When I took a job as a park ranger at the Cove Palisades State Park in central Oregon’s sagebrush country, I was 25 years old and thrilled to be leading hikes and educating visitors about the local wildlife. I had not yet realized that the job would involve a full-body costume.

“We were thinking, with Memorial Day coming up, J.R. Beaver might make an appearance,” Ranger Steve, the park manager, told me one afternoon. “J.R. Beaver, he’s the mascot for the Oregon Parks and Rec. Makes rounds of the campgrounds every weekend. Here’s the background information.” He gave me a sheaf of paper. “Most important thing, make sure and wear the ice packs. Last year we had somebody pass out, one of the hotter days. In that suit, it’s always going to be a hot day, right? Ha ha. Also: J.R. doesn’t talk. Give the kids high fives, they like that. But talking scares them. Don’t forget your head.” He handed me a large, circular hat box. “Knock ’em dead!”

And so began the most surreal episode of my time as a park ranger.

Becoming J.R. Beaver was a long, awkward process. I could handle the nylon vest, with its ice pockets, and the foam barrel that provided my extra girth was easy enough to get on. But the actual beaver suit — made of acrylic fur the color of gas-station coffee — took nimble fingers to fasten, and when I wore the paws, my hands were as blunt as catchers’ mitts. And what to do about the broad tail paddle? If I belted it around my waist before zipping up the suit, I couldn’t fit the tail through the suit’s back slot. If I put the suit on first, I was too stout to reach behind myself and snap the belt.

Then there were the blocky feet, held on with nylon-strap sandals, stiff with the sweat from rangers of yore. And, last of all, the beachball–sized head, with Styrofoam teeth and mesh eye holes from which I peered.

On my first day in costume, Norma, one of the camp hosts, drove me around in a golf cart. I didn’t do much — just visited campsites and posed for photos — but I was sweating hard after only 10 minutes. Still, I kept at it, waving at kids and doing the J.R. Beaver Secret Greeting, a gesture that involved pointing the index and pinky fingers, and bending the middle and ring fingers and rubbing them against each other in a weak imitation of beaver teeth. “It’s the J.R. Beaver sign!” Norma explained, when curious campers wandered over. “Would you like to join the Junior Rangers?”

Kids’ responses to J.R. varied. Some were fascinated — “Nice beavuh,” lisped one blond tot — and some were perceptive. “There’s a person in there,” said one of the older kids. There were inevitable confusions among those less schooled in mammal identification: “Hey, it’s Smokey the Bear!” I pointed to my considerable tail. “He’s a beaver,” Norma patiently explained. Many of the little ones were terrified; one tiny thing in a purple jumper didn’t want to have her picture taken, but her father insisted, shoving her forward as she screamed.  

I spent more than an hour in the beaver suit that day. By the time we headed back to the ranger station, I was spacey and tired, and felt like I’d been a little snookered. Would I have driven from Texas to Oregon for a summer job if I’d known about this part? I had to admit that I probably would have. I liked the ridiculousness of the suit, at least once I peeled it off. And it still beat the job I’d had two summers before: cemetery-plot salesperson.

So that was the pattern all summer: weekend afternoons spent as J.R., and the rest of the time doing regular park-ranger things. Out of costume, I found myself waiting around a lot, planning programs that nobody showed up for: Geology, Tree I.D., Mammals of the Cove. The last one would have included cool facts about coyotes, bats, and yes, beavers. Wild beavers, I learned, have bright orange teeth that never stop growing. If they didn’t wear down their teeth by chewing on tree branches, the teeth would grow longer and longer, piercing their lower jaws and causing death by starvation. (Luckily, J.R. managed to avoid this problem.) I had better attendance in the evenings, when I led campers on night hikes designed to raise their sensory awareness: Can you identify these smells: coffee, soap, juniper, sagebrush? If you listen for 60 seconds, what will you hear?

“You’ve got to put the hay where the horses can get it,” one of my friends likes to say. That’s one thing I learned that summer. The campers at Cove Palisades went there on vacation; unlike me, most of them were not fascinated by the landscape, or its colony of rare, asexual whiptail lizards. For some of them, their only contact with a ranger was a chance meeting with J.R. Beaver. Or maybe they met J.R. and then decided to go on an evening hike to learn a little more about the place. What can you learn from a giant fake rodent? Maybe not much. But the next time I saw a beaver in the wild—far from Oregon—I saw its tail, which reminded me of the pebbled-vinyl one I’d worn, and thought, Hey, I’d recognize you anywhere.

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“J.R. Beaver Unmasked,” in The Wet Collection by Joni Tevis (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2007). Copyright © 2007 by Joni Tevis. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. (www.milkweed.org)