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.
At this time of the year we hear floatplanes flying low over us every day, in ever wider circles. They're spotter planes, sent out to search for the schools of herring that spawn in the spring, for the sac roe fishery.
An entire school of herring can spawn in a few hours in the intertidal zone, laying their eggs in seaweed, and producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter. The above picture may look like scrambled eggs, but it's actually a stretch of seaweed covered in herring eggs.
This year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the herring fishery early for this area, 4,600 pounds short of the quota they had established, due to the unexpectedly low number of herring spawning.
Overfishing caused the herring fishery to collapse worldwide in 1993.
"Beneath him on the endless slope and boundless floor of the valley, moved a black mass, creeping with snail-like slowness toward the south. It seemed as long as the valley and as wide. It reached to the dim purple distances and disappeared there. The densest part covered the center of the valley, from which ran wide straggling arms, like rivers narrowing toward their sources in the hills....This black mass was alive....Acres of buffalo, miles of buffalo! The shaggy, ragged herd had no end. It dominated slopes, level bottom lands, and the hazy reaches beyond." --The Last of the Plainsmen by Zane Grey.
I remembered reading this as a kid when one morning in spring I woke up to the sound of a vast herd out on the strait. And when I went to look, there was a river of black, moving bodies stretching as far as the eye could see up and down the strait. They were ducks, interspersed with seagulls. The noise was tremendous as they squabbled, splashed, and beat the air with their wings by the million as they gorged themselves on the enormous school of herring that had come to our shore to spawn.
The water had turned to a beautiful, milky, electric green and herring eggs coated every inch of seaweed as far as we could observe, sparkling in the sunshine. Sea lions roared and snorted. Humpback whales glided with majestic slow grace through the endless stream of ducks and gulls, spouting out their blowholes.
Little did we know as we stood on the rocks, in the last decade before the turn of the millennium, and watched the scene for hours, that it would be the last time we saw such a sight.
Like the buffalo that had roamed the American plains in their millions but then were decimated for their hides in the mid-to-late 1800s, the herring that were once so plentiful--I remember going to school in the nearby village and seeing the harbor flash solid silver, it was so clogged with herring--are now a vanishing species.
Yesterday it was a beautiful, sunny day and my Maine Coon was eager to go out and explore the arrival of spring. I had to carry her over the stream running down the beach since she's phobic about getting wet, but after that she took the lead. We strolled through the forest, lit by the sunshine and filled with birdsong, and stepped out onto a sandy beach. Katya rubbed and rolled all over it and reluctantly left it behind as I stepped from rock to rock below the forest. When we were kids we used to chase each other over the drift logs and pretend that the beach below was lava. If you slipped and touched the beach you lost a leg to the lava. Those memories came back and made me smile.
We came to an enormous rootwad with an alder tree growing out of it. The first buds of spring were sprouting on it. (See above.)
The tide was all the way out and we had the expanse of the beach to ourselves. Well, almost. There were jellyfish sprawled all over the place, undoubtedly hoping the tide would come in before they were baked by the sun. Katya studied them aloofly, then decided they were too slow moving to be of interest. One jellyfish, down by the waterline, looked like it was making a break for it, back to its ocean home. (See above.)
One of the curious things I've always noticed about Southeast Alaska is how you can be walking on a remote beach with no sign humans had ever set foot in the area and suddenly you'll come across the remnants of those who had gone before. Katya and I came across a buried cable and huge pulley buried in the gravel. It had been commandeered by the barnacles and sea life and no longer belonged to the human world. (See above.)
Katya and I stepped back into the woods on the other side of the beach and found skunk cabbage in full bloom. (Above.) Their bright yellow, bristly stalks are a welcome reminder that spring is here. It made me remember the skunk cabbage wars we had as kids. Those cones can really raise a welt, especially when they are launched from a catapult.
The bright cones also reminded me that bears were said to munch on the cabbage in the spring when they first emerged from their dens and there was nothing else to eat. At this time of year it can feel a bit as if we're under siege since we don't feel it's wise to leave the house without a gun. I had the .44 strapped to my hip, which is not my favorite piece of apparel. For one thing, it's heavy. I always wonder how those cowboys in the Old West didn't develope one larger leg than the other with that weight constantly on one side. A friend and I decided that this was probably how John Wayne developed his famous walk.
At any rate, the sight of the skunk cabbage made me be more alert as we continued our walk.
A little deeper in the woods Katya and I found a swamp. We crossed a mossy deadfall that bisected the dark brown water. We were surrounded by reflections of the forest so that it seemed that the trees grew above and below us. At one point Katya thought this was a really bad idea. That was water on either side! She sat down right in the middle of the log with her back to me, quite plainly saying, "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into." (Above.)
After I got her moving again, she decided we'd had one too many adventures and it was time to head home. As if to say good-bye an eagle wheeled overhead, it's six foot wingspan black against the sky. (Below.)
Tara Neilson (ADOW)