Wild things at play: On the trail of a river otter
By Ben Gruber
About 18 hours after the most recent snowfall, I decided to take a walk down by the river. The river in this case would be the Little Eau Pleine River just a few miles east of Marshfield.
The Little Eau Pleine River has its headwaters in northern Clark County and eventually makes its way into the many flowages of the Mead Wildlife Area before dumping into Lake Dubay. Along the way it provides great habitat to many families of river otters.
With the fresh snow blanketing the maple-lined river bottoms, it was easy to identify many places where the American river otter had been out playing. Their short strides and webbed feet make distinct tracks, usually only lasting 20-30 feet before suddenly the track turns into a slide.
The otter, whether alone or in a family group, has a zest for play that is unrivaled in my experience save for young children. An otter may walk or run for a short time before suddenly realizing that it would be much more fun to slide on its belly.
While walking the river bottoms, it was evident that we have an abundance of river otters roaming this stretch, which is a good sign. Otters are not abundant everywhere. They prefer limited human intrusion and do not respond well to development or poor water quality. They are a pretty opportunistic feeder, chasing down fish, frogs, crayfish, and whatever other little critters they can get their paws on.
I have watched a family of otters playfully wrestle each other in the open water from my tree stand a few yards away. Clearly there is no rival in our region when it comes to animals having fun. Their demeanor makes them fun to watch, and they can be so exaggerated and wacky that it usually reminds me of what it is like to be outside of the college bars at closing time.
The otter stays pretty close to a permanent water source, and we are blessed with plenty of opportunities locally to go watch for otter. Anywhere on the Little Eau Pleine River is likely to have a few, and a big chunk of that river runs through a system of marshes on the Mead Wildlife Area, which is entirely public land.
Take a hike along a river, and watch for tracks on the frozen river that look like someone had dragged a sled down it. Most likely, that is the otters having playtime. If you find their den and can be patient enough, they are awfully fun to watch, which is a great excuse to get outside and hike around with the beautiful weather we will have this week.
Ben Gruber can be reached at [email protected]