With river otters

Out There: Keen eye needed to spot Creston Valley’s icebreakers

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Yes, there are otters in the Kootenays. River otters are found on the Kootenay River flats mostly along the river and in the ponds and marshes adjacent to West Creston. It seems they are most easily observed during the winter season when marshes are frozen over, except for openings in the ice where there is some water movement and holes kept open by muskrats and the otters themselves.

Lately they have been seen stretched out on the ice singly and in groups of two or three. One party observed seven otters in a loose group, perhaps near a den. Sometimes, seeing them is a matter of happening by at the right time and perhaps on the right day, and possibly one with a bit of sunshine to warm the landscape. Otters will pick a dark, partially submerged log to stretch out on, sometimes half on top of each other. Of course, the first one out of the water seems to get the best spot on the log. It’s easy to spot otters on the ice but when they are stretched out on a log they themselves look like part of the log.

Once they have spotted people, especially those with a dog, they become very restless and will slide into the water to disappear for longer than one is willing to wait or they will do some head bobbing to see what the intruders are up to. If they are approached more closely they will disappear to reappear at an opening in the ice, a log or at a mini island farther away.

River otters, to us, appear to have fun in the water and when at this they are fascinating and entertaining to watch. However, if the truth were known, this play likely has a serious side to it. It may sort of be like playing king of the castle to establish who is going to run the show or who will eat breakfast first regardless of who catches the first fish. Or, perhaps, it’s a bit of a training exercise.

When I see them in groups, seemingly goofing off, it seems that one is always keeping an eye on me. And, from time to time, several will be treading water with their sniffing snouts pointing toward me, checking out this stinky intruder in their territory. They must have good eyesight and also hearing as usually they have spotted me before I have located them. It is probably easier to maintain their company at a distance, if I am rather nonchalant in my movement and not making them a gazing stock.

Normally otters maintain their distance, which is often 300 or more feet, depending on what kind of previous human encounters they have had. Like dogs, they have good memories but they do not like dogs. If I were a dog, or much less a human, I would not want a confrontation with an otter. Occasionally there is a bold one who doesn’t disappear but holds its ground moaning, growling, snorting, snarling and hissing. They can turn from a playful otter into a furry fury, and rightly so — their space is being violated. (This kind of reminds me of a deer that was once lassoed in a cattle feedlot.)

Some people let their dogs harass the otters, or get close to them. It seems they like to see the otters stressed or see what the dog and/or otter will do at close range, perhaps even make cute “friends”. Another aspect which have made otters wary is they have been the target of potshots. That is not a very nice thing to do to an animal.

River otters, like sea otters, are mammals, but outside of that their similarity pretty much ends. Sea otters have generally one pup and will swim or sleep on their backs while a river otter’s family is comprised of several pups. River otters, with unretractable claws, are generally half or one-third the size of a sea otter, which can reach a length of almost five feet and weight up to 100 pounds. Twenty-five-pound river otters live most of their life on solid ground and use water for travel and for food.

There is much more to the life and ways of otters than what meets the eye. If you happen to hear a short blast of breaking ice you may see an otter sticking its head up through the ice. (It’s easier to break ice upward than downward). It could well be that one of those “ice breakers” is reopening a breathing hole or making a hole just to get a closer look at you.

Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.

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