began to refill. Then the first ducks splashed down. Success!”

Eventually park wardens helped the Colliers re-introduce beavers to the area to carry on the work that the family found so hard to do.

Today beaver populations have recovered in North America. Now, some people consider them pests because as Backhouse notes, “there is no denying that they can make trouble for their human neighbours.” Beavers fell trees that many people would prefer to see alive and upright. And beavers occasionally attack swimming dogs because they resemble predators like wolves, especially if there are beaver kits nearby.

But there are many ways to ameliorate the negative effects of beavers. Groups of people have sprung up to promote the peaceful co-existence of people and beavers.

“These radical rodents are always worth celebrating and helping,” says Backhouse. “Because if we are there for the beavers, they’ll be there for us and all the other living things that benefit from their remarkable ecosystem engineering.” 9781459824690