The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis), a member of the subfamily Lutrinae, in the weasel family (Mustelidae), is an equal opportunity player on both land and water. This mustelid LOVES to have a good time! And in winter you can find their slides along the forest floor, usually dipping into a body of water. Like a child at play, they will even slide up! It’s as if their bellies were made for sledding in the snow. Call it conservation of energy if you will but when I find an otter-slide that repeats with 5-toed tracks running up, you cannot convince me that this animal isn’t just enjoying a perfect sledding hill.
Possessing short limbs and webbed feet, otters swim by propelling themselves with their powerful tails and undulating long bodies. Their water repellent fur keeps them warm and relatively dry and they can close their nostrils and ears while in the water. And they can hold their breath way longer than us humans – 8 minutes!
Open that mouth and show us a smile and you will see some hefty canines. These predators eat a wide variety of meaty delights, from fish to crayfish, frogs to freshwater clams. It is always fascinating to come upon their scat (a.k.a. poop) on the rocks by a pool and see the iridescent scales of a fish or claws of a crayfish. If you are lucky you may even catch wind of their laughter. Otters make a distinctive “ha ha ha” sound, along with other chirps, grunts, and chattering calls.
Truly are at home in the icy waters, their multi-tunneled dens built along the water’s edge, enter and exit in the water so they can take a refreshing dip whenever they choose. I have seen them swimming and rolling in the water during the day; no easy feat apparently as they are said to be secretive. But they are also curious and appear to take pleasure in investigation for its own sake. Who knows what draws them in to where? Just a few weeks ago, I spied on one in the little pond below my yard. Was s/he studying the beaver dam? Or counting the number of chickadees frequenting the feeder? Perhaps s/he was tracking me as I had been following a slide through the woods into the stream just a few days prior. Or just scouting a potential new home. (Yes, yes, please stay! I promise to be a good human neighbor!)
So if you are curious about who’s out there in the outside, frolicking all winter, while you are walking through the woods by a stream, brook, river, lake, pond, or swamp, watch and listen for our playful wild neighbor the otter.
She dips into the winter waters
droplets caress her form as she rolls in sheer exuberance
of the titillating chill that enlivens every cell.
Her sleek body undulates in the waves she creates
as she becomes one with the stream.
She dives beneath the surface into the depths to read the stones.
Few are brought to shore
to create mysterious designs to be left for others to ponder.
The chattering of chickadees catch her attention
and she looks around wide-eyed and full of wonder.
In a burst of merriment she bounds up the snowy hill then turns
sliding down on her belly
laughing all the way
with a SPLASH
back into the icy water.
This is life!
© 2017, Arianna Alexsandra Collins
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News and Shelburne Falls & West County Independent. This article appears in the January 24, 2017 edition of the Shelburne Falls & West County Independent.
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