Otter Excursions

One of the most enjoyable 4-footed wildlife interactions one can hope to enjoy on a semi-regular basis at Elk Lake is 'swimming' with the otters. By 'swimming' I mean floating in my kayak among the otters who are doing all the swimming. However, because the kayak puts you so close to the water level, it feels like I am actually interacting with these curious and interesting animals.

Yes. I know otters eat fish. However, my fish biologists assure me Elk Lake enjoys a burgeoning fish population. Thus the otters are doing us no harm on this regard.

Yes. I know otters are of the Mustelidae family with such ferocious cousins as the weasel, polecat, and badger. In fact, I know from personal experience these animals are fearsome opponents more than capable of defending themselves against attacks from larger predators.

Nonetheless they are fascinating creatures - graceful and swift in the water as well as quick and agile on land. So, I dedicate this post to the Elk Lake Otters. May their days be long and playful.

The otter's long slim body is covered with an amazingly soft underfur protected by an outer layer made up of long guard hairs. Their coat is designed to trap air and keep them warm and dry in their water-filled environment.

Elk Lake's Otters do not leave in the winter time. And, since the lake is ice-covered, the water is obviously quite cold. The otter's high metabolic rate keeps them warm, However, like other mammals which have a high metabolism (think hummingbird), otters must consume a fair amount of food. In fact, adult otters living in 50 degree water must eat at least 4 1/2 pounds of food daily to survive. Thus an adult spends 3 to 5 hours a day hunting and a nursing mother up to 8 hours per day.

Otters den on land and, unlike the beaver, they have been known to den quite a long distance from water. An otter den is called a holt or couch.

An otter pup (like the one shown here with an adult), is called a whelt, kit, or pup. Adult males are called dogs. Adult females are called bitches.

While I always think of otters as water dwellers, they actually spend quite a bit of time on the land to avoid waterlogged fur. In fact, little nooks and crannies such as this one are a favorite place to while away the hours before the next meal.

Otters are curious and playful. Perhaps that is why they have captured my imagination. Occasionally I have seen a lone animal. However, it is much more common to see them in groups of three to eight - playing, chattering, eating, and just plain enjoying life.

Female otters typically give birth to four to six young. These two curious youngsters appear to be the only two left in this family. Note the long whiskers sported by these youths. The otter's whiskers are extremely sensitive and actually help it to locate prey in murky waters.

Note also the webbed toes and long claws. These uniquely shaped feet have an extremely delicate sense of touch. River Otters (the species which inhabits our local waters) are well-adapted to life in our lake. Their head and short neck are of similar diameter. Their ears are short, but this does not limit their hearing. In fact, I found it interesting to note both their sense of hearing and smell are extremely acute. Surely that is a bit unique for an animal who spends much of its time underwater. Otters have streamlined bodies with their tails contributing up about 1/3 to their total body length. Their legs are short and powerful, and while they do not move as freely on land as in the water, I have seen them travel very quickly, even on land.

Here is one final piece of River Otter trivia: Did you know their right lung is 19.3% larger than their left and has four lobes as compared to the two on the left? I didn't. Why? Well, it seems scientists are not quite sure but, without doubt, one day they will find this, too, is part of this amazing animal's intelligent design.

And while most would not expect to see otters while visiting Elk Lake in the winter, you might be surprised at how frequently I see tracks or even a little dark body busily working away on the ice doing - well, otter business obviously!

Such is life at Elk Lake - and I am glad I am able to enjoy it!

Lady of the Lake


Fall At Elk Lake

While the view out my window shows little resemblance to those I will be posting today, there is something extremely special about Elk Lake in the fall. Okay, I'll admit it - as far as I'm concerned, Elk Lake is special ANY TIME of year. However, each season has a magic all its own.

Spring is the season of rebirth. In the spring my hikes (and thus my photos) are predominated by life's return to the valley. Elk. Deer. Babies. Flowers. Green Leaves. Buds. Birds. These bring joy and delight to my life.

Summer is the season of people and play. This time of year my hikes are often shortened to accommodate the needs of our guests. Nonetheless, the hills around Elk Lake hold the treasures I seek, and the lake offers placid morning waters for my kayak alone.

Winter is the season of silence. Elk Lake is never a noisy place - even with a 'crowd'. However winter is a time when silence predominates. I am convinced few have heard real silence. I have! In winter this is an Elk Lake 'speciality'!

Fall, however, is the season of peace. Glorious color surrounds and peace on earth seems to abound. There is something wonderous about fall colors, warm sunny days, and crisp starry nights which seems to invite you in and envelope you in a sense of peace and good will.

Whatever the reason, I have found fall to have a flavor all its own - and it is one I obviously enjoy. However, while it is easy to capture new growth and returning wildlife on film, and it is possible to at least partially replicate a lovely summer morning or the utter stillness of a winter dawn, I find it nearly impossible to capture the 'feeling' of fall. What follows are a few attempts.

Perhaps the lake is the place to start - placid, serene, a mirror reflecting the beauty surrounding it.

Or maybe it is revealed in the clear contentment of an orange butterfly, happily drowning in a field of yellow flowers.

Perhaps it is found in the early morning paddlers - their red canoe quietly slicing through still waters.

Personally, I think the dawn's early light on dark, still lake waters says it best.

Yet the purple mountain majesty reflected in Elk Lake's mirror doesn't do a half bad job either.

Certainly there is something magical about golden light on still water - something 'On Golden Pond' could never came closer to communicating :-)

Of course Elk Lake's fall beauty is not limited to her early mornings - although they may best capture the magic of the season. Still there is something inspiring about the contrasting colors - brilliant against dark - which makes one's inner poet scream for release.

Even the cabins take on a new sparkle and shine wrapped in their colorful fall wardrobe.

But these colors need no backdrop crafted by human hand to inspire!

Each leaf a work of art I struggle to capture.

Until I finally collapse, satiated, on the porch - content to sit and soak and dream.

Ah. . .fall days! Were I not blessed to enjoy the season of silence decending upon my corner of paradise 'a mile from heaven', I might be tempted to pine for more of the magical days of fall. However, there really isn't a bad season at Elk Lake so. . .regardless of the season I am perfectly content to just enjoy another day as the

Lady of the Lake


Hiking To Blair Lake

WARNING: This post contains a LOT of pictures. Thus, unless you have a fast connection, you might want to brew yourself a nice cup of hot chocolate, pop yourself some popcorn, or grab a glass of milk and some cookies (whatever suits your mood). This will need some time to download :-)

Another hike I enjoyed this summer was to Blair Lake. While I had been to Blair Lake a few summers ago - via horseback - this was my first hike into this lake which sits on the backbone of the Continental Divide.

Some mountain ranges abound with lakes. It seems there is a lake in every valley. However, the Centennial Mountains are not heavy on lakes. There are many little streams but few bodies of water large enough to earn the title ‘lake’. Blair and Lillian Lakes are two of the nicest, and are located not far from the lodge or each other.

The journey to Blair Lake can begin at the hiker’s choice of two trailheads. Oddly enough both trails begin within a mile of each other and both are accessed from the same service road. Thus the traveler has the option of choosing either. Or, if they desire, this hike can easily turn into a loop which requires little doubling back over terrain already explored.

Last time I visited Blair Lake I traversed the trail to the east. On this hike we decided to make explore the trail to the west. And, since it was a lovely fall day, the drive to the trailhead was almost as pleasurable as the hike to the lake.

We chose the more westerly access because this trail is the shortest from trailhead to lake, and it provides a steady but comfortable climb from trailhead to lake. Were we to have chosen the more easterly access, we could have chosen to intersect this trail partway up the mountain (via the Continental Divide Trail) or take the trail to Lillian Lake (which sits in a swale) and then make a hefty climb up to Blair Lake.

Our chosen trail, the Corral Creek Trail, began along an old road passing through private property. After about a mile we went through a gate onto BLM land and our road became a ‘trail’ - a not-very-well maintained trail at that.

Immediately we began to climb. As this is an older trail which receives little use, it has not been reworked. Thus the trail does not have the new gradient changes which remove the stepper sections from reworked trails. However, we were glad for the added body heat as the morning was brisk.

As we climbed I could not help but notice the patches of brilliant color beside the trail. It seemed just days ago we were picking huckleberries off these bushes. Now the bushes had transformed into delightful splashes of color along our trail.

After about 40 minutes of fairly heavy timber, the countryside began to open up with lighter timber interspersed with small meadows.

After about 50 minutes we hit the junction of the Continental Divide Trail. While there are few to no trail maps for the area we traversed (the Corral Creek Trail didn’t even make the map), the trail signage was very good. At every junction we knew which knew exactly which way to go.

If we had taken the trail to our left (heading down the hill) we would have eventually ended up at Hell Roaring Creek (or at the more easterly trailhead). Of course the Corral Creek trail was the trail we had just traversed.

From here on out we followied the Continental Divide Trail (except for the final 1/4 mile or so to Blair Lake). Straight ahead was a clearly visible sign. We still had 2 3/4 miles to travel to reach Blair Lake.

Although bright yellow and red leaves announced fall had come to the Centennial, a few hardy flowers still braved the cool, crisp mornings and frosty nights. Perhaps the warm ‘Indian-summer’ fall days allowed them to survive.

The trail continued to meander - generally up - through stands of timber and open meadows. We crossed numerous small streams. Most had ‘bridges’ (which barely deserved the title) but were narrow enough to hop across this time of year.

As the countryside opened up, the views became breathtaking. I found it interesting to track our progress with our frequent glimpses of Red Rock Mountain. When we saw it for the first time, we were high enough to be about even with its top, and it seemed quite close.

As we were traversed the final ascent to Blair Lake, it was much further away and seemed quite small.

Along with numerous small creeks, we also passed a few small tarns. This one, the largest, might have qualified as a small pond. It certainly had ‘interesting’ residents.

Having traveled about 2 miles from our last junction, we came to the second of three junctions on this hike. We now had the option of going straight

- and dropping down to Lillian Lake

- or taking a right and switchbacking up the hill to Blair Lake

Here, again, the color splashes were brilliant and beautiful to behold.

Since our first junction, we had been following the Continental Divide Trail up the mountain. This trail is well-marked with distinctive trail signs which make it easy to follow.

Near the top of the divide we finally reached our final trail junction. Here the Continental Divide Trail now goes straight with a poorly marked (but visible) junction Blair Lake heading to the right.

The final leg of our trail took us through a small meadow

Then down through a light stand of timber to the lake. If you look closely at this photo you will see a wooden post ahead of the first hiker.

Attached to this post is an old piece of a Continental Divide Trail marker. While the CD Trail has obviously been re-routed (which adds privacy for those picnicing or camping at Blair Lake), the map has not been updated. Thus, if you make this hike, be aware - the last section is slightly different than the map shows (see note on the map photo above). You will need to watch for the junction marker pictured above.

Of course the views of Mt. Jefferson which begin when the trail gets above the heavier timber, are terrific. By the time you begin the final approach to Blair Lake, you have traveled far enough south to see the mountain from a different perspective.

Blair Lake peek-a-booed us through the trees as we approached from the east.

The trail crosses the lake’s outlet and passes along the lake’s open shoulder. Blair Lake is a pretty lake about 3 or 4 acres in size and mostly round in shape. It sits in about an 8 acre meadow surrounded by timbered and open ridges.

The water is beautifully clear and has a green tint. We had met no one on the trail. Thus it came as no surprise to find we had the lake to ourselves as well. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch in relative peace and quiet (relative is an completely understandable term to those of you who travel - or have traveled - with an 8-year-old :-)

I found another sign from the ‘old’ Continental Divide Trail on a tree near Blair Lake. This further proved my theory the trail had undergone extensive re-routing in the last few years.

The trip up took about 2 hours each way. This crew kept a pretty brisk clip going up. And, because of the steady grade, we found ourselves taking the downhill a bit easy.

By the time we reached our car, we were ready to give our legs a break. However, the memories of this very enjoyable hike will live with us for months to come.

I close this post with a panoramic shot taken from near our final trail junction on the way to Blair Lake. While I have much to learn about panoramic shots (sorry for the color variations), I include this photo because it gives you an idea of the amazing beauty and vast open expanses one experiences on this hike.

Lady of the Lake