A rare but exhilarating sight, if you’re lucky enough to see them

An otter enjoys swimming in the icy Dead River in Marquette County.

Story and photos by Scot Stewart
There is something special about spending time outdoors with the expectations of the place and time and being surprised by the appearance of a sound, aroma or sight of something unforeseen. The source of amazement may be an event or appearance encountered at an unexpected time.
It may be something that simply should not be occurring there. It may just be something popping up that people rarely come across – a fox poking around some bushes looking for a mouse, the first fragrant blossoms of trailing arbutus sticking out of a lingering patch of snow, a silent silhouette of a bald eagle soaring overhead or a mob of crows and blue jays mobbing a barred owl. There is a multitude of wondrous surprises to be found in nature, and one of these is the unexpected encounter with an otter.
It doesn’t matter if it’s swimming in a clear, cold stream, dashing through several feet of fresh winter powder overland,  or run-sliding over a frozen lake, river otters seem to move effortlessly and appear to be having a great time. While otters spend much of their time, especially in winter, in search of food, their travel seems effortless and ultimately very necessary to eke out an existence in the cold, dark depths of an Upper Peninsula winter.
River otters are native to most of both Central and North America. Members of the weasel family, they are related to sea otters, mink, skunks, pine martens, fishers and, of course, short and long-tailed weasels. They can stretch to a length of four and a half feet with their tails included, and weigh up to around 30 pounds. To equip them for a semi-aquatic life in frequently cold water and snow, otters are well adapted with fur made up of two layers, glossy chocolate brown guard hairs, and a thick undercoat of fur with an oily texture to provide a waterproof- type layer. Beneath is a thin layer of fat to provide extra insulation.
This fur attracted the attention of trappers and furriers who turned it into durable fashion and in the process extirpated river otters from much of their original range. In Michigan, the trapping season was closed from 1925 to 1939, affording otters the opportunity to a substantial recovery. Reintroduction efforts and reductions in trapping have brought back the otter to many areas around the country, but water pollution and development of river shorelines have kept those populations down in many regions.
River otters are more social than most other terrestrial members of the weasel family. When groups are seen they usually are a female and her young. Females and males have their own territories, sometimes within each other’s ranges, sometimes adjacently. Young are born in early spring, usually three to five in a litter. Females mate in the weeks that follow, courting only one male.
They follow a procedure called delayed implantation where the actual pregnancy does not develop until the following winter. Their young usually stay with their mother through their first winter. While adult otters have few predators, mainly humans trapping and in the western states cars, young are killed by coyotes, wolves, bobcats, eagles and even great-horned owls.
Powerful and stream-lined, they can move quickly through water, catching fish, insects, amphibians like frogs and salamanders. As they cover sections of their territories over land, they seek out small mammals like deer mice and meadow voles, small birds and occasionally even snowshoe hares.
In the U.P., they are seen on most larger rivers, like the Dead River in Marquette, and in pools and lakes like the ones at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Schoolcraft County. Because otters are most active at night, few get the opportunity to observe otters, and even when they are active in the daytime, they move quickly, often in and out of vegetation along waterways or under water where they are hard to follow for long.
The Dead River in Marquette has become a terrific place to occasionally see otters. In the open bigger waters above and below the Tourist Park they can be observed from time to time swimming, exploring along the river edges and occasionally successfully hunting.
Recently, after the Tourist Park lake froze over, an otter was seen several times near the end of Granite Street where it ends next to the river. On one occasion it swam in both directions along a short stretch of the river before it successfully caught a five-inch long fish and headed to a large dead tree laying in the shallows. Once atop a broader stretch of the log, its dark and glistening coat pressed tightly to its muscular body, it spent about 15 minutes eating the fish before slipping back into the water and disappeared.
Where water is open and deeper, otters hunt both game and forage fish. In these places fish can make up three-quarters of the otters’ diet. For the remainder of their diet, amphibians can at times make up to a quarter of the diet, and the rest is made up of crayfish and aquatic insects. Diet data is acquired in a number of ways. In rare situations, observers can watch hunting otters and record their foraging and hunting behavior. In times past, the stomach contents of otters trapped for their fur were examined to obtain accurate information. Nowadays, with changing approaches to research, more indirect ways are needed to determine their diet. Researchers examine droppings and follow tracks in an attempt to determine their foods
Back in the late 1960s Ronald Field researched river otter winter behavior in and around the refuge at Seney in both Schoolcraft and Alger counties, comparing otter activity around marshy, sedge and cattail-edged pools and marshy areas in the refuge with uplands areas covered mostly by jack and red pine near rivers. He reported his findings in the Michigan Academician in 1970.

Four River Otters on an Island at Seney National Wildlife Refuge.

River otters are extremely active in winter months. Field followed otter trails through snow along riverbanks, over frozen ponds and through vegetative edges of Seney’s marshes, recording hunting and feeding activity for three months beginning in December. His observations painted a surprising image of the behavior of a very creative species.
Many of Seney’s 26 pools are not very deep. They were constructed in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide protection and habitats for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife species. Cattails, sedges and other emergent vegetation surrounds many of the pools, and some pools are spring fed. These conditions help create small areas of open water year-round and are important for providing access to spots where otters can feed during times when most water is ice covered. Otters can dig down into mud after diving through small holes or chewing through ice to reach frogs, aquatic insects like diving beetles, dragonfly nymphs and giant water bugs in the shallow water and mud below.
In the Alger County portion of Field’s study, he followed otter tracks into areas away from water and was somewhat surprised to find their diets often decidedly different from those hunting in wetlands. Tracks indicated the otters occasionally tracked snowshoe hares, sometimes following them into brushy areas. In at least one case a hare was eaten by otters. More often the otters dug down into snow searching through the subnivean zone (under the snow) where meadow vole winter tunnels are. Most otters live solitary lives during the winter, so small morsels like voles need not be split among multiple hunters.
These otters may have another following during lean times. Coyotes may follow otters hoping to glean remains or even steal food from the otters. Bob Landis, a well-known cinematographer from Montana, has recorded much of this relationship while filming in Yellowstone National Park. He watched a coyote linger as otters hunted cutthroat trout under the ice in Yellowstone Lake. When the otters returned to the surface on one occasion, the coyote was able to wrestle the fish away from the three hunters.
In the U.P., Field followed tracks of three otters followed by three coyotes for nearly three-quarters of a mile. It did not appear the two trios confronted each other based on the age of the tracks, but the coyotes did stop to feed on scat left by one of the otters.
Three other mammals, beavers, muskrat and mink, may also inhabit wetlands where otters live. Mink are smaller relatives of otters, and while they eat similar foods, they generally stay out of each other’s way. Young beaver and muskrats occasionally fall prey to otters, but the more common conflict they have with otters is over lodging. Otters may take over the cattail homes of muskrat, forcing the latter out of their residences. With the larger beaver, predation is less common, but otters also force beaver out of their lodges and take them over. Sometimes though, the beaver are less willing to relinquish the rights to their home and have been known to occasionally share their lodges with otters!
While otters are mostly nocturnal and more difficult to see during the day, they do leave behind signs of their presence. They have five toes on each foot and that helps separate their larger tracks from those of coyotes, dogs, wolves and the rarer cats. Because they often run and slide, their tracks are usually quite distinctive. Otters leave other signs too, although they are not as distinctive. They do create slides down some river banks and, like their tracks, these slides can be more distinctive when there is snow. They leave pull-out sites along the water’s edge, if they can hunt the same area regularly, where they come out to eat and leave bones, scales and other prey remains.

A river otter walks across the ice on the Dead River in Marquette County.

Openings to dens can also be found by determined searchers in tree roots, under fallen trees and in thickets. Occasionally, changes in vegetation can be seen where they have rolled in grasses and ferns, cleared away patches of vegetation and scent posts where they have left urine and glandular secretions to mark their territories.
For those interested in looking for river otters, two public sites are great. In the Marquette area, the Dead River is a great place to start. Following the trail downstream from the County Road 550 bridge along the river, through the backwaters near the closed power plant down to the river mouth can provide some chances to see them, as well as mink, ducks, geese, herons, muskrats and other wildlife at different times of the year.
Above the Tourist Park along the Board of Light and Power trails there are also opportunities from Granite Street all the way to Forestville. At Seney National Wildlife Refuge, the Marshland Drive winds around a number of pools where otters, swans, geese, ducks, beaver, sandhill cranes, eagles, osprey and the occasional American white pelican can be seen in warmer weather when the road is open to autos, from May 15 to October 15. At other times, visitors can hike, ski, snowshoe and bike too. Family groups of otters can occasionally be seen cruising across the pools and exploring the edges where fish and other prey species may be hiding in warmer weather and along the edges of the pools and marshes in colder weather.
While there are never any guarantees about seeing most species of wildlife while out on an adventure, there is a special feeling looking up and seeing something like a quartet of otters running across the ice at a river edge, diving into the water, climbing back out and sliding across the ice chasing each other. It is exhilarating and hard to beat. Most would say the best chance of seeing something exceptional like that is simply getting out as often as possible and just enjoying all there is to see through the seasons.
Bob Landis, the cinematographer, explains that for all the time he spends in Yellowstone and other wild place, and it is a lot, he usually sees only two or three spectacular events each year. Lots of great things, but just a couple really spectacular events. The rest comes from being ever vigilant.
It is easy to walk along a trail deep in thought, or catching up with friends on the phone while getting some exercise and totally lose track of the surroundings. Finding a way to stay in tune with the heartbeat of the land can lead to better chances for memorable experiences along your way.

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