Saturday, March 28, 2020

Thank You, Otter

Our walk started in slow silence. We were on a public dirt road that goes for miles, first through a small ranch, then up into hills, down into a meadow, and finally into a rocky canyon where Native Americans once trod. Several times I tried starting a conversation with Mary, but her answers were short and I finally understood: she needed her space. So did I. We were both lost in thoughts and worries and forecasts about this new world that had emerged just weeks ago. Are we safe? Are friends and family? Is our small town?

Occasionally I would catch the call of a raven or stop to stare at a mountain still speckled with snow. But mostly I just walked, waiting for the blood and oxygen coursing through my body to clear my mind. To help me abandon oppressive and obsessive thoughts and instead experience the natural world around me. No luck.

After four miles we came to a favorite spot, a campsite along the Yellowstone River. We passed beneath some massive, old, winter-naked cottonwoods and stopped at the edge of the bank. We gazed at the river flowing by fifteen feet below. The water green mid-river, clear in the shallows. 

As I stared at some riffles, Mary exclaimed, “Look, an otter!” I followed her pointing and there it was, nose and eyes above the water, a long pointed tail just below. The otter must have become aware of us too because it stopped looking downriver and started focusing on us. It turned, made its way to a rock, and effortlessly climbed up the slick side. It perched and raised its head up, staring at us. 

Mary and I stood entranced. We had seen otters before but never this close. And never in such an intimate way. 

Without opening its small mouth, the otter produced a loud snort, an alarm call. It turned, slid back into the river, and dove, its tail pointing up and disappearing last. 

We stood there thankful for that sighting, that moment. We smiled at each other, touched hands, and waited, hoping the otter would reappear. Minutes passed. We searched upstream. Downstream. Nothing. 

We walked along the bank through willows, inspecting some that had been bitten off close to the ground. Then we found some trees gnawed and fallen by beavers. Since otters often live in in the same areas as beavers, the one we had alarmed might now be sheltering in place in its nearby home. 

Leaving the mystery and the moment, we began our return. This time side by side, sometimes shoulders touching. We looked around, shared observations: the sound of a flicker drumming on a utility pole telegraphing its location to a possible mate, a pair of ravens passing overhead and calling toward a flock circling in the distance, a mating pair of geese pecking in dried yellow grass. Yellowstone in spring. Alive. Magical. 

And we were finally paying attention thanks to that moment with that otter.

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Photo by Rick Lamplugh


  1. Rick, that's the exact same feeling the Willowy Bride and I get on our morning walks. Birds and squirrels don't know about COVID-19! They just sing, or (in the case of squirrels) skitter recklessly from tree to tree, and across roads, where some of them don't make it! Talk about putting our "new normal" into perspective. . . .

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Rus. And yes, it sure is a new normal.