Picture Ohio! – River Otters, and a Ring of Bright Water

River Otter, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
River Otter, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

A few weeks ago, just before Christmas, I was enjoying a walk along the Towpath Trail near the Ira Road Trailhead in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. About a quarter of a mile north of the parking lot, the trail passes over a boardwalk built across an area of open water known as the Beaver Marsh. During the 1970s, before the National Park Service purchased the land, an auto repair shop stood here, surrounded by a dump containing old vehicles and other junk. In 1984, with help from the Sierra Club, the National Park Service cleaned up the area and hauled away the old cars and other automotive scrap. At about the same time, beaver moved into the area and built a series of dams that flooded several acres of land and created the wetland that exists here today. The Beaver Marsh is one of the most diverse natural areas in the Cuyahoga Valley, and countless thousands of visitors have enjoyed birding, nature photography, and sharing this scenic place with family and friends.

There was no wind that day, and the surface of the pond was dead calm. As I scanned the open water close to Riverview Road, I noticed a disturbance in the water’s dark surface, a “ring of bright water”, followed by two sleek black furry heads that broke the surface of the water, submerged, then rose and fell, again and again. A pair of river otters were swimming in the open water of the Beaver Marsh.

Otters at the Beaver Marsh, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Otters at the Beaver Marsh, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

The river otter (Lontra canadensis) is native to Ohio, but had been extirpated in the state by the early 1900s due to unregulated trapping and habitat destruction. Beginning in 1986, the Ohio Division of Wildlife implemented a seven-year program to reintroduce  river otters to Ohio. During this period, 123 otters from Arkansas and Louisiana were released in the Grand River, Killbuck Creek, Little Muskingum River, and Stillwater Creek. The otters thrived, and an estimated 8,000 river otters now inhabit 67 of the 88 counties in the Buckeye State. The two playful animals I was watching at the Beaver Marsh were probably descendants of the otters released in the Grand River area during this reintroduction program.

An adult river otter is 3-4 feet long and weighs 11-33 pounds. Otters live in rivers, lakes, and marshes, and are especially fond of areas inhabited by beavers, where they will often take over old beaver lodges. Otters eat fish, crayfish, snakes, frogs, aquatic insects, and occasionally waterfowl and small mammals. An otter can remain underwater for up to 8 minutes, and dive to depths of 60 feet. They can travel several miles in one day, and an otter observed at the Beaver Marsh early in the morning might be seen later that day in the northern part of the Cuyahoga Valley, where the Cuyahoga River is used as the otters’ primary means of travel.

Tarka the Otter, by Henry Williamson (First Edition Cover)
Tarka the Otter, by Henry Williamson (First Edition Cover)

When I was growing up in England, one of the favorite books I read as a teenager was Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers, by Henry Williamson, first published in 1927. This novel, which has remained in print for almost ninety years, tells the story of the life of an otter in the English countryside, near the Taw and Torridge Rivers in North Devon. Throughout the book, Tarka is pursued by the local otter hunt, led by his arch enemy, the great hound Deadlock. The final confrontation between Tarka and Deadlock is a brilliant piece of writing, and Tarka has been described as one of the finest animal stories ever written.

Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell
Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell

Another great book about otters is Ring of Bright Water, written by Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969), a Scottish aristocrat, explorer, naturalist and author of a dozen books. In Ring of Bright Water, which Maxwell wrote in 1960, he describes how, in 1956, he brought a smooth-coated otter back from a visit to Iraq and raised it in “Camusfearna”, a remote cove on the west coast of Scotland. The otter, called Mijbil, turned out to be a previously unknown subspecies of otter, which was named Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli (Maxwell’s otter) after him. More than a million copies of Ring of Bright Water have been sold, and Maxwell wrote two other books about otters, Raven Seek Thy Brother and The Rocks Remain.¬†

Edal's Grave, Camusfearna, Scotland
Edal’s Grave, Camusfearna, Scotland

Gavin Maxwell died from cancer in 1969. Three years later, in 1972, three years before I emigrated to Ohio from England in 1975, I visited the site of Camusfearna in northwest Scotland, and photographed the grave of Edal, one of the otters in Ring of Bright Water. Below Edal’s epitaph are inscribed the words: “Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature.”

I often think of these words and count my many blessings as I travel the Buckeye State, enjoying Ohio’s unique natural heritage, and sharing it through my Ohio books, calendars, and slide programs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading this information and viewing your photos. I feel espescially blessed to have seen these otters. Keep providing such great information…… it is truly appreciated.

  2. Hi Judi,

    Welcome back to Ohio from your visit to the Carolinas. I enjoy your Cuyahoga Valley images, and look forward to seeing you soon along the Towpath Trail.

    Ian

Leave a Reply

Close Menu