The Ripple: River Otters in Western MA

Winter Otters

When winter is most wintery, the otter is most active. It is hungry, of course, and it is also very smart. The ice that forms in and above the streams shrinks the size of the stream, making it harder for fish and crayfish to hide. Not only that, the otter—of the weasel family (i.e., a mountain lion crossed with a squirrel)—is in summer a nocturnal feeder, but changes that habit in the winter, and feeds during the day. In the harshest and barrenest of late winter, the otter finds a feast. (Photo credit: Kurt Heidinger)

It’s the end of winter (almost), when months of frigid winds have whipped the bare hills and leafless trees into a freeze-dried state. The best loggers cut trees for firewood now, just before the March thaws, because the ground is frozen and the green wood is at its driest, all the sap stored underground (Think maple syrup!). How wonderful and wise and tough are the trees, an example for us all of character and of presence (A friend of mine, a Chilean ethnobotanist, once said, “Always live in the trees. Humans go crazy without them.” I still wonder if she’s correct—and I tend to agree.).

The creatures who live in our forests are likewise in their stiffest winter state, hungry and cold, their food supply growing ever more meager. The deep hard snow will soon be gone, but while it lasts, life gets dearer for all us living beings. Dessicated, shrunken, and gnarled, the bios—the shared life expressed by biodiversity —is ready to spring.

Before it does, get out of the house! As harsh as late winter is, it is an ephemeral world of austere beauty. Everybody wants summer right now, all my friends off last week in Florida, posting Facebook photos and saying nananabooboo—but what is summer anyway, if it is not earned by gritting through the iciest and bluest and shiveriest months of cold? Living four seasons deeply is what chisels the Yankee character. For each season, we have a way of living and that—our environmentally-determined multifaceted  character—makes us culturally unique and vibrant. Spring is not so incredible and sweet and exuberant unless it follows the kind of winter we’re having, and that makes the winter we’re having a perfect one.

SO: Grab some snowshoes and ski poles and take risk (I guess I should place a disclaimer here: what I will now suggest is somewhat dangerous, so be very careful and don’t over do it.)… put on those snowshoes and, preferably with a friend or two also on snowshoes, walk a stream bed…while you still can! 

You will laugh and smile, I guarantee it, because actual joy erupts when one defies a law of nature in a pleasurable way (Think bungie jumping or scuba diving.). The freedom of walking on a snowed- and iced- over stream is a rare one hereabouts—so seize it! A goosebumpy zeal attends the use of a watercourse as a trail. One notices new things about the landscape from such a perspective, which is that of the perfect center between higher altitudes. The line of a stream is like the line of our backbones, and we rarely see landscapes from such a balanced position. A place you have visited many times, and as a result have become somewhat unconscious of, startles again, awakening dormant parts of one’s self. You become more alive when you walk a frozen streambed.

I was so happy a week ago, doing just this—letting my shriveled eyes drink in hills I knew well but had never seen with such clarity—that I plummeted through thin ice, shoulders barely above the blizzard-snow line, legs in the brook up to my thighs. I should not have been alone, but I was—don’t do this alone because it is possible to get sucked under the ice! As I uncorked myself from this predicament I had to laugh out loud: the icewater burned like a flamethrower on my legs. When one defies a law of nature, one must be prepared to pay for one’s defiance. The stream had reprimanded me, a quick spank. I found that funny.

As I hunkered homeward, thinking only of shedding my freezing jeans (note to self: “cotton kills;” wear fleece & rain pants), I stumbled into a miracle of the kind that only happens right now in late winter after serious cold and lots of snow: an otter trail!

Imagine a stream bed after a blizzard, all the boulders, bumps and crevices schmeered over with pure white, two feet deep. The white is soft and pillowy, and if not cold would make the most wonderful bed. The stream descends from the heights turning left above you, and downstream it turns right. On the section you can see all is perfectly untouched except were you have trodden—and where the otter has coursed. The otter leaves a path that a 15 foot python would leave: semi-circular in width and sinuously winding in length. It dodges up and over bumps and in and out of the stream with no signs of second judgment, leaving a graceful and playful looking path that no other creature is capable of following. The one I saw not only went over the top of the snow; it also tunneled straight into it, leaving enigmatic pipe-lines of emptiness swiss-cheesing the drifts.

When winter is most wintery, the otter is most active. It is hungry, of course, and it is also very smart. The ice that forms in and above the streams shrinks the size of the stream, making it harder for fish and crayfish to hide. Not only that, the otter—of the weasel family (i.e., a mountain lion crossed with a squirrel)—is in summer a nocturnal feeder, but changes that habit in the winter, and feeds during the day. In the harshest and barrenest of late winter, the otter finds a feast.

And by so doing, the otter expresses a character and a presence that we can admire, learn from, and—in our own creative ways—emulate.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (ccl) NOAA Photo Library]

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