A Touch of Spring

A Touch of Spring
The river is no longer frozen over

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Searching for the Otter

The Clark Fork runs all the way from Warm Springs Creek, just this side of Butte, some 200 miles to where I sit now. It's the easternmost tributary of the great Columbia River and bears the name of Meriwether Lewis's partner: the William Clark Fork of the Columbia River. From here it runs another 200 miles and loses its name in Idaho's Lake Pend d'Oreille.

I live just upstream from its confluence with the Bitterroot River, which comes in from the south. This is a low-lying area where the river breaks into pieces, and pieces for a river mean smaller "braids" or smaller sloughs. But not a swamp. Montana is  too arid to support much free-standing water. But here the river meets the Bitterroot and expands by a third. Geologists explain that unseen aquifers flow below and alongside the Clark Fork and the Bitterroot, and centuries of accumulated glacial gravels at the confluence have eroded the overburden soils. Whatever. Suffice it to say, my back yard is chocked full of streams and islands, expressive flora and fauna, and a untamed soul. This place is dynamic, with wild seasonal fluctuations of stream flows and water tables, resident populations of great horn owls, coyotes, many beavers, whitetail deer looking for an opening in the fence to feed on my garden's beans and squash, stealthy foxes that dash by my back deck, raccoons that fight Happy, the cat, for crunchies if I leave food out, a magnificent year-round bird population that includes clouds of finches and sparrows, pygmy nuthatches, piliated woodpeckers, and big birds like vultures, osprey, and golden and bald eagles.

The two rarest of species here are otters and bears. A few years ago, the neighbor saw the bear and witnessed  Happy, the cat, walk out to greet it. The two touched noses, the neighbor told me, and walked together down the dirt road out front.

I saw the otter only once, about five years ago where a slough leaves the main stem of the Clark Fork. His shape, ears and eyes especially, were very distinct from the beavers that normally hang out here. It was cold that day, below zero with big ice chunks bobbing in the current, and it was late morning, not the time of day you ordinarily see beavers in the river. Beavers swim like it's work, thick brown tug boats pushing a wave of water out in front. A prominent wake follows behind. The otter swam with an easy elasticity, like he was enjoying himself. I was close enough I could see alarm in his eyes when he finally saw me. He pushed his nose beneath the water, bowed his back the way a porpoise would, and disappeared into the dark water. I saw him resurface several times downstream along the bank, raising his head up and turning to look up stream, almost as if he wanted to make sure he'd seen me -- or, I'd rather think -- he was giving me a chance to recognize him should we ran into one another again.

In some ways all my walks since then have been in hopes of just that. Even today, along that same slough, I was thinking of him as I examined beavers' prints in the soft ice fringes. Maybe he was right up around the bend . . .  My retriever Sonny and I followed the slough its whole length, but there was only empty, dark water. Indeed, this time of year the water looks thick and seems to move slowly with the cold. It steals a glum tone from the ubiquitous gray clouds.

Seeing the otter again would sure liven things up. Beyond just the mood, however, more frequent visits from the otter would indicate this river is getting healthier, with more fish for the otter's dinners. Three things have occurred in the past two years that could mean we're right on the cusp of restoring -- bringing back to life -- this remarkable river. The Environmental Protection Agency just last year removed the Milltown Dam just a half dozen miles up-stream. Through the Superfund program, the agency also removed more than three million cubic yards of heavy-metal-contaminated mining wastes washed down from a century of copper mining from our industrial neighbors in Butte. Lastly, a giant papermill, a source of many "nutrients," including dioxin,  went bankrupt and closed about 10 miles downstream.

Previous generations, for the most part, conceived of a river as the best way to rid themselves of things they didn't like, dirty things, like heavy-metal mining wastes, chlorinated compounds from making white cardboard from woodpulp, and garbage of all kinds. Human beings were in dominion over nature, and they could do anything they wanted. We've learned the hard way this is not true. We are as dependent on nature as any other creature living on the surface of this planet. So, in my mind at least, the Clark Fork is example number one of taking care of our place.

Indeed, the number of creatures I saw today on my walk indicates this ecosystem is on the upswing: dozens of deer tracks, including those of at least one very large buck, several flocks of ducks and Canada geese -- which means hunting season has been over for three weeks and the fowl have started gathering again -- a crow carrying something cylindrical in its mouth, plus a great blue heron standing in a slough with slouched shoulders, pretending to be invisible.

Twice already this winter's cold has frozen the river over, Alaska-style. Both times, I walked right across to islands ordinarily hard to get to. One amazing, frigid day around New Year's I saw a golden eagle what seemed like an arm's length away, flying right off the island's bank. That same day, just up-river, I came upon two bald eagles, one sitting on the ice, the other in a tree. And two coyotes. Now we're in a late-January thaw. I don't expect the river to freeze again, which is a mixed blessing. I like the tilt toward spring but I'll have to wait for months -- perhaps until July -- to splash the low areas of the river to the islands again.

Like me, the animals I saw this morning seemed happy to leave the coldest part of the winter behind. But none would tell me whether they had seen the otter.