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.