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The River Otters of Fishtown oct 2 09

Let me admit it up front: my otter images are not the best photos I’ve ever taken.

On the other hand, they’re the only otter photos I’ve ever taken, because until now, I’ve never seen otters up close. In fact, until this spring, when I caught a momentary glimpse of one along the Coldwater River, I had never seen a river otter at all. For an animal with such a wide range in the United States, it seems to be pretty choosy about where it resides, at least here in Michigan. Or maybe I just don’t get to the right places—though with as much traipsing around as I do, it seems strange that, until just a couple weeks ago, I had spent fifty-three years on this planet without a single otter encounter.

Whatever the reason for that may be, it’s not because river otters are shy and reclusive. That they’re not, the little showmen. The personality type that has been dubbed the “otter” is playful, fun-loving, and loves a party, and those qualities describe its namesake down to the whisker.

But let me backpaddle a bit and tell you what brought Lisa and me to Fishtown harbor, where the otters play.

mlSailboat1In last week’s post, “Sundown at Sleeping Bear,” I described our day trip through the Leelanau peninsula. But a single post can’t possibly do justice to such a journey, any more than a single day can offer anything more than a quick, tourist’s thumbnail of all that Leelanau and the Traverse City region have to offer. The area is breathtaking, and as the trees turn color, it is moving into its most glorious time of year—a season when the problem with owning a camera isn’t finding things to photograph, but finding time to photograph the nonstop possibilities that beckon from every angle.

On the beach by the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, at the very tip of the peninsula, a stately schooner sailed by in the distance, its white sails catching the pure light of a crisp, electric-blue September afternoon. Farther south down the North Manitou Trail, oak trees on a woods edge bordering the sandy strand of a northern lakeshore glowed like emerald lanterns, backlit by the sun. Between and beyond these views were countless others: broad fields that stretched toward the green-clad bulks of forested hills…a bright-red wayside church, beautifully maintained and as picturesque as anything New England could offer…rustic farms rambling across vast, tumbled acres of cropland…azure lakes dappled with cobalt blue and ruffled with patches of shivery wavelets…the eyes lack no good thing in Leelanau land.

At length, we arrived in the town of Leland, and a quaint little assortment of shops along the boardwalk of a channel to Lake Michigan. This, the road signs informed us, was “historic Fishtown.”

I was taking photos of some boats when Lisa called to me from farther down the walkway. As I joined her, she pointed toward the channel and said, “Look. Otters!”

And there were—three of them, frolicking in the water like puppies. Me being a male, I don’t normally include the word adorable as a part of my working vocabulary, but I have to say, these little guys were adorable. Graceful, too, and fast as torpedoes in the water, and not at all bothered by the small klatch of tourists standing there gawking at them. In fact, they seemed to enjoy the attention, even thrive on it.

With their friendly, fun-loving mannerisms, river otters seem like they’d make wonderful pets, provided you’ve got a really big bathtub that you keep stocked with fish. In Asia, otters are actually trained to fish for their owners. Here in Michigan, though, I’m glad to see them living wild—irresistible, bewhiskered, joyous clowns of the great outdoors.

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Written by Dave.