Now I cringe at how many times I’ve corrected people who mentioned that mountain men ate beaver tails. “No they didn’t,” I’d say. “They were eating the back legs, like the tail end.” I kept this up for at least a couple of years. Then I happened to be reading yet another account about mountain men that included a litany of specific beaver tail references that could hardly be confused. “Their [beaver] meat is very palatable,” wrote a man who visited an encampment of mountain men in the Rockies in 1839. “The tails,” he continued, “which are fat all through, are especially regarded as delicacies.” Another man had this to say: “The beaver possesses great strength in his tail, which is twelve or fifteen inches long, four broad, and a half inch thick. This part of the animal is highly esteemed by trappers, and assimilates a fish in taste, though it is far superior to any of the finny tribe.”
By this time, however, I had quit trapping. As much as I wanted to reassess the beaver tail situation, I was woefully short on beaver. My chance didn’t arrive until a decade later, when I happened to be camped in a cave in Wyoming. According to local legend, the famous prospector and cannibal Alferd Packer had camped in this same cave in the late 1800s after allegedly murdering and eating some of his travel mates in Colorado. On this night I finally happened to have in my possession the tail of a freshly dead beaver that I’d caught in a snare earlier that morning. I built a fire and then cut a willow switch down along the creek and pierced the beaver’s tail onto a sharpened end. I wedged the other end of the switch into a crack in the rock near the fire so that the tail hung about twelve inches from the flame. I let it hang there for almost an hour, and reached over now and then to rotate the tail with a multi-tool. First, the scaly skin got kind of bubbly. Next, the skin started to get crispy and thin, almost like the skin of a baked potato. Finally, the skin started to pull away to reveal the shiniest and nicest block of fat that you’ve ever laid eyes on. It resembled what you might find on the edge of a fat beefsteak.
I sliced away a shaving, as thin as a slice of prosciutto. The fat melted in my mouth like butter, leaving a gristly bit of leftover that felt like a combination of beef jerky and Styrofoam. It was wonderful. I had another slice. And another. Perhaps my enthusiasm for the beaver tail was nourished by the fact that I was camped in a cannibal’s lair and I didn’t want to be upstaged, but I really did like it. After eating, I went out to the mouth of the cave with my flashlight and looked around for the weird bits of mysteriously human-like bone that had supposedly littered the entrance at some forgotten time. Looking back in, I surveyed the corner of the cave where I had sat to eat the beaver’s tail. It was pretty much the only comfy spot there, and it was easy to imagine the old cannibal Alferd reclining there during his own mealtimes. What a world, I thought. What a strange and oddly edible world.