Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Chapter Three

Whose pond, and lodge for that matter, is it anyway?

Otter Hole Pond thawed without the water rushing out. I didn't miss the chastened mud revealed after the ice melts behind a dam victimized by otters. Facing a full pond, I was eager to pick up from where I left off. I had had my camcorder for only a month before the ponds began to freeze. But I didn't frame an otter and a beaver in another close-up for a year not until March 26, 1999. I didn't get any long shots of them sharing a pond either. 

I saw two otters in Otter Hole Pond in late July, then briefly in Beaver Point Pond in early August and there also in late September but never with beavers. I got better at finding otter scats and I found piles of scat around most of the ponds much like the piles made by four otters the year before but when I saw otters I only saw two.

I would learn through observations over the years that there are signs suggesting beavers are aware that otters are around. For example, beavers set a watch in the pond. One beaver simply floats where otters might be expected to enter the pond. At first I thought it meant little more than our kismet. The floating beaver and I had a thing going.

On the afternoon of August 15, 1998, I stood on the granite ledge along Otter Hole Pond over the otter dens from where I often watched otters during the previous fall. It was a hot, bright, sunny day giving every reason to sing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and not expect to see anything else out in the noon-day sun. I looked down and saw a beaver floating in the pond looking at me. We were too close for me to make my usual feints to conceal myself, no reacting to wind direction to keep my scent to myself. At first I didn't move then I raised the camcorder to my eye....

Within a month I added a sound track to the video clip: a movement from Bach's Second French Suite, Glenn Gould playing piano, and  my voiced over ecstatic riffing on the phrase “Golden Log.” The beaver floated on the pond as if only the force of the sunbeams was moving it. 

I won't apologize for such nonsense. Remember finding the music of the swamps was one reason I moved to the island from Washington. But I forgot that two weeks before I saw the floating beaver I saw two otters in the pond. I can't prove that the beaver was on the lookout to confront otters but it should have crossed my mind.

But my July sighting of otters was underwhelming. That summer I read Ovid's Metamorphoses while I waited for my own gods to appear in the swamp. The ancient Roman poet turned gods into plants and animals. I hoped for the reverse. I looked up from Ovid and thought I saw something curious about the way the wind blew some pond vegetation 50 yards away. Through the camcorder lens I focused first on what I thought were two ducks then two otters reared their heads. In the fall I had grown accustomed to seeing a fish in an otter's mouth when it reared its head, but not this time. They merely wiggled out of the vegetation, didn't dive and swam placidly toward the old beaver lodge and disappeared before they reached it.

That summer it's likely I also missed another sign that the beavers were concerned about otters. Not seeing otters I redoubled my efforts to understand beavers and their beneficence. When I didn't see them in the Otter Hole Pond, I chronicled the growth of plants on the 230 foot long dam. On September 12 I made my last harvest in that regard slowly walking with camcorder running focusing on a pink Virginia smart weed here and a yellow marigold there though most of the vegetation was thick green leaves.

When I stood over the repaired hole the otters made in the dam, I panned back to the lodge to show the course of the creek that the beavers dammed. I made no comment on the logs beavers had jammed into the top of the lodge like an array of antennas. I learned later that beavers jam logs in the tops of lodges to ward off otters who liked to dig into a lodge to find a den, and, I presume, defeat coyotes digging for a meal.

Twelve days later when I saw a worrisome sign of otter aggression I still didn't noticed the spiked lodge. Once again I was reading Ovid but this time otter scats and not distant vegetation seemed to give birth to my little gods. I found three more scats down beside Otter Hole dam and then as I climbed the ridge overlooking Beaver Point Pond, I saw something dive. Since bubbles came up just at the point it went down, I assumed it was a less adventurous beaver. Then after a maddening few moments of seeing it surface behind trees obscuring my view, that large otter and then a smaller pup gave me quite a show. The former gnawed a fish in that bone crunching way I saw back in 1995. 

The pup snaked through the greens on the surface of the shallow pond and then made a rather searching head thrusting examination of me. Last year I dealt with four innocent otters who could not scare a beaver. These two seemed more menacing.

I saw an otter one more time before ice closed the ponds but at the Lost Swamp Pond 500 yards up stream. I got my first good look at how an otter rumbas and prances up and down a grassy slope. Not menacing at all.

But for months my lust to see otters went unrequited so I concentrated on beavers. The Otter Hole Pond beavers who also ruled Beaver Point Pond surprised me. Unlike the beavers in the First Valley they didn't  make a series of dams downstream where they harvested small trees easy to drag to their lodge. Instead they lingered in Beaver Point Pond and began cutting down all the red oaks along the shore that were between one to two feet in diameter.

Periodically I had sketched maps of the beavers' lumbering. In the late summer and fall of 1998 doing that seemed pointless. I had to take on faith that the beavers knew what they were doing and that correlations between tree diameter and distance from the pond were not what moved them. (In my wood splitting for winter heat I found the ease of splitting red oaks combined with the curious smell of the wood, like sweetened urine, made the chore somewhat addictive -- don't know why.)

One evening as it grew dark I sat higher than usual on the ridge south of Beaver Point Pond and dusk seemed to resolve itself into several black points that moved out of the pond onto the slope. One moved directly toward me and black fur turned reddish. I saw the relative pointlessness of small black eyes dwarfed by an ample black nose. The beaver stopped and its yellow brown teeth smartly attacked the outer bark of a thick red oak rapidly baring reddish wood. Judging by its starts and fits I really think it knew I was there but oh the taste of that bark! I did my own fitting and starting and by slow degrees it backed off to accommodate my retreat. Later I saw that the tree was doomed by a 4 foot high girdling, but never cut down.

I accepted reality. A score or red oaks were downed or deadened and it would take 50 years to replace them. The smaller red oaks that fell flat to the ground were completely stripped. 

 I not only took videos of three beavers side by side gnawing away but took loving videos of the marks left by their incisors. I fancied that I would find musical notes gnawed into the tree trunk that matched the counterpoint in the sheet music of Bach's French Suites. 

Meanwhile the beavers were also active around Otter Hole Pond. There they concentrated on smaller trees and sank branches and small trunks in the water between the lodge and dam. The red oak branches brought down around Beaver Point Pond must have gone to building up the dam there. November rains filled that pond. 

A snowfall in the middle of the month showed me that the otters in the main operated around the Lost Swamp Pond though they were restless. I saw an otter slide high on the ridge between the East Trail Pond and Otter Hole Pond. When I went down to the latter pond, I saw a mink running up on the lodge instead. I lost track of another otter slide as it wended through the acres of cattails around the Second Swamp Pond.

I speculated that the otters would winter in the Lost Swamp Pond because there were fewer if any beavers there. The trapper I reported in March 1996 did not kill all the beavers in the Lost Swamp Pond. To celebrate the slaughter the landowner dug out a five foot segment of the dam, 

but beavers filled it in by May. The beaver population did not recover until 1999. Everything else thrived in the pond so I always kept an eye on it, a great place to find otter scats. (As for the other two ponds that were trapped, I heard beavers humming in the Big Pond lodge in the fall of 1998. The small pond below was fallow, a thick meadow, for three years.)

The temperature was up and down until Christmas then snow and cold allowed tracking on the frozen ponds. When I found otter slides around the Lost Swamp Pond, I was excited to also see a hole high up in the dam. Not exactly pleased though, there were no beavers in the pond to repair it.

After the first of the year 1999, history picked up again. On January 5 I saw that Otter Hole Pond looked different. The ice of the upper pond was roly-poly with cracks and crevasses. Then between the lodge and dam the ice sloped down leaving dead tree trunks with what looked like a mound of white mulch - ice and snow. All other ponds were still level even Lost Swamp Pond were otters put a hole in the top of the dam.

still shot from video clip of Otter Hole Pond dam

At Otter Hole Pond the tracks of two otters came out of the rock cliff went toward the dam and lodge.

There were otter scats around pools of open water behind the dam that froze the night before. The otters also dug into the lodge. There were no tracks from the lodge to the dam but there was a hole at the dam, easy to see when I stood below it while standing on Beaver Point Pond ice. Otter slides came out of the hole into a pool of open water below the dam.

In two days the pond lost over a foot of water, evidently through that one hole. 

I hiked out to check the dam as often as I could and found fish heads and scats around the open water above and below the hole in the dam and otter slides up and over the dam. Then we had 10 days of unrelenting winter, soon had 22 inches of snow and a night when the temperature dropped to minus 18F. Then starting with the temperature hitting 51F, the winter became moderate. No need to wait for the sun to warm a day before taking a hike.

When I got to Otter Hole Pond between 9 and 10am the scats I saw on the ice were very fresh. So on January 27 I got out before 7am, sat behind the rock atop the otter dens with a good view of the hole behind the dam. In a few minutes an otter came out below me, danced to just the right spot and with tail waving in the air let fly with a spray of black scat. 

Then either that otter repeated his performance or another came out.

I decided this was the time and place to try to see the otters on their level and I walked down on the ice. They soon saw me, one head up in the open water behind the dam and another head out of a hole in the ice in front of the rock dens. Both snorted at me with authority. Then the one along the rocks disappeared and I heard snorting under the ice where I stood. Who owned that pond? If it was still the beavers' pond, the otters policed it. I heard beavers humming in their lodge. Were they contented or reminding the otters to keep out?

My rule for five years had been to avoid confronting the animals I watched by invading their space and to move closer only to the that point where I thought I wouldn't disturb them. But in late 1998 I finally got my PC on-line, soon found the Otternet Message Board on the Web, and once again became a kind of free lance journalist which often is just another word for agent provocateur. The discussion group was open to anyone but monitored and guided by wildlife biologists and zoo curators. That was fine with me. I had dealt with editors before.

In my prime as a free lancer I had periods when I had a weekly article in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. The Web got those juices flowing again. On the message board I slipped into my once profitable habit of letting language leap over the facts. But I was one of the few people on the message board actually seeing wild otters. That was no surprise. I had learned from Old Ernie the local trapper how scarce beavers had been during more of the 20th century and the absence of otters in prime habitat for both. I felt an obligation to share what I saw.

Not that I wanted to peddle dusty facts in the message board. I was seeing history in the making. As a journalist and historian I had some talent for ferreting out facts, but instead of ransacking files and endless phone calls, I was head down in the snow looking for tracks and periodically scanning the white horizon looking for the black shape of an otter. 

  scanning the snow around Lost Swamp Pond dam
When I saw an otter I no longer shrank back to observe. I went out to interview it, so to speak.

Since I saw no tracks leaving the pond and continued to see scats and fish heads outside holes through the ice, I assumed the otters stayed in Otter Hole Pond with forays down to Beaver Point Pond dam. The otters set up shop, so to speak, in all corners of huge Otter Hole Pond fashioning holes out of crevasses and scatting around them. I decided otters had the perfect winter set-up. In April I saw why: they didn't have to come out of their holes. Otters had lurked under the ice, lying on dirt, breathing the damp air under the ice, peering down at the water running down the channel waiting for a fish to swim up the current.

Back to March, just when I decided they had that perfect set up, the otters went over the ridge to the Lost Swamp Pond. Soon after that I saw tracks around the Big Pond, but had to admit that I couldn't be sure that they were the same otters I had seen in Otter Hole Pond.

Thanks to meeting otter experts on Otternet, I began reading about otters which made it much easier to jump to conclusions about what I was seeing in the frozen swamps. When I tracked the trail of two otters on the ridge south of Shortcut Trail Pond and saw one trail swoop down to the pond below, I speculated that the otter mother and her pup separated. A week later when I saw otter trails looping up from South Bay, I speculated that adult males and females were courting. When I saw an otter's slide going from Wellesley Island to Murray Island, I decided I saw an otter describing its territory or home range as the scientific papers preferred to call it.

Since data is the hallmark of science I got on my hands and knees and measured the width of the hole through the dam, 23 inches, the depth of the water behind the dam, 15 inches, below the dam 23 inches, and the height of the galleries of air between the water and ice formed as the water drained out, 12 inches, 6 inches, 10 inches, etc. The water of Beaver Point Pond usually leveled between 2 to 4 feet below Otter Hole Pond dam. As I made measurements in late February there was a 3 to 4 inch difference. Thanks to the hole in the dam the water level of Otter Hole Pond had dropped 4 feet from its late fall level.

under the pond ice

I didn't see otters as I kneed the pond but I did see a beaver swim through the hole the otters made in the dam going from one pond to the other. Still on my knees, I examined the hole and decided the beavers might very well have widened it, much easier to get into Beaver Point Pond that way rather than climb up and over the icy dam. 

Nice set up but the water kept draining out through the hole. On March 2 I noted in my journal: “Perhaps it is getting too shallow in Otter Hole pond for otters.” On March 5 I walked out to the Narrows between South and Eel Bays and saw no signs of otters. There wasn't much ice there and I saw “a tremendous school of perch heading toward Eel Bay.” I saw a muskrat on the ice nibbling greens 

and speculated that otters perched on the ice could dive down for endless fish, but there was no evidence that any did. (The whole river had more or less been open for two weeks. A guy who lived on Murray Island tried to get home on his snowmobile and drowned in South Bay.)

On March 6 we had a foot of fresh snow and the cold temperatures returned freezing open water in the ponds. I saw otter slides, really troughs in the deep snow, along Beaver Point Dam. 

The next few days I saw the tracks of other animals including beavers around the holes opening behind the dam, but no signs of otters. Evidently the holes opened behind the dam because the otters who visited made holes through both the south and north sections of the dam. It would not be the last time I noticed that otters make a hole in the dam and then stay away while the hole works its magic and makes the pond behind it suitable for the otters to forage for fish under the ice.

But I didn't understand that in 1999 and that otters came back to the valley and quickly left rattled me. When I headed to Otter Hole Pond on March 13 “the whole way running through my mind was how I would explain these developments on Otternet - how to explain how there is a perfect set up for otters but no otters during the season when for the past five years I've always seen otter tracks in the snow?” Then as I moved onto Otter Hole Pond the words in my Otternet posts could leap again: “Ahead I saw fresh troughs around one of the openings in the ice - a smear of scats too! Otters! Big messy otters!”

I had the facts too: they had come out of and scatted outside the upper lodge, and on rocks as they headed down to the dam. They opened one hole above the dam and two holes below, opened them in otter fashion dug out at the angle so an otter could squirt out and be ready to slide on the ice. I set off to track where they came from and saw that water was rushing out through the holes otters put in the two Beaver Point Pond dams. They must have trenched them deeper when they came back. Then I followed the otter slides from Beaver Point Pond up and through the smaller pond to long Shortcut Trail Pond and through the more small ponds until I got to the huge deep man-made Duck Pond. There the otters went across the pond ice, checked the beaver lodge and explored a little bridge on the northwest corner of the pond. Then I backtracked the otter down to the Narrows, over the river ice, coming from the south shore of Murray Island. What delightful sport!

Well, not exactly revealing facts, just evidence that two otters did move into Otter Hole Pond and came from Murray Island. I had tracked an otter off to Murray some weeks ago - was it one of the returning otters? I had no proof either way.

Although I took the engine off it, I kept my 14 foot aluminum Starcraft in the water at my dock all year. Breaking and removing the ice inside it was one of the pleasures of winter and if I could slide it over the ice around the dock during the winter I kept in touch with the river as best I could. 

our dock in winter
That afternoon I freed the boat and going around Goose Island which formed the cove in front of our dock I saw otter tracks going up and around the granite outcrop forming the southeast corner of the island.

Needless to say I went back to Otter Hole Pond the next day and with a bit of worry. How bold the tracks of the otters seemed. They had also nosed around Beaver Point Pond dam where I knew from their tracks and tree cutting the beavers had been busy. I would soon see them in their typical March pose, lined up eating bark off logs. 

The first thing I saw was a “gapping hole” three feet into the beaver lodge behind Otter Hole Pond dam.

I could see water lapping below. I could hear beaver mewing inside the lodge. There was a scat outside the hole and scats on the dam. I went down to Beaver Point Pond dam and saw that one otter had been out there but hadn't crossed the tracks of any beavers.

Then I was distracted by a mink an animal which proves it is most agile in the snow by going up and down cliffs of snow quadrupling the distance from Beaver Point Pond to Otter Hole Pond but making it in just a fraction of a second slower than if it just went straight. I thought it important to follow the mink in part because in the fall I saw it hopping on and around the beaver lodge behind the dam. If the mink denned in that lodge that was big news. Minks store the fish, frogs, mice, even muskrats that they catch in their den. Would beavers put up with that? 

My camcorder couldn't keep up with it, but it did swerve up to Otter Hole Pond but not into the lodge. Instead what should appear out of the new hole into the beaver lodge but the head of an otter. 

Maybe he was amazed by the mink too.

The supposed otter-beaver treaty of October 1997 didn't cross my mind since at that time I only thought of that encounter as curious. I needed to see more encounters. But in the late winter of 1999, less than scientific language still crept into my journals. I described the otters' behavior as “aggression” and waited to see if it would be “checked” by the beavers.

The next day I saw that the beavers had been out the night before dragging branches to a little pond below Beaver Point Pond dam. I also saw that a coyote checked the hole into lodge. And there were fresh otter tracks. I decided that there were two otters in Otter Hole Pond. Then the next day I followed an otter trail from Otter Hole Pond to the Lost Swamp Pond.

On March 17 I found fresh scat at the Lost Swamp Pond. Had the otters moved? As I walked down Otter Hole Pond, a coyote streaked across the pond. Then I saw fresh scats at Otter Hole Pond dam. Meanwhile the lack of fresh snow and slight thaws during the day and freezes at night made for poor tracking conditions. That didn't keep me from deciding why the otters returned to the pond: “the mother left the pond and went off to the Narrows and Murray Island ares, then she mated and the male followed her back into Otter Hole. The male bored the hole next to the beavers and is more or less staying around while the female went over the ridge to the Lost Swamp to have pups.”

Then on the 23rd I briefly ascended to tracker's heaven. I followed otter trails from the Big Pond to the Lost Swamp Pond, to Otter Hole Pond, to Beaver Point Pond, to South Bay and from South Bay to the First Valley and up to the Big Pond. A circle! I wrote in my journal: “finally and for the first time this winter I saw what the books purport to be the daily routine of the otter, a two mile or so circuit visiting several ponds. I still think I am dealing with two otters - one made the circuit and one stayed behind.”

And on the ice of Beaver Point Pond I saw beaver tracks seemingly wandering aimlessly over the pond. Evidently there comes a time during every long winter when everything has to get up and go somewhere, anywhere.

I went out the next day and fell back to earth. The tracks were still there but I saw that an otter didn't go from the Big Pond to the Lost Swamp Pond. No circle, but a long trek not from Murray Island but from the opposite direction, from the interior of the island. Then they seemed to have separated. One got as far as South Bay but came back and both may have wound up in Otter Hole Pond but I couldn't be sure.

I needed to see an otter and I did. On March 26 as I approached Beaver Point and Otter Hole Ponds they looked much like they did in late January, splotchy snow cover and ice every where. I heard a crack from the direction of the lodge and saw a head sticking out of the hole into the lodge. The head was big enough, I thought, to be an otter. But it seemed to have a white patch under its chin - so for awhile I thought it was a mink especially when the beast proved to be small enough to crawl out along a stick. But looking at the video I saw that it was clearly an otter. A patch of snow fell off its chin. 

The small otter nosed around the lodge, slowly went behind it, and showed a long tail. A few minutes after that a lump crawled out on the ice below the dam. A small beaver bent over like an old man. It  squinted into the setting sun sniffing the air, not in my direction. Golden fur.

Then the otter popped up on the dam, looking around but I don't think looking at the beaver who was then swimming complacently below. The otter stretched its tail up for a scat. It moved down the dam a few feet and let fly again.

Then it knocked down a loose stick off the dam as if it wanted to get onto the business of patching the hole in the dam. I returned my attention to the beaver and saw how high it floated in the water  indicating it was young. It seemed to work at the hole in the dam then dived. As I retreated up the ridge, I saw the big beavers were down at Beaver Point Pond dam.

My theory about a mated pair of adults in the pond, one a gadabout and one stay at home, seemed foolish after I saw an otter that I first was sure was a mink. That otter must have been a yearling, a recently graduated pup. And a young beaver floated complacently below the young strutting otter. So much for aggression and checking.

Meanwhile, instead of the aesthetically pleasing revelation of a sheet of pond water as the ice melted, at the end of March a creek ran through and drained Otter Hole Pond. Not much help for the hydrological paradigm either.

As for taking a historical perspective, harping on that supposed October 17, 1997, pact between beavers and otters, how did possibly no more than two otters rip, dig and gnaw that large hole in the dam and how did a relatively small otter get away with evidently living in the beavers' lodge? Otters seemed to think they owned the ponds as much as the beavers. It would only get worse. History marches on. The Pact of '97 was not the first treaty to be transgressed. Or did the beavers loose their grip on Otter Hole Pond and its lodge because they planned to move anyway? 

Looking at it from the otters' perspective. After four winters tracking otters it struck me that they preferred ponds where beavers were active. That makes sense since beavers clear channels and dredge pools, doubtlessly an advantage for otters fishing under the ice. Beavers also make two or three flat mud floored chambers in their snug lodge where an otter might catch a few winks.

Go to Chapter Four 

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