We're otter hunting on Lake Quinault in a small plastic two-man kayak. When we arrived yesterday and took the kayak out for the first time, exploring this cove full of drift logs and skeletal branches, we got our first brief glimpse of otter.
At first it was a noise that was not bird or branch or waves tickling the shore. Then it was movement in the water, then two movements, then three. Small dark turtle-shapes on the surface of the lake disappearing into its depths as sleek serpentine shadows. We froze and watched as those odd forms shaped themselves into three very real and very skittish river otters. From a distance we watched as they dove and surfaced, munching on the small fish that frequently broke the smooth surface of the lake as they jumped for food of their own. Walt tried to paddle us closer, but the otters maintained their distance from us by swimming away, and far too soon by scurrying up onto the shore and disappearing into the brush.
We're here again tonight in that same cove, hunting and hoping but not really expecting. This vacation has already surprised us with such gifts that hoping for another otter sighting seems almost greedy.
We were supposed to stay at a resort a couple of miles up the lake, a generous gift from my older brother. Walt and the owner of the resort had been talking for a year about our staying in a cabin at the resort which was supposed to be completed by the time of our vacation. The cabins didn't get done (or even started, but that's another story) and the owner overbooked, which meant he had no place to put us. He called a friend who owned a rental cabin and she just happened to have four free nights that coincided with our vacation.
So instead of a cute resort room in a direct motel-style line with eleven other resort rooms with a lake view but a long flight of stairs down to the lake, we found ourselves in a small rustic house just steps from the lake with a free kayak at our disposal and no through-the-wall neighbors. A red wooden adirondack rocking chair sat on the deck, from which I could watch countless birds feed on cascara, salal and huckleberries. Before sunset on the first day I had seen Osprey, Bald Eagles, three varieties of warbler, Cedar Waxwings and my first Townsend's Solitaire. This place was a dream that I didn't even know I had, become a reality more appealing than any dream could be.
We've passed the area where the otters made their appearance last night and are almost beyond the clutter of old logs that line the beach of this cove. A noise - small, splashy, and out of rhythm with the other early evening sounds - makes me look behind us. Walt has heard the same thing and has already begun to swing the kayak around.
And there they are. Four tonight, although it takes me some time to count. They are rarely on the surface at the same time and they never hold still. Walt paddles us as close as he can without spooking them. Tonight, however, they don't seem as concerned. Each of the otters at one time or another has popped its head up and stared directly at us. One dove, and bubbles came straight toward the kayak for several heart-stopping seconds before they veered off.
They take turns diving, eating, rolling around in the water by twos like boys wrestling in a school yard. The unexpectedly loud sound of tiny otter teeth crunching tiny fingerlings is unsettling. The blowing sound they make as they surface is reminiscent of the blowing of whales, and very slightly sinister. A sharp bark from the shore makes us stop breathing for just a moment. Are we being warned to stay away, or are the otters in the water being warned about us?
The otters start to swim away from us, parallel to the shore. We follow with as respectful a distance as the otters demand by their movement. They dive under the logs into a large drift of floating forest, and I'm sure we've lost them for the night. Walt, ever more patient than I and in charge of paddling, stays and we wait. Before too long we see them playing on the logs and hear loud energetic splashes in the water behind the logs. Otter faces continue to check us out from time to time. Whenever one looks our way, I find myself willing an invisibility cloak around our kayak. I don't want to give this up, but neither do I want to mess with their evening routine.
Another space of time passes with no movement, no telltale bubbles on the surface of the water, no sound beyond the creaking of old tree bones. I'm so full of the wonder of this evening I don't care if the otters are gone for good. The skin-kissing softness of the summer air, the rare and tangible connection I'm feeling with my husband, the gently nurturing rock of the boat on the lake - I am full of enough, I am overflowing with gratitude, I am perfectly happy.
Walt has angled the kayak within ten feet of the old growth graveyard where we last saw the otters. More time passes - enough that I've begun breathing normally again and released the trying-to-be-invisible tension in my body. We've been silent for most of this time, occasionally hissing excitedly, "Look!" to one another, but mostly sitting in reverential stillness. During this last longer wait we begin to celebrate our wonder in whispers. Until movement on the logs catches our attention once more.
One by one, the otters pull themselves up onto the logs and begin to groom. They transform themselves from sleek shiny sea creatures into soft furry land mammals. There is much writhing and wrestling and nuzzling. One otter rolls over on her back and two of the other three approach her. We can't tell if they're nursing or grooming, but all three seem to be thoroughly enjoying the contact. She is the first to become still. The other three continue to move like leaves on a tree after the wind has stopped, but before the energy is completely spent. Eventually even that movement slows and only one is still unable to release the day.
What was four distinct shapes has now become one very large blanket of lush inviting fur quickly fading into the shadows of the logs as the day darkens into dusk. We decide to leave them to their rest and Walt begins to paddle us back. One otter head pops up from the pile. He looks directly at us with piercing intelligent eyes; his whiskers twitching, testing the air. I look directly back, hoping he's gathering the respect and awe and gratitude I'm sending across the glassy waters of Lake Quinault.
Otter photo by Loud Pics from Flickr