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.
I put down Bjorn Dihle's book, Haunted Inside Passage, that chronicles the myths, legends, and mysteries of Southeast Alaska, strapped on my .44, and headed out into a heavily overcast, misty day.
The book has accounts of mysteriously lost Russian explorers from the 1700s, a sunken treasure ship, a passenger liner that went down with all hands on a quiet morning, the grotesque history of mine owners' treatment of their workers (essentially mass murder), and account after account of man's vulnerability in the vast wilderness and his sense of being as much hunted as hunter--by material and immaterial creatures.
As I set out, it was very quiet, in the way only remote SE Alaska can be quiet when the rain has stopped, the wind has quit blowing, and the seas are still. The forest was wet and dark. Long, pale green streamers of goat's beard moss hung motionless. A friend of mine once said that just looking at that moss gave him a creepy feeling.
It's bear season so all of my senses were hyper alert, looking for any sign that I didn't have the woods entirely to myself. Call me prejudiced, but I like being the only large mammal around when I go for a walk in the woods. And since I'd seen a fresh, steaming bear calling card in the middle of the trail the last time I went to post my blog, I knew there was one around.
Bjorn's book focuses quite a bit on the Kushtaka, the Tlingit "boogeyman" of SE Alaska that I'd written about in my blog, which Bjorn references. (As someone who reads a lot of references at the backs of books to do research, it was an odd moment to see my own name in his reference section.)
In Haunted Inside Passage (published by Alaska Northwest Books), Bjorn has the full story of the Kushtaka, digging deeper and discovering more on the legendary beings and their history than any other writer I've come across. I reflected on how people were so ready to believe in the strange creatures as I stepped out onto the wet gravel beach, the musky scent of the seaweed tideline hanging in the air. I paused to look in all directions to make sure I didn't jump a bear. On the other side of the beach, up in the grass, I saw a big, shaggy black form and went instantly still, except for dropping my hand onto the handle of the pistol, unsnapping the sheath's leather strap to be able to draw it quickly. After several motionless moments I realized the shaggy thing wasn't moving. It was either dead, or a log.
I kept going, the gravel grating under my boots, keeping my eye on the bulky thing in the grass until I got to an angle where I could see that it was indeed a log. I relaxed a little, but not a lot. I didn't like, as I stepped back into the dark woods, that I couldn't hear anything but the rush of water below our dam from the heavy rains we've been having.
With a sense of wanting to get the chore done quickly, I headed for the pump sitting on top of the roaring dam. The creek was deep with a heavy current and I stepped from rock to rock. Up next to the cascading dam my jeans immediately got saturated and I reached for the box that shelter's the pump. I paused.
On top of the box was an eight-inch long section of fish cartilage from a fairly large halibut, it looked like. How on earth did it get there? Frowning, I removed the box and went to start the pump. Again, I paused. The pump was all set, the run switch was on, the choke was fully open.
That didn't make any sense. I never left the pump like that. So what had? I started the pump and then headed down to the beach to get away from the noise.
I called my dad on my handheld VHF. "Have you been over here?" I asked. "Did you do anything with the pump?"
He said he hadn't. I looked around at the broad open expanse of the bay in front of me, and the heavy, damp woods encircling me. I didn't like the weight of it behind me and headed farther down the beach where I could see in all directions. "That doesn't make any sense," my dad said when I explained.
It really didn't. It was too early for the summer people to be up here, or the kayakers that often visited to be wandering around in the woods messing with the pump. There was, literally, no one but the three of us for miles in any direction. "It's the Kushtaka," I said, thinking of Bjorn's book. "And it left that fish cartilage to mark its territory, to leave a message."
And just like that, I understood how Southeast Alaskans had so many strange and eerie stories to tell, that Bjorn had written about with a combination of self-deprecating humor and thoughtful reflection. This place is full of mystery and danger and the faded remnants of old tragedies and the evidence of doomed attempts at civilizing the wilderness.
I can't begin to count how many times I've been in a remote area, feeling like the first person to ever set foot on an island, only to find a rusty cable half buried in the sand, or rotten planks overgrown with moss in the woods. Once, digging in a root wad for gardening dirt, I uncovered the ancient leather sole of a tiny boot of the kind worn by children at the turn of the 20th century. I grew up in an abandoned, partially burned cannery and made toys of the belongings of former workers who had probably died before I was born. I grew up amidst mystery and memories of people I'd never known. Southeast Alaska is staurated with this strange, ghost town feel. One's reaction can be anything from intellectual curiosity to morbid fear--or both.
I remember an older friend, Jake, talking about when he was a child when he and his brothers were playing in the primeval, old growth forest in the middle of the night near where I now live. I have my own memories of that, of creeping through the silent, endless woods, tingling with delicious fear at being caught--or possibly devoured--aware of all around me the vast wilderness stretching as far as infinity to my young mind.
Jake said he and his brothers ghosted from tree to tree. He'd shivered with the spookiness of the pregant silence, listening intently for any sign that he'd been left alone in the dark night. All at once something huge and heavy, moving toward them fast, shattered the silence. With a ponderous, leathery pumping sound, it crashed through the woods, violently breaking branches at a height far above their heads, above the head of even the tallest grizzly.
Someone screamed: "It's coming!"
They had no idea what it was, just that it was some ancient horror, Jurassic big, and it was after them. In terror they ran shrieking for safety, out of the forest with the invisible monster tearing through the trees behind them.
Jake looked at me with a twinkle in his dark eyes when he told the story. "You know what 'it' was, right? We'd disturbed an eagle and it flew from its perch, breaking branches with its six foot wingspan. But I've never felt evil like I felt it that night. I knew the most terrifying thing in the world was after me."
And it was. His imagination.
Southeast Alaska fertilizes the imagination probably like no other place on earth. And many of the stories in Bjorn's book testify to that.
NOTE: Coming June 7, Wednesday, in my column at www.capitalcityweekly.com: "Archimedes of the Wilderness."