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


Living With Wolves

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Many of our guests are curious whether we see many wild animals. When we reply to the affirmative, they always want to know 'what.' As we begin reciting a list of the most commonly seen criters, many interrupt. "What about bears? Do you have Grizzlies?"

"Yes," we answer.

"Do you ever see them?" is the predictable next question.

"Not often, but yes, on occasion. We see more tracks than bears, thankfully."

Without hesitation I can predict the next question. "What about wolves? Do you have any wolves around here?"

And so the conversation goes. Usually, somewhere along the line, someone's eyes take on a far-off look and they say, "I wish I could see a wolf."

I always reply. "It is a major thrill to see a wolf - in Yellowstone Park. But to see one in your back yard, to wake to tracks outside your fence, or to find fresh tracks on your cross-country ski trail - that is a different story."

As I've said before, I enjoy seeing wolves. They are wild. They are beautiful. And, they look enough like our pets we often think of them as safer and more friendly than they are. However, the only thing wolves have in common with most domesticated dogs is their looks.

After a similar conversation this summer with some guests, I received an email. Unlike most people I talk to, this guest had not only been intrigued by the wolf subject, he took the time to do some personal research. Furthermore, he shared his findings with me. What follows is from his email and the links he provided.

Our guest commented, after his research, "[Wolves] seem to learn quickly that people can be lethal and should be avoided." While one would expect this would be true, our experience has not shown this to be the case - at least not around here. In fact, the wolf we saw about a month ago allowed Craig to approach within a few hundred yards (he was on a snowmobile and had intended it harrass it away from the resort).

While this may not a valid 'proof test', I recently learned this animal is, most likely, a member of our 'local pack.' The local trapper shot at and harrassed this pack last summer because they were feeding on nearby cattle. It made me wonder. Where is the natural fear? Where is the preference for no human contact?

Then I looked at the links the guest had provided. Wikipedia is often a wonderful resource. Their article on wolf attacks is completely fascinating. I encourage you to read it. Did you know when compared to other predators "the frequency with which wolves have been recorded to kill or prey on people is much lower, indicating that though potentially dangerous, wolves are among the least threatening for their size and predatory potential"?

Which instead of bringing comfort about my 'relative' safety around wolves, just makes me more leery of the other critters. With the lack of fear our local wolves have exhibited (in every situation over the last two years), it makes me wonder why they are so self-confident .

Perhaps the most valuable piece of information included in this article is what they entitled, "The Seven Stages Leading To Attacks." They are as follows:

  • Scarcity of wild game.
  • Wolves introduce nocturnal visits to habitated areas.
  • Wolves progress to visiting habitated areas during daylight hours and watching people and stock from a distance.
  • Wolves begin attacking smaller livestock and pets - often chasing them to the porch. At this stage they only growl at humans.
  • Wolves begin attacking larger livestock and may follow riders as well as mounting porches and decks to look in house windows.
  • Wolves begin harrassing people, but usually nipping and chasing if the person runs yet still retreating when confronted.
  • Wolves begin attacking people.

Before you change your travel plans to exclude wolf inhabitated areas, I encourage you to take an inventory of your street. How many dogs reside there? While wolves and bears and cougars do kill people, the domesticated dogs we call our pets are responsible for a growing number of deaths. In fact, according to an article in Parade, dog-induced deaths are on the rise. And, just in case you did your inventory, found no pit bulls on your block (or your walking route) and thus feel safe, think again. Only half of the people-killing-dogs were pit bulls.

I don't know about you, but I'd still rather live in a place where I know to exercise wisdom and caution rather than think I am safe and find out differently. While I do not care for wolves in my back yard, I still feel safer and more comfortable at Elk Lake than I would in just about any other place I can think of living.

Lady of the Lake


Echoes From The Past

Every season is new. However, after six years, every season comes with some predictable elements. Spring is the time to finish last minute projects while we wait for the snow to release it's grip. Summer is the time with little sleep, lots of guests, sunshine sparkling on water, green grass, and abundant wildlife. Fall is when things start to slow down; Indian summer brings crisp night and clear days. Aspen leaves flame in the canyons and thoughts turn toward hunting season.

Then winter arrives. Winter has always been a time for short days and long nights. Growing daylight hours slowly change the balance. Crisp snow. Bright sunshine. Cold hands. Snowmobiles! These are the elements which have made winter at Elk Lake for the past 15 or so years. However it was not always this way.

Years ago, when snowmobiles were primitive and winter recreationalists few, Elk Lake really was the end of the world. One prior resident said his family saw only one or two trappers all winter long!

That is a far cry from life at Elk Lake today - or at least it was. As Yellowstone Park continues to go through growing pains which result in increased restrictions on winter access, business falters. We have dropped from February being the busiest month to. . .well?? Who knows?

Combine the unrest surrounding Yellowstone with a lower than usual (compared to the last six years) snow year and we are left wondering. Wondering how it will all pan out? Wondering if we aren't riding a time machine? Perhaps we went to sleep this past December in 2009 and woke in January 1962?

I have never felt lonely at Elk Lake. In fact, I relish the solitude. However, this winter, after several weeks without leaving the lodge - several weeks with days with no guests, I have actually started to feel a bit isolated. Interesting feeling! It stirred a spark of sympathy for the brave souls who used to stay in all winter. They had no choice. Old-style snowmobiles and a car buried under tge snowdrift outside the back door, they really were cut off from the rest of the world!

Funny thing is, most people consider isolation a bad thing. We feel sorry for those poor folks from 20 years ago. I suppose a steady diet could warp a person's personality (or at least their social skills :-). However, like so many things at Elk Lake, something which might be bad in a differnt place and time, is somehow just not.

Thus while we are definitely looking forward to seeing more people, I'm enjoying more time to ski. More time to read. More time to catch up on my 'to-do' list. More time to just enjoy living in one of the most beautiful, secluded, unique (and even sometimes) isolated place in the lower 48.

Lady of the Lake


Different Dimensions

It always amazes me. No matter how many times my life flows from season to season here at Elk Lake, I just cannot seem to avoid the amazement. How can the seasons be so unique? How can the various times of year hold so many differences and yet all be so enjoyable? Where is the 'rut' people are supposed to fall into? That time when the world around you loses its wonder?

Granted, from every aspect, winter ought to be my least favorite time of year. It is harder to get in and out. Sure, any time of year a trip to town in an excursion, but in the winter - what with all the gear you have to put on and the mode of transportation (snowmobiles) - it takes on a whole new diminsion.

However, there is still something so special, so unique, so almost other-earthly about winter at Elk Lake. The silence, for one. It is quiet here most of the time. Even when there are people around, a few hundred yards from the resort puts me into a world alone. However, in the winter, except for the sound of the snow on my clothes or the swish of my skies or the squeak of my poles or the whisper of the wind - there is NOTHING to hear. It is amazing! Not a bird. Not a ripple of water. Not a far off cow. Nothing!

Then there is the game. Certainly most of the animals have moved on to easier pickings, but a few still remain. We have the fox who noses around the back door for treats and drops a 'deposit' nearby just to remind us of his presence. There is the coyote who leaves meandering tracks up the road and across the lake. There are the wolves who insist on coming back - even though we only see them on occassion. There are the otters who remain playful, regardless of the season. There are the hardy elk - mostly bulls - who have yet to admit the need to find easier feed. And, of course, there are the moose.

In the winter, I must admit, the game are harder to see. A group of elk spotted running across a hillside. A glimpse of a cow and calf moose near Elk Springs Creek. A wolf on the ridge across the lake who disappears like some wraith when we return for a photo. A coyote glimpsed running around the bend. A lone otter, resting beside an patch of open water or sitting in the middle of a frozen lake like that is where all otters belong.

Yet, while eyes-on sightings are down, I think I learn more about the wildlife that stays in the winter, than I do about everyone who summers in the valley. After all, snow hides no tracks and tells no lies! Thus the lake, or up Narrows Creek or even along the road - some of my favorite summer hangouts, becomes a great classrooms in the winter.

What are the fox eating? Dark scat stands out in bold relief against a winter white background. Where are the squirrels hiding? Fox and coyote tracks intermingle with squirrel tracks to tell the tale. Have the wolves moved on? No, more tracks on the lake the other day. What about the otters? What does an otter do in a frozen lake in the winter? For one, it doesn't stay in the lake. How about a game of run-and-slide along the lakeshore? Tell-tale tracks always let me know my otter friends are up to their old tricks.

And if all that isn't enough - there are always the crisp, clear, BRIGHT days and cold, black star-studded night skies. Granted the days are much shorter, but that just means I get to enjoy a few more sunrises and sunsets. And, there is absolutely nothing which can compare to a winter sunset coloring the snow capped mountains in shades of rose and orange. Aw - - now if that doesn't make your heart sing, I feel sorry for you!

It never becomes old hat. Each season flows into the next like a well-oiled clock. Each season brings the return of old friends - whether the tracks and scat and brief glimpses in the middle of a silent winter or the chit and chatter and eye candy of an early summer - each season at Elk Lake holds its own wonder. Its own colors. Its own special moments. Its own delight. Perhaps that is why I feel so fortunate to be the,

Lady of the Lake