When Jill and I set out for our first major adventure in the wild in the summer of 2011, my good friend, Paul Kraft had one request: Bring bring back a great photo of a river otter.
A river otter? Yes, a river otter.
As I started thinking about Paul’s irreverent request, I realized that I’d never seen this half-land, half-aquatic member of the weasel or mustelid family. Which was a bit odd. I had been traveling to Yellowstone since I was a young kid with my family and in all of our days in the park, we never crossed paths with the elusive, yet not uncommon North American river otter.
The major reason behind my failed sightings likely centred on the fact I’d never visited Trout Lake.
A short hike off of the park’s northeast entrance road, the lake is a major destination for fishers hoping to catch cutthroat trout. But the fish also bring out the local otters as they search for food, especially during spawning season in the early summer.
Jill and I decided to meet Paul’s challenge head-on: We would hike to Trout Lake and we would find otters.
If only it was that easy.
We hiked at sunrise and sunset and struck out on both counts. Where were these otters?
Nearing the end of our first summer in Yellowstone, we learned that these otters have never studied the science surrounding their habits. Nocturnal, these mustelids were not. A fellow hiker informed us that, like anything, if we wanted to see the otters, we had to put in the time, most likely an entire day lakeside.
The trail to Trout Lake is short, but it’s also extremely steep. Like steeper than the steps up Toronto’s CN Tower – climbing five hundred feet in less than a mile. And while that isn’t terrible, it is challenging when lugging up camera gear, especially if you don’t know what you need or if the subject matter will be worth it.
On our third trip to Trout Lake, we were panting and cursing until we reached the lake’s shore and found three male otters sleeping on a log.
In a slow rush, we inched our way into position and began shooting. Another animal was crossed off our must discover list. And it was an exceptional scene. Three otters, resting on a log a few feet off of the trail in the still, pristine alpine lake was a jaw dropping.
But then the otters awoke. And then they started to play.
I was completely caught off guard by how incredible otters truly are. Renowned for their love of play, they are one of – or possibly even the only – animal that prioritizes having fun. They’re very human-like, in this way. But it’s one thing to read these facts and its quite another to watch wild animals put on a show grounded in pure joy.
As the minutes stretched to hours, we fell in love with this creature. Their obvious happiness, their antics, and their interactions with one another captivated our hearts and our minds. We had a thirst to see more, document more, learn more.
As we pulled ourselves away from Trout Lake – and Yellowstone as a whole for 2011 – and began our trip north to Canada, we found ourselves longing to be back not with grizzlies, but with the otters. Indeed, what began as a lark quickly was transformed into a passion – and when our minds turned to planning our next summer’s trip, we began to wonder if we could find these same characters once more.
Within our first few days of arriving in Yellowstone in 2012, we started neglecting our bear viewing locations and focused on trekking to Trout Lake. And within minutes of arriving at the lake, we found one adult otter fishing in Trout’s small feeder stream, giving us an amazing vantage point to observe and photograph the animal’s hunting skills. But as we saw the otter catching fish after fish, we began to realize this was about more than satisfying one animal’s hunger. This otter must have pups.
With breeding season stretching across four months, from December to April, pups are born in a land-base den, usually dug out by badgers, beavers or foxes and taken over by otters once abandoned. At birth, the mustelids are tiny, blind and deaf. But by about two weeks old, the female throws them into the water and starts building up their swimming ability, critical to their survival.
Of course, we knew none of this when we followed the female from the inlet, across the water, and toward a hollow tree that was leaning outward onto the lake.
As the otter disappeared into the tree, we set-up our camera gear and waited patiently. Suddenly, splashes appeared in the water below and an otter the size of my forearm dog-paddled to the lake’s surface and onto a nearby log. Then the female emerged, but instead of having trout in her mouth, she had another otter pup.
Carefully, she pushed it onto the log, as its sibling helped pull it up.
Something was wrong, we could quickly see. And as the second pup settled and stopped crying, comforted by its sibling and mother, we saw the issue: The otter’s back legs were limp. It was a paraplegic.
When you learn about nature, you learn first and foremost about survival of the fittest. The wilderness is an unforgiving landscape that forces animals – predators and prey – to be focused on getting through each day; eating whatever is available, for it might be their last meal.
What you don’t learn about is the deep bonds between mother and her young; you don’t read about sibling love; and you don’t ever hear about the lengths animals will go to in order to care for the ones they love, even if it means extreme risk to their own survival.
Before us at Trout Lake was a young female otter and newborn pup. It needed food. She needed food. And enemies – bears, coyotes, eagles – were all around. What we are taught – that wildlife must make unthinkable sacrifices to survive – was thrown out of the window in this one brief sequence.
Mother and healthy offspring didn’t leave behind the paralyzed otter pup to die in order to prioritize their needs. Instead, they both seemed absolutely determined that all three animals would survive, no matter what.
Over the next month, Jill and I witnessed the most stunning display of determination, resiliency and love that we’ve ever witnessed in the wild.
No one knew why the otter pup was a paraplegic. Some wondered if it had been caught between a breeding male and female. Others speculated a tree fell on its back. But what I think we determined was most likely is that the pup was born paralyzed.
The female, while clearly understanding that one of her pups wasn’t healthy, equally never treated it like it was a burden. Nor would she refrain from scolding it if the pup misbehaved or play with it as enthusiastically as its more able-bodied sibling.
When it came time to play or swim to a new location, the mother would enter the water first and help receive the injured pup, as its sibling pushed it, gently, off the log or embankment.
While river otters are not known for swimming on their backs, unlike their sea otter cousins, this family learned the skill. The female would alternate between swimming the paraplegic pup on her stomach, to pushing it from behind, with the help of its sibling.
It seemed impossible this pup would survive, but as the weeks went by, to our amazement, the pup started gaining strength. While it would never be able to swim as well as a normal otter, it began to be able to doggy paddle as well as its sibling could during its first days in the water.
Every year, as the cutthroat trout spawning season winds down, the otters mysteriously one day just up and move down stream and onto newer, better habitats. Usually by mid-July, otters – even those with pups – will have developed the necessary skills to take on the bigger rivers and the less forgiving wilderness. But this family lingered for far longer than most, presumably knowing that the paraplegic pup wouldn’t survive the long trek to a new area.
To compensate for the quickly diminishing numbers of easily catchable trout, this female began to teach herself a new trick: Diving for fish. Though it must be considerably more challenging than catching fish near their death while spawning in the inlet, this mom proved a quick study.
Trout after trout found its way onto logs and into the bellies of the pups. And between meals, she would place the paraplegic pup on her back and walk both of her young up a small hill to an adjoining lake. It was clearly a training regiment for the longer treks that laid ahead for the family, but Buck Lake served as a school for the injured pup as well. Here, it learned that it didn’t need a diet of fish to survive.
From crawfish to salamanders to snakes, the pup started catching its own food. First it was more error than trial, but slowly it displayed impressive skills – catching a slithering snake with lightening fast reflexes. Otters naturally prey on these creatures, but without question, this pup was taking the skill to new levels.
And when it came time for another move back to Trout Lake, the mother would put the pup on her back again and walk down the hill.
When it came time for the able-bodied pup to join the mother for fishing expeditions, mother and sibling would go to remarkable lengths to hide the pup where they hoped it wouldn’t be bothered by predators. And it was a good gamble. You see, what makes Trout Lake so exceptional for otters is the fact these animals are completely at ease with people. The trail that circumvents the lake brings hikers and anglers within feet of the mustelids, and provides unparalleled access to all facets of their life. But the volume of people help keep natural predators a little more at bay, giving added protection to, say, injured pups that have been ‘hidden’ by their moms.
As the mother and sibling left to fish, the injured pup cried and cried. It tried to swim after them, but tiring, it returned to land. At first we wondered if maybe it was finally being left behind, but within minutes of crying, the mother would return and attempt to hide the pup again. And finally, with the pup calmed, mom would return with food, but only allowed the pup to eat after forcing it to try swimming or climbing.
On display was mothering skills at there very finest. It was sibling commitment that eludes even many humans. It was family in the truest sense of the word and these otters offered us a front row seat to behaviour that many scientists shrug off as non-existent.
Finally, one day, our otters disappeared over the waterfall – really more of a natural dam of debris – and down the stream that connects Trout Lake to the rest of Yellowstone. While later in their development cycle than normal, love and determination overcame seemingly impossible odds and insurmountable challenges and allowed for this family to carry on with the time-honoured tradition of moving homes, changing habitats.
We searched the main rivers, but never found any sign of the otters again. While the odds remained long for the paraplegic pup to survive their long swim and even longer winter, I know this family gave it a chance to survive. And though we’ll never know what happened to it, we’d like to think somewhere out there is an otter defined not by its disability, but by its unique abilities provided by a family that refused to let it give up and die.
Founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson is a storyteller, connector and movement builder committed to improving our pubic discourse and shaping a better balance between the needs of people and nature. His GhostBearPhotography.com column appears on the first Saturday of every month.