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The Zen of Otters

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I went to Pennsylvania last week, all the way across what feels like the longest state in the Union. It took me about nine hours to get to Bethlehem PA from southeast Ohio. I know that sounds crazy, because Ohio borders Pennsylvania, but it's true. Read it and weep.

When I passed Shartlesville I happened to be lustily eating almond butter off the end of a ballpoint pen, which was the only utensil that presented itself. On this I will not comment further.

I passed a billboard that reassured me greatly, since I am after all verging on being a senior. I look forward to the tender ministrations of Phoebe Ministries. This is why we have daughters. I will make such a fantastic mother-in-law, too. I hope they make me a nice little apartment with good light where I can grow my orchids and fruit trees.

That's enough ridiculousness. On to the sublime. I got up the next morning at the glorious country home where I was staying. It was cold and misty, especially down in the creek bottom. The ridge you see up ahead is the Kittatinny, what the Indians called The Endless Mountain. It's the famous one all the hawks use as a thermal highway. I found it a tremendous thrill to be looking at The Endless Mountain every day.

Sun filtered through woods studded with hemlocks.

Shy horses peeked out of their barn. A radio played inside.

A fall garden lapsed into lushness, abundance, decay. I loved the little fence, the folk art touches. It was a garden, but also an artistic statement.

There are barns everywhere. This one was so magnificent, but no longer in use.

Inside it was all Wyethy.

And outside too. This decaying horse collar hung in a small alcove. I wondered if it had been moved since it was last taken off a sweaty plowhorse. And how many years ago that would have been. 

A Milk of Magnesia bottle and an old Coke bottle graced another alcove. Judged too good to throw away, I guess.

 In the shivery dawn light, tall yellow sunflowers glowed. I noticed that many old houses in Pennsylvania are smack on the roadside. And I wondered why that might be, and how it would be to live with a double yellow line down the middle of your front yard. It'd be kind of hard on dogs and cats, I'd imagine. Kids, too. Yikes.

I ran on and looked up a quiet creek. The scene was so peaceful that I became very still, and stood listening.

I heard the water moving downstream. It sounded like something was swimming. I became even more still and waited. Whatever it was had a good bow wave in front of it, and it was making a sinuous course against the current. Swimming upstream.

It surfaced briefly and dove. The head was large and squarish. The tail, long and thick at the base. You can see it, shiny and brown, midway down the right margin of the photo above. That's no muskrat. That's an OTTER. Not one otter. THREE OTTERS. And they were swimming upstream, right under the bridge where my amazed self was standing.

I can't even tell you how I got these photos with my phone. I was so excited I was bursting, my hands trembling. I couldn't see jack in the bright morning light. I just pointed and shot, pointed and shot, hopeless of getting anything worthwhile, but compelled to shoot, to try to record so I could share. Practically every photo on this blog is taken with my iPhone 4S, and usually it does an amazing job. But fast-moving otters in reflective water are not what it's made for. Oh, how I longed for my Canon telephoto, a "real" camera. But the iPhone is what I had, so it is what I used. 

The moment when all three lined out and arrowed under the bridge in the crystal clear two-foot-deep creek with me standing right over them, staring open-mouthed, was The Moment. It was like looking down from the bow of a ship and seeing dolphins riding its wave. Only this was Aquashicola Creek, and these were river otters. 

They passed under the bridge and I ran to the other railing to see them. They popped up and chuffed at me. Pfffhhht! Fwup! Their little round heads broke the water, their ears like a stuffed teddy bear's.
They wanted me to know they had seen me.

If you stare at this sad, bad blown up photo below long enough you will see otters. The one on the left jumps out at me--eyes, nose, mouth, head just breaking the surface. The one on the far right is a little harder to discern. He's standing up, head, neck and shoulders well out of the water. There might even be a third animal in the middle--maybe. Can't say. I've made a little tracing paper overlay to show where I think the otters are in this photo. The leftmost animal is showing clearly. The shadow under his boxy head gives him away. Middle one is a stretch. Now you see him, now you don't. As is the rightmost one. But maybe. It has the same sort of shadow under its chin that the left-hand animal does.

As they swam away upstream, they kept popping up to stare at me, like seals. They'd chuff and dive. They didn't seem frightened, just as amazed to see me as I was to see them. I got the distinct feeling that they were on the move in some sort of autumnal migration; that this was perhaps an irreproducible moment, a passing through that might involve hundreds of miles. That didn't stop me from going out to the same place at the same time the next morning. Naturally I didn't find them again.  I didn't expect to.

I never expected them in the first place. 

Which, I suppose, is why they came.

The Zen of Otters.

 Three quiet otters
Glide smoothly up the bright creek
I love how they chuff
To say good morning

Aquashicola Creek, Kunkletown, Pennsylvania


love this post, in particular because I know that elation. First time I ever saw a river otter: December 31, 1999. Driving south through Chocorua, NH. Stuck in traffic, believe it or not, but it was the New Years Eve of the big Y2K, and everyone was just a little bit antsy. Going zero, looking idly over at the still river above the dam in the middle of town...and I saw something move. And I pulled over. And I Saw...Otters! Playing around the ice floes! No camera, no nothing, just a whoop of happiness, and a sense that somehow, nothing completely stupid would happen at midnight with the world, or its computers, because, after all, I Had Seen Otters! Magic.

So So SO glad you encountered this little trio. I don't even need the images, your words are delicious all on their own.

Huzzah! xoHodge

Posted by KH Macomber September 23, 2014 at 8:02 PM

I came here out of a need to be ottered, and I was not thwarted. I am unthwarted and ottery. Thank you! I only visually bagged my first otter last month. Courtesy of Linda, the everything-whisperer.

I have always loved otters. "Ring of Bright Water" was one of my favorite stories as a girl. In the semirural soon to be suburban area where I grew up, I studied all the creatures to be found in the woods. My mother once told me she thought of me as a wood faerie, dancing among the trees and rock walls and streams. I first saw otters then and have seen them several times since; and have always been charmed and felt especially blessed by their presence.

Posted by Gail Spratley September 23, 2014 at 9:29 PM

The roads are so close to the houses because they used to be small horse and/or horse and buggy roads. You see it a lot in the UK where the main travel routes were. You'll find shops and inns close like that.

Serendipity. Zen. Wonderful things happening in a random, wholly unexpected way. Ain't it grand!! When I travel with a certain buddy on our chick trips, it seems to be with us. But, it takes an observer of life to notice the wonder. You are wonderful indeed. Thanks for the post.

As a Pennsylvanian, I'm happy you had this wonderful experience in my fine state (sorry about the long drive, we feel the same way about going to Ohio!) I love the Phoebe Care, and the Endless Mountain, and especially the River Otters. We sometimes have magical moments here in our beaver swamp in NE PA, when they appear and we love to watch them - never knowing when we'll see them again. Thanks for making me feel like I was there with you this time.
PS - How's your Monarch count going? I had not seen any at the time of your post about them but am now up to 7.

I live about 2 hrs south of Bethlehem PA and travel to Ohio regularly so like Nancy, I can sympathize with the long boring drive. I'm glad there was a payoff in the form of otters! We have a large pond on our property and in 10 years have had only one otter sighting, but it was a delight. My younger daughter (same age as your Phoebe), wrote a "report" about otters in fourth grade in which she stated, "the best thing about otters is their uniqueness." Well, there you have it. It became kind of a family mantra.

I love this post, especially the "Wyethy" pics. I've seen otters in ponds in the Adirondacks, and count the moments they've appeared to me as extra-special ones. Loved "Ring of Bright Water" as a kid as well. The houses right on the road can be seen in towns in NY & MA, too; usually they've been around a few hundred years. It is an odd sight.

Your post makes me want to pack a bag, and head on an adventure!leslye

Years and years ago, when my husband and I were first married, we lived in Washington State. We visited a park off the beaten path. Lots of tree's and birds, and a little stream running through it. John said to me Sea Otters, I said "no can't be any Sea Otters here, you must mean see the otters". We laughed.

Our farm was on the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I grew up being told to look for otters as they are proof that the water is not polluted. My grandmother fought the Feds for years because poisons from a factory were being dumped and ruining our waters. She wanted restrictions put on them. She won after many court appearances. After our otters had been gone for years, they returned one joyous March. I'll never forget seeing them that morning. I still love watching them. They always look to be having a good time.

Thank you for this lovely post. I am lucky enough to live in a fairly otter place and to work on a National Wildlife Refuge, so I see them fairly often. The thrill never goes away.

Houses were close to the road to decrease being cut off due to snow. People who worked from home (almost 100%) wanted to see every passerby, due to loneliness. Also, the roads were a lot smaller: probably one lane oxcart roads. If you drive through old Boston and Cambridge, MA, the roads that squiggle are actual cow paths that got widened and paved. My brother-in-law's ancestors in Stanfordville, NY, moved their house about 1/2 mile to be right on the road so the woman of the house could see the one horse and rider or carriage that passed every day.

Such a wonderful zen moment. We used to see river otters up in Port Townsend, and now that I think of it, we saw one here too in Arcata. They are such interesting creatures to watch. How wonderful you shared such a moment with them. Om otter om.

Aren't river otters magical? My first encounter was up-close and personal. I was dangling my tired feet in the cold river water up in the Pitt River near Mt. Shasta in northern California when all at once a river otter came up out of the water about 12" from my feet as if to say, "oh! I wondered whose toes those were!" - Incredible experience that I'll never forget.
Thanks as always for your sublime posts, they are a breath of fresh air to my day.


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