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Northland Nature: Trail and tale of an otter

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

The trail of an otter as it hopped and slid from woods to a lake in January. (Photo by Larry Weber)

In the Northland, we get used to having a snow cover for several months each year. When we get to mid-January, we have had a snow blanket for at least two months. This constant white coat varies much, especially due to ambient temperatures.

I always see snow as a substrate that holds tracks, revealing the activities of local wildlife that winter here with us, even though we usually do not see them. This became apparent to me when I went for a walk about a month ago on a morning following a new snowfall.

Such conditions are great for reading recent critter news. I was not disappointed. Right in the yard, I saw where squirrels and mice were hopping. Here, too, I noted the nocturnal movements of deer and I found where a porcupine waddled by. In the driveway, I saw that a shrew pushed through the snow and a rabbit hopped. The local flock of turkeys also passed this way.

Along the road, fox and coyote tracks told me they were here before me, as well as a snowshoe hare.

I went over a swamp where voles were active and their predator: a short-tailed weasel (ermine). Continuing along a lake shore, I found that both a mink and a skunk were present. Taking a path through woods I noted signs of two more predators: long-tail weasel and fisher. The night was clear; the early morning temperature was near zero and many critters were out. I did not see them, but they let me know of their movements.


Recently, I went for another walk after a new snow. The snowpack of January was different from that of December. Wildlife were still leaving their messages in the snow, but things varied. Instead of seeing tracks of nearly twenty kinds of wanderers as in last month’s snow, I found only about half that in this January walk, with changes.

One local wild mammal that I had not seen the tracks of in my earlier walk was that of an otter. But during my January outing, I came across the tracks and trail of this aquatic member of the weasel family as it hopped and slid through the snow scene. It looked a little out of place here in the forest where I discovered the trail. I decided to follow the route of this mobile otter to see what was happening.

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It came out of the south from an unknown site and was heading north toward a lake. But its trip was not direct. The critter took many turns and twists as it went through the woods. At a couple places, it doubled back on itself. Nearing the lake, it went under the length of an inverted canoe. When finally reaching the lake, its trek was not done. It needed to find a location to go below the ice.
Coming by two docks, the otter went under, but to no avail. At long last, it reached a swampy shoreline where the ice was not as strong and here it proceeded to make a hole, reaching its goal of going beneath the ice.

Otters are very at home in water and though the cold of an ice-bound lake may not seem attractive, I’m sure that it did well here. Not as many tracks on my January walk as that of December, but I was able to read the tale of this wandering otter’s trail. There are new nature stories out here every day.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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