Ulf Lindroth joins Swedish huntress Erika Bergmark to celebrate of the coming of spring in Sweden by hunting for beaver along the melting streams

Up north, the ice on the streams starts a losing battle in March; running water eats it away from below, and the returning sun beats down on it from above. A cold spell may give the ice a second chance, but it is still doomed, and there are beasts eager to see it go.

Where a hole has opened, you’re likely to find the edge of the ice around it hard packed and littered with twigs and branches – that spells beaver. Before you know it, birch trees and aspens will be felled nearby. Paths will be made in the snow. As more of the stream opens and the water level rises, more trees will fall. They’ll be cut into pieces and the bark will be gnawed off in a typical pattern. New trails to the felling sites will be worn into snow and then mud. Then debarked pieces of wood will be used for repair work on dams and huts.

Beaver hunting is an excellent ego boost for the aspiring tracker. Firstly, the signs are fairly easy to read – ‘Here’s a colony of beavers, and they are hungry for fresh food after a winter under the ice. Besides that, they’re busy with maintenance.’ And you’d be right to make these assumptions. At this time of the year the beaver season is in full swing. There is not much else to hunt and, besides, the weather is often great. Quite a few hunters jump at the chance to go. Secondly, not only are the furs just as warm and beautiful as they were in the heyday of fur trapping, but the meat is also good. Last but not least, there’s no better way to convince yourself that winter is actually over than to sit for an evening by an awakening spring stream.

One hunter who knows this is Erika Bergmark, from Fällfors, along the Byske River. Still, the main reason she’s chomping at the bit is probably not the need for contemplation or a celebration of coming spring. I’m not even sure she’s all that happy to see winter go. It’s more that she hasn’t had much hunting since the pine marten season closed in March. A few stands calling for foxes perhaps, but nothing like the day-in-day-out routine of winter. She is just simply itching to go hunting again.

The main river runs fast and deep between high banks. Recovering shot beavers there can be tricky. But Erika knows of a colony along the tributary Tvärån – that’s where she’s going on this evening in late April.

As she unloads her wooden skis from the ski rack on the car, she explains her plan. There’s a well-used spot where beavers have been felling trees. They’ve left plenty of remains from their meals on twigs and bark just a few hundred metres upstream. It’s on the north bank of the meandering stream, on a bend where it runs from west to east. The forecast says the wind will be northerly. We’ll cross over to the southern side on a bridge close by, then we’ll ski west, well above the stream. There’s still a risk the wind may swirl down into the valley, but that’s just how beaver hunting goes. One needs a little luck with the wind. Beavers may not have much in the way of eyesight and their hearing is often disturbed by the sound of water, but their sense of smell is exceptional.

The evening sun is low as Erika makes herself comfortable overlooking the stream. The spot where the beavers have been busy is in plain view some 60m away. Thrushes sing from the tops of spruces along the valley and a pair of mergansers pass us on a low flight over the stream. The scene is set.

Spring hunting for beaver is rarely an adrenaline-packed form of hunting, at least not as long as you don’t have to ford streams or cross bad ice. But a stream is always interesting. As the first hour passes, occasional goldeneyes fly past us, wings whistling. One female flies upstream with two males in hot pursuit. Just as they disappear out of sight we see them cupping wings. A moment later we hear the swishing sounds as they land on water.

The males sound like rusty old door hinges as they start their courting, but there’s also a lot of squeaking and splashing going on as the birds come drifting back to us with the stream. The males are fighting as well as putting on a show for the female.

One surrenders and comes flying past us; the remaining male and the female come around a bend in the stream. The male is throwing his head back and sounding off, then putting his neck flat across the water ahead. Thus engaged, they drift closer. At some 40m, the female stiffens and holds her position in the water. She puts her pale eye on Erika, and an instant later she’s off on a running start. The male is quick to follow.

By now the water has shifted from a glittering brown to a flat black. The sun is gone and the light is fading. There’s a new chill in the air. The thrushes keep singing, though, and we hear the first ‘orp, orp, orp, psp’ of a passing woodcock. A fox running upstream on the far side provides another diversion. The fox season is over, so Erika just gives him a long look. Another day...

Then, waves. Slow, heavy waves upstream. Something is moving above the bend.

Erika is on full alert now. Such waves do not just appear on a quiet forest stream, and a beaver is the prime suspect. At first, the head of the animal is just a dark spot drifting into view with the current. It is still, floating cautiously downstream. Erika holds her breath and watches the animal.

The beaver suddenly stops. It turns against the stream, holds for a second or two, then dives. It is gone as suddenly as it appeared. Erika whispers something I can’t quite hear and probably shouldn’t write, but it’s not over. A minute passes. There’s another wave, this time down by the felled trees. Without a sound, a brown shape emerges next to the bank. Two steps up, then there’s a beaver sitting on a submerged ledge, picking among the twigs left on some earlier visit. Erika is ready, and I doubt if the beaver ever even heard the shot.

As Erika makes the trip down to the bridge and back up to the spot where the beaver sat, it slips off the shelf and becomes half submerged. Erika climbs down and gets a hold, then throws the animal up on the snow. She smiles as she climbs up after it. It may have been a quiet little hunt, but it was still a hunt.

“I won’t shoot more out of this colony this year,” Erika says, “I like to have them here.” She considers for a while, then adds: “Well, maybe one more. My little cousin wants to come. It wouldn’t be right to deny her an evening on the stream.”