According to a friend: "We all think that living in Alaska is one big party (except when the rabid otters are on the march)." When I told this friend that I was going to do a blog about otters, he immediately sent me an email titled "Beware of Otter" and warned, "Just don't get too close to them without having your gun and a sturdy knife and your aerosol otter-repellant spray with you! Those critters are nassssss-tay!" And my brothers regularly assure me that there will be a Revenge of the Land Otters apocalypse at some point in our near future.
How did the delightful river/land otter wind up with such a bad rep?
I think it's mostly due to the Tlingit tales of the Kushtaka, a half-human, half-otter hybrid that terrorized the early Native Alaskans with its shapeshifting and kidnapping ways. (For more on the Kushtaka, see the category "Myth Busting.")
Some famous totem poles propagate this otter scaremongering as well, such as the "Man Captured By Otters" and the "Fight with the Land Otters" totem poles. A story that accompanies one otter pole tells of four Tlingit boys who catch and barbecue some salmon. (They dig a shallow hole and place heated rocks in it and cover them with skunk cabbage leaves. The fish, wrapped in more of the leaves, are placed on top to cook. We've cooked trout this way and it's delicious.) Sounds charming, right?
The story goes from folk to Brother's Grimm in a hurry, so be forewarned. Not content with simply eating the salmon, the boys decide to throw some live salmon onto the hot rocks and mock and ridicule them when they wriggle. By doing so they break a fundamental law: no living creature should be ridiculed or tortured.
Their bad deed does not go unpunished. One the way home the boys' canoe capsizes and they're kidnapped by vengeful land otters who haul them off to their den. The villagers come looking for them, and when they find them they build a fire in front of the otters' den and throw urine on the fire, presumably to smoke them out. The fire gets out of control and the boys and most of the otters are killed. But enough otters survive to, we can only suppose, exact some bloodchilling, horrible revenge upon the villagers in the future.
The end. Sleep well, kids.
My introduction to otters was much less Grimm. It was a family film called "Tarka the Otter." I barely remember it now, having seen it when I was about seven when we lived in Thorne Bay (at the time, the largest logging camp in the world), but I remember the friendly feeling I had toward all otters after watching it.
Since then I've seen them cavorting on docks and logs, entire families playing with jovial good will. A few summers ago, I had a close encounter with one that convinced me that while they might feel some (perhaps justified) condescenion toward humans, they aren't as vicious as their reputation would have you believe.
While I was upstairs in my floathouse, I heard what sounded like a dog ease in through my cat door and thump inside. Surprised, since there are no dogs here, I looked down from my loft and saw a huge otter standing on its hind legs in my kitchen, casually looking around like he was thinking about buying the place if the price was right.
My Main Coon Katya got up from where she was sleeping and slunk halfway down the stairs to subside on a middle riser and stare at him. They eyed each other, neither making an attempt to escalate the stand-off. Finally, Mr. Otter gave a kind of insulting shrug, obviously not impressed, and oozed out the cat door.
This summer while my sister Megan was visiting, we took a hike around the outer rocks that protect our small bay and stumbled upon an otter den, complete with several rooms. Like the worst sort of tourists, we plunged right in and checked out the bedroom area where the dirt was tamped down in a circle, snapping pictures. It segued into the bathroom, which in turn led to the slide down to the water. The kitchen area was strewn with abalone and sea urchin shells which we picked up to admire and photograph.
Out on the patio with the fantastic view of Clarence Strait, Megan found a guest hanging out under a sea urchin shell. The slug looked up at her quizzically, like we do when the tourists climb onto our front porches and peer in through our windows.
The den was obviously home to quite a large family and Megan and I began to wonder what would happen if they returned while the two Goldilocks were there making free and easy with their belongings and home. We decided to keep on hiking.
While we were oohing and aahing over some bubble feeding humpbacks in the distance, Megan suddenly pointed. "Look, it's an otter!" She gave a slightly nervous laugh. "How long do you think it's been watching us?"
We thought guiltily of our trampling through the otter den. "I'm sure they won't hold it against us," I said, thinking about the otter who had barged into my house sans invitation. Turn about was fair play. Right?
Besides, otters are nice, intelligent, friendly folk. And despite what the totem pole tales and my brothers say, there's no such thing as a revenge otter.
Note: Special thanks to my dad for the final image.
My sister, Megan Duncanson, a successful artist, recently moved herself and her entire studio to Miami to begin a new chapter in her life. See her inspiring blog post on the subject here: http://www.madartdesigns.com/blog/irma-and-life-lessons-live-your-best-life
As anyone in touch with the news is aware, Irma, the record breaking Category 5 hurricane, is taking direct aim at Miami after decimating various islands. (Wendy, I've been thinking about you and hoping and praying that you and your loved ones are safe. If you are, please comment and let me know!) Megan had to evacuate, leaving almost everything she possesses behind. She'll be coming up to Alaska to be with us as we wait to see what happens. Foruntately, or unfortunately, she is no stranger to hurricane force winds as this latest post From the Dairy Crate of old school newspapers and items from our childhood shows.
Our youngest brother Christopher did this drawing of the old pilings from the burned out cannery where we lived, showing the storm surge and wind from a particularly memorable winter storm that my brothers called "Hurricane Union Bay." (We lived on the shores of Union Bay in a very exposed location.) In Chris' words:
"Hurricane Union Bay/blew us away/and we began to fly/away with the wind/and then we began to cry/as we went up very high."
In the far right corner you can see family members being blown away by the winds, metaphorically if not literally.
Here's my coverage of the same storm (I was apparently addicted to exclamation points, big words, and broad irony at the time) for the Meyers Chuck School Gazette circa 1984:
"The storm that struck Meyers Chuck and surrounding areas was a screamer all right! It didn't raise any roofs but it did raise a lot of hair.
"Meyers Chuck seems to have come through okay, what with only gusts up to 70 or more and a 19 ft tide! It seems that quite a few people were afraid their houses were going to float--houses that aren't supposed to float.
"I feel pretty sorry for anyone who stayed at their boats that night! Lots of people had an enjoyable time concerning docks and other floating objects (and some that weren't supposed to float) during the rather high tides and gusty winds.
"Unfortunately one of the out-lying areas that can easily be reached by a skiff, known as Union Bay (or unofficially as "Fools Paradise") has had a few problems.
"During the night there was a loud snap and the Neilson's floathouse was floating free of its imprisoning bonds. It seems as if their sawmill deck finally rebelled and it, too, has caused some vexation to the inhabitants of Union Bay.
"Otherwise our local storm was quite tame compared to the rest of the state. You'll have to find out about that on the News."
Another reporter, in first grade by the name of Josh, also contributed to the storm coverage with the following article:
"Steve Peavy lost his skiff. They looked for it during the night. It was stormy and rainy."
While we have never suffered the kinds of winds that people suffered from Harvey, or now Irma, I feel for all who have suffered through a high wind storm. Hold fast and don't give up.
Clockwise: Clarence Strait with the mountains of Prince of Wales Island towering above it; my brother Robin's floating cabin; my first floathouse, formerly our childhood homeschool before it was winched off land and onto a float.
NOTE: Since my sister will be staying with me in the coming days, and it's through her stable signal in Florida that my blog is normally posted, it may be a while before I can put up another blog post.
If you need more Alaska For Real in the interim, my column appears at www.capitalcityweekly.com every other Wednesday. My next column is titled "Floathouse Living" and comes out September 13, 2017.
For all of my columns Google: Tara Neilson Juneau Empire.