Otter Odyssey

Often living in the middle of nowhere provides you with unexpected adventure. Granted this can happen anywhere. However, for many, the unexpected adventure can be irritating, time consuming, or just plain awful. However, out here, while my adventures can send my heart racing, it is usually as much from thrill and fear.

Such was my experience this past spring. As all resort guests know, I have a wonderful hiking buddy. Two actually, but one who, if I don't want his company, I must sneak away. In other words, he thinks I walk for him! It's not about me. It's about his next adventure!!

And, many times, I have been very thankful for his company. Like the time he flushed a bull moose out of the patch of willows where I was headed. Or the time the cow elk came running around the corner at full tilt - only to come to a sliding stop, wild-eyed and stiff as she took in the two legged 'thing' with two furry four-legged companions.

Usually Bo is a great hiking buddy. Usually he is quiet. Usually he is well mannered. Usually he comes when called and stays when told. But not this time!

This time he turned into a totally different animal!

While you might be thinking 'bear' or 'wolf' or 'bull moose' or 'cougar' (that's what I thought when I heard the commotion), it was a lone otter which precipitated the whole thing! This is the saga of Bo and The Otter.

Early last May when the snow was too deep to traverse the draws, I spent most of my mornings hiking the roads. While the walk down toward the refuge is pretty, I tend to prefer the views from the high point on the road toward Hidden Lake. Thus my steps usually turn north.

On this particular morning, Bo and Rosie and I were greeted by three or four inches of fresh snow. Of course the dogs thought it was great, and, I must admit, I found it invigorating (although I was ready to kiss snow goodbye for that season). When we walk, Rosie usually stays close to my side. Bo, on the other hand, ranges about 50 to 100 feet ahead. That is my doing. When he was just a pup I debated teaching him to heel, but decided he'd do little good in flush out potential 'encounters' (like the Bull Moose), if he was dogging my heels. So, I let him range in front a bit.

That time of year there are few tracks in the fresh snow. While the moose and fox and coyotes (and wolves) are still around, the deer and elk are just returning and the bears are just waking up. So it was just the dogs and me and pristine, unmarked snow - until just past the north end of the bay where we picked up some fresh and unusual tracks.

Based on their size, I first thought coyote. However, this coyote appeared to be dragging something heavy, something which left a regular groove in the snow. It continued up the road to the old fox den then turned up the hill away from the lake. I could see the tracks cresting the ridge to the west and assumed they continued on into the meadow beyond.

Never one to leave a good mystery unsolved, I pondered these unique tracks as I continued to to the top of my own hill. The longer I thought about them, the more puzzled I became. One, they were coyote-sized, but the rhythm (pattern) did not match what I had seen before. Two, if that were a coyote dragging something, why did it leave such a regular groove and what was it? Three, most likely anything a predator would be hauling would be a fresh kill. Thus, where was the blood? (I had seen no blood!)

Instead of making a loop and coming back to the lodge from a different direction, I became so determined to solve my mystery, I turned around and came back down the road. I figured if I could follow the tracks down the hill to the lake, I might get a better idea (and perhaps some clearer tracks on the hard surface of the ice) where the animal had come from - and even, if I were lucky, what it was dragging!

Picking up the tracks where they first entered the road, I backtracked down the hill to the lake. And there, to might delight (but continued puzzlement) the mystery was solved. My 'coyote' turned into a critter who loved to run and slide and its belly across the lake's icy surface. Duh! My critter was an otter. It was 'dragging' its tail! So, now the only question - Where on earth was that otter headed? There was NO water anywhere close to where it had headed!

By the time I saw my puzzling friend again, a week had passed, as had the snow. However, one morning I happened to be heading up the road just minutes behind the otter. The wind was blowing in our face, but the dogs had not picked up on the otter's scent. Thus I grabbed a couple handfuls of dog collars and watched the animal moving amazingly gracefully and quickly up the hill following the same path it had taken the week earlier. Eventually the otter became aware of our presence (and the dogs of its presence) so I dropped back and let it continue over the next hill unmolested. While I suspected where it was headed, seeing it take the same path as it had a week before did nothing to answer my question: Why?

I suppose I should have expected to see the animal again, but, to be honest, this otter's actions were so different than anything I had seen or read about, I really thought I'd managed to catch this otter partaking in some rare and unique ritual which only the otter elite understood. Not so! Another week passed. Another hike up the hill. Another encounter with the otter - but this time the results sent my heart pumping!

This time, instead of watching an otter make its way quickly and gracefully up the hill, the hike turned from peaceful to pandamonium about half-way into our walk. The first I knew of the otter's presence was Bo's frantic barking. From a dog who rarely barks, this much noise was disturbing. I really had no idea what to expect. Moving as quickly as my now-burning lungs would allow, I hurried up the hill toward my furiously barking dog.

As I neared the old fox den, I could see Bo running around in a tight circle around a furiously spinning and spitting otter. Rosie was still at my side, but as we neared the dog and otter, the excitement overcame her obedience. Now I had two dogs facing off with the otter. At this point, I began to fear for the otter's safety.

After all, we have a 50 pound otter facing off two dogs which, together, weigh about 250 pounds! I should have directed my fears in the other direction. The dogs finally heard and heeded my yells and returned to my side.

With both dogs under control, I decided to stand quietly and let the otter move off unmolested. I assumed the animal would continue up the hill as it had the past two times we'd cut its track. Wrong! Obviously this otter had more guts per square inch than any animal I'd met previously.

Instead of heading up the hill, this little critter ran nearly under the nose of the dogs and retraced its track down the road toward the lake. Well, this was more than Bo could stand. Off he ran, back on the otter's trail and more determined than ever to prove he was bigger and tougher than a rat's cousin. Foolish dog!

While I never saw Bo get close to the otter, that little otter lifted a hefty chunk of Bo's fur! Furthermore, that otter could spin and run and pull fur with such speed, running down hill I couldn't keep up!

Long story short, I chased Bo and that otter all the way to the lake - screaming myself hoarse in the process. That otter had Bo so angry, my dog who HATES water jumped in (the ice had left just a few days earlier) right on the otter's tail. Now my fears for my dog doubled! Otters can be leathal in the water - especially since the dog was basically helpless to defend himself. Thus I started throwing rocks at my dog in an attempt to get his attention. When he did come back to me, I tried the same tactic. Surely, now, if the dogs and I sit quiet, the otter will swim away.

No! This otter swam in circles about 20 feet from the shore, watching us (and not even appearing to breathe heavily). Grabbing Bo by the collar I headed for the lodge. That stinking otter swam along the shoreline, dogging our steps. Needless to say, I returned to the lodge that day more puzzled than ever. What, exactly, was this otter's problem?

I had to wait another month for the answer - but when it came, it made perfect sense! Apparently, in rare instances, otters will nest up to a mile away from water. Meet Mama Otter! With this missing clue, the otter's actions made perfect sense!

And, the best news of all - about a month later I was kayaking on the lake and much to my delight I ran across an adult otter with three young pups! Apparently both the dog and the otter came through their encounter in good shape!

Just another day in my life of Elk Lake!

Lady of the Lake

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