Found: Otter Body Experience

Lontra canadensis  

Prince Albert National Park, Canada: 53°58’44.39″N 106°17’22.43″W  Elevation 533 meters

This past September, as the sun set on Granite Creek, strange grunting sounded from the river. I left the campfire just in time to see five river otter—a mom and four pups—loping down shore, sliding in and out of the water. I chased them downstream, wistful to flow between liquid and land.

Otters aren’t something I think about much in winter, so when Brad pulled the car over and mentioned the otter tracks I didn’t know what to expect. Something like a beaver perhaps? A fat dragline in the snow bordered by scuttling paws. But instead, it was a long, smooth sliding mark followed by four prints. Again and again. The picture was painted so clearly—a leap then a long slide. It looked like pure, unbridled, foolish fun. But it turns out tobogganing around also serves a practical purpose. It’s a much quicker way to move between the safety of waterways, where the otter is inaccessible to the hungry jowls of a wolf or other predators. Running otters can reach speeds up to 16 kilometers per hour but sliding? 25 kilometers per hour!

I was chasing otters in Prince Albert National Park, smack in the middle of Saskatchewan. It’s a part of the North where water begins overtaking the land. The map shows a landscape pocked by lakes and rivers. Some, like the Churchill River, are so big and wide they look like lakes. Here, land crossings are the exception rather than the norm. So much so that they warrant their own vocabulary—portages. No wonder otters love this country.

Brad Muir, who works as an interpretive ranger in Prince Albert in the summer and runs Sundogs Sled Excursions the rest of the year, is a master naturalist and I’m fortunate enough to be spending the day with him.

He bends down in the snow for a closer look—four of them, he says and explains how otters typically travel in a family of four to six and will lay claim to a section of river or lake.

At the Lake Waskesiu Narrows, we walk to the shore, drawn by piled up snow on the lake, remnants of where the otters have bored through to the surface. Right at the dock’s edge, we find a small hole but it’s already iced over. Brad explains how the otters will find a patch of thin ice and crack the ceiling with their heads and noses until a portal breaks open. Pointing at the brown pile of scat beside the hole, Brad tells me otters are the only animal he knows of with two specific names for their droppings—wedgins and spraint. The lucky guys! Who would have thought? And don’t even think of calling them whiskers, they’re vibrissae of course.

Looking out over the snow-covered lake, Brad says that otters actually have it easy. With a dense, waterproof coat, they’ve got a built in dry suit. While wolves and terrestrial mammals have to worry about getting wet, drying off and staying warm in an environment where temperatures can drop into the negative double digits for days on end, the otter simply slips back underground where the food supply is abundant and the temperature is reliably above freezing.

A few days earlier back in La Ronge, a town of 10,000 and 111 miles to the north, I stopped in Robertson’s Trading Post, a cultural landmark and hodgepodge grocery store, trophy room and fur-trading outpost. I’d run my hand along the long oblong shape of a beaver hide. There was a large box of otters ready to be packed up and sent to fur brokers. Personally I prefer live otters to dead ones, but this is Canada after all where trapping is a rich part of the history, although apparently First Nations people considered it bad luck to hunt otter. By the early 1900s, European fashion demands had driven the river otters into a dangerous decline. In some areas they were successfully reintroduced. In others, like the U.S.’s Southwest, they still haven’t recovered.

We stand quietly by the water watching the snowfall, listening to the cluck of ravens and the hammer of Pileated Woodpeckers. But mostly what we’re listening for is the muted sneeze of the otters making noise under the ice.  Finally we hear one and then another. It’s soft but undeniable evidence of the vibrant, underwater world carrying on underneath winter’s blanket of snow.

With cold toes and miles more to go, we turn to leave otterless. We haven’t seen the  creature we’d hoped for but whose to say seeing is better than hearing? I never knew otters made such sounds. Turns out listening was just as rewarding.