Otter Tracks

Monday 2010 11 01

Otter Tracks

Something caught my eye as I struggled with a particularly vexing problem in the ebook editing software I’d been struggling with all afternoon. I looked up, out my office window at the back deck and stairs to the lower studio deck. An otter about 15 feet away – a smooth, nondescript brownish-gray coat, large eyes, two feet long with another foot or so of tail – a river otter – hop/walking left to right, pausing before taking the three step flight to the lower deck.

Where was my camera? Where was Yvonne? “Yvonne, Yvonne, an otter on the back porch.” No response – but the otter turned and looked my direction, stared, and made a decision. Deliberately but not hastily it headed down the stairs, and made a u-turn under the deck and disappeared. By the time Yvonne was back in the picture. “What, what otter?” I explained and we walked out onto the deck from the dining room door. Looking right, otter tracks lead the length of the deck to the stairs and down. Coming back, Yvonne went down the south stairs and looked under the deck. No sign. We then traced the footprints around to the front of the house. The otter had come up the short stairs at the north end of the front deck, crossed right in front of the low living room windows and gone around to the south, side deck to the west stairs to the lower deck where I’d seen him. Not very shy.

Yvonne had been in the bathroom at the moment the otter walked by a few feet from where she had been knitting that afternoon. She had turned her wicker chair toward the window for better light, away from the center of the room and other seating. She would have been looking right at the deck where the otter passed. Two wraps of knitting tool, yarn, an open knitting magazine, photocopied instructions, a coil bound knitter’s diary/journal, a plastic bag of circle knitting needles, pairs joined with cables, her back to hold it all and a Costco “Think Green” sack – all laid out on the floor. Her iPad tucked into the chair, against the arm rest where she stored it after consulting a YouTube knitting video. I never imagined! And most important, what she had come into my office to show me earlier in the afternoon – a pair of knitted socks, muted fall colors, stripes – because the yarn now comes that way – an achievement!

Who are they for?” “I don’t know.” “They’re very nice. How about for me. They’d keep my feet warm.” “Well, the problem is you wear your heavy sock around all the time and you wear out the heels.” “Hmm.”

We see otters often though not every day and not every week. Last summer Yvonne watched five otters glide around the point that sticks out from Margaret’s property next door, across our cove toward the Ochs’ beach and Pole Pass. They were in a playful, social mood, like teenagers using their surroundings as a stage for their ongoing psychodrama.

Every so often we’d see an otter or two hopping along the path that comes from Margaret’s or down our shared driveway from Eagle lane above, crossing out lot, heading for the Ochs meadow and beach or maybe a bit farther to the community dock and beach, where they could get into the water and head along the north side of Crane without having to struggle through Pole Pass against the tide.

Three summers ago a baby otter had come up on the deck from the north just as this one had today (maybe it was the same one) and Yvonne had gone out to look. It was making a mewling noise (lost? Motherless?), didn’t back away and was clearly looking for something – love? Food? Yvonne finally used a broom gently to encourage it off the deck and down the stairs to the world to which it belonged.

We have a Costco 10′ x 20′ storage tent under the trees at the back of our property, behind our sailboat on its trailer, parked for the winter. Two years ago, after we moved it more out of the way than it had been, mink got in and left their scat. Before I could do anything about it, otters asserted their rights and buried the mink scat with their own. That stunk up the tent, so James (home for the summer after graduating from college and before going south to UCLA for graduate school) and I put a wire fence with a gate around the tent and we haven’t had problems since.

But we’ve been lucky I guess. Howard Block, on Crane had otters living in his crawl space and it was the devil to get them out. They tear the insulation down from under the floors to may cozy beds and have a habit of defecating where they dine. Mussel, oyster, and crab shells littered the crawl space, co-mingled with scat. Others on Crane have had the same problem and Orcas as well.

Otters like to get into closed spaces in boats to have their fun as well and Howard’s canvas covered runabout was “ottered” several times, each occasion requiring extensive cleanup. They especially like to use coiled rope as a toilet, so sometimes coming back to our boat we’d find a mooring rope buried in scat.

A few years back while working on our pocket trawler, Gumption, and Camano Troll. I noticed an otter sunning himself on the dock about twenty feet away. I crept out of the boat quietly and moved slowly toward the supine otter. Whenever he would put his head up and look, I’d freeze, not moving a muscle until he put his head down again to nap. After 15 minutes of inching forward in intervals and by inches, the finally realized something was going on, stared at me for a full minute working out what it was looking at (very short-sighted?), stood up, hobbled to the edge of the dock and slid into the water. I went back to work.

Christmas 2007 was snowy. We’d had about 18 inches and I went out for a walk, with my camera, to take pictures around the island I could post on the Web for absent homeowners – who likely hadn’t even seen their house in snow. Walking up our driveway, I saw a semicircular track through the snow, coming from Eagle Lane above. I followed the track all the way to Rupert Harvey’s front deck. That’s where it started. Was Rupert at is house? (I hadn’t seen him) Had he dragged a propane bottle through the snow on its side, creating the concave track. But where were his footsteps? I continued around the island and when I crossed Och’s meadow from the north I could see that the concave track turned from our trail down to Och’s beach. Aha! It was an otter slide. The next day James, home for Christmas, saw otters come down the slide but instead of cross our lot they turned and slid down into our cove and into the water for some food and fun. They play. We work.

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