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Cold doesn't stop fun-loving river otters

River otters look up curiously at Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by James "Newt" Perdue/USFWS 1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

Taking a "break" from the confines of my fish house while passing the time listening to the radio and spear fishing for northern pike recently, I decided to strap on the snowshoes and take a walk around the lake. I was soon on my way.

Striking off across the lake, the subzero temperature stinging my nostrils as I breathed, I listened to the hard-pack snow squeaking with each step as snowshoes and crampons dug in. It didn't take me long to reach the far shore.

Nearly all of this particular lake is undeveloped. An inlet and outlet assures clean freshwater flowage. Wild rice stalks protrude from the ice providing a reminder of last summer when the seed-heads of the plants contained protein-packed rice. And solitary beaver lodges, spaced hundred yards apart, are the only sure signs of development. Indeed, few creatures other than us are capable of such construction.

Animal tracks were abundant along the marshy shoreline replete with plants typical of such environs — willow, alder, leatherwood, cattail, sedges, bog birch, and more. Coyote, fox, and even wolf tracks were encountered. Deer, too, along with smaller creatures such as voles, crows and ravens, and mink.

I also chanced upon two other sets of tracks that revealed the gait of all mammals belonging to a particularly delightful family of mammals. The print marks of all four feet of each of the animals, close together, yet with each of the opposite feet slightly ahead of the others, were easily followed and interpreted — bounding two to three times with intermittent and long toboggan-like imprints between the bunched tracks.

I smiled as I followed the pair of tracks in the snow, for I was most assuredly on the trail of a pair of fun-loving river otters. Indeed, the tracks said as much — bound, bound, SLIDE; bound, bound, SLIDE ... and so they went on their happy-go-lucky way.

Belonging to the largest family of carnivores in the world, Mustelidae, sometimes collectively called the weasel family, otters share a number of characteristics common to the family. All members of the weasel family have two anal scent glands located under the tail. These scent glands produce a strong odoriferous musk. Other members of the family include mink, weasel, badger, fisher, pine marten, and wolverine.

Otters are well suited for their semi-aquatic lifestyle. They possess one of the densest fur coats in the animal kingdom. Their pelage is also oily, made possible by oil glands under their skin. The oil in the fur keeps water away from the skin, thus keeping them warm.

Powerful hind legs and webbed toes help to propel them swiftly both under and on top of the water. A long body and flexible spine helps otters maneuver especially well as they search for crayfish on the bottom of lakes and rivers or in their pursuit of fish that they easily capture and eat. Even their ears and noses are adapted to underwater living. They are "valvular" or, in other words, can close to keep water out.

Surprisingly, for such expert swimmers, baby otters have to be taught how to swim. Swimming lessons begin when the youngsters are around seven or eight weeks old. Mother otter coaxes her young to the water by calling to them. If that doesn't work, she may even grab the young otters by the scruff of their necks and drop or toss them into the water.

It is believed that playfulness and intelligence go hand in hand. Indeed, otters, which are amongst the most playful critter of all, are also plenty smart.

Otters have been observed engaging in wrestling matches with each other, playing tag, hide-and-seek, and sliding games, as well as playing with objects they find such as rocks, sticks, and even other animals. I once watched a television nature program where a group of otters took turns chasing a painted turtle underwater. The otters would push the hapless turtle around with their noses and heads, much like a trained dolphin does with a ball.

The pair of otter tracks that I recently followed along the shore of the lake, though seemingly purposeless as the pair strode willy-nilly, were quite the opposite in reality. The pair investigated various hummocks, around beaver lodges, and underneath logs and other objects and vegetation, undoubtedly in their search for food.

Semi-aquatic they are, I wasn't surprised when I located an area near the shore where the otters were accessing the water-world below the ice. Two holes in the ice, as if carved out with precision tools, revealed the entrance and exit points the pair of otters were using. Surrounding the holes on top of the snow were remnants of meals the otters captured and consumed — clams, fish, and crawdads. Mud that the otters tracked onto the snow blackened the area around each of the holes.

Although otters are quite common in Minnesota, many people never get a chance to observe them. Some people might not even realize that a family of otters is living in a nearby wetland, lake, or river.

With this knowledge I wondered, as I followed the otters' tracks in the snow, how many people fishing and living on the lake have ever seen them. Yet, live and play they do, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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