My Long Irrational Nightmare is Over. Sort of. Nevermind.

Many of you are familiar with one of the great disappointments in my life.  I know you’re familiar with it because you take great delight from bringing it up in conversation when I see you in person.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been introduced to someone at a conference or other event, and as I shake their hand, they smirk and ask, “Have you seen an otter yet?”

And I always answer “no.”

This is despite the fact that I have spent more than 20 years working along the Platte River, where there are very high populations of river otters – especially in the stretch of river where The Nature Conservancy owns most of our land.  I see tracks, scat, and other sign of otters often.  Other staff, researchers, volunteers, neighbors, and (I assume) people just driving past on the interstate have all seen otters.  But I have not.

Well, I have an update on that situation.  During the week of Christmas, my wife Kim and I spent several days up at the Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It was a combination work trip/vacation.  One morning, Evan Suhr, the Preserve’s land steward took us out to look at the results of last year’s grazing and fire treatments.  During the trip, we took a brief break and walked down to the river to see where Hazel Creek dumps into it.

Evan Suhr. Niobrara river in winter. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Evan Suhr along the bank of the Niobrara River.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

As we stood on the river bank admiring the view, I heard the sound of soft ice cracking, looked up, and stared right into the face of a river otter.  Yes, really.

I had my camera in hand, but had my wide angle lens on, which was worthless for photographing wildlife.  I called out to Evan and Kim to look at the otter and fumbled around in my camera bag for my longer lens.  Before I could get the lenses switched, the otter dipped back below the surface.  A few minutes later, however, we saw it reappear just upstream, and a second otter head popped up next to it.  Unfortunately, there was a dead cedar tree partially blocking my view of the otters.  I stepped slowly and carefully around the tree, but just as I did, both otters disappeared again.  Kim managed to see the two of them once more before we headed back to the truck, but I didn’t, and never managed to get a photo.

So, how am I to feel about this?  First, defensive.  YES, I saw an otter.  I have two witnesses to back me up, as well as a photo of the hole through which the first one popped its head.  I don’t care what you say – I saw an otter.  Two, in fact!

Ice hole where an otter was a few seconds earlier...

This is the hole in the ice through which an otter head popped up.  I have witnesses.

Second, it was really cool to see those two otters.  After waiting so long, and enduring so much grief, the experience was even more sweet than it would otherwise have been.  We didn’t get to see them for long, but they were fairly close, and it was exciting.  It was especially nice that Kim and I both got to see them.

Third.  Now that I’ve moved beyond the initial thrill of seeing those otters, I can’t help slipping a little back into the kind of bitterness I’ve expressed about otters before.  Yes, I saw otters, but I still haven’t seen them along the Platte, where I’ve spent many years waiting and looking for them.  I also didn’t manage to get even a bad photo of them, despite the fact that I saw them twice and HAD MY CAMERA IN MY HANDS at the time.  I can’t help thinking this may be part of the broad otter conspiracy against me.  It’s almost as if the otters were afraid I was giving up on ever seeing them and decided it’d be a lot more fun to throw me a crumb and make me want the rest of the cake even more.

I know, I know.  I’m being completely irrational and ungrateful.  I know I should just enjoy the experience of seeing them and not worry about the fact that it happened on a different river or that I didn’t get a photo taken.  I also acknowledge that it’s unlikely (but not impossible!) that the otters of Nebraska are in any way conspiring against me.  I know all of that.  But I can’t help it.

Kim Helzer. Niobrara river in winter. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Kim, being a normal and well-adjusted human, was ecstatic to see the otters and harbors no hard feelings toward them.  That, or she’s in on the plot.  I’m not sure.

Until I see an otter along the Platte River, I’m just not going to be satisfied.  Sure, I’ll do my best to enjoy my life otherwise.  My wife and kids are wonderful, I have a great job, and life seems very good.  It’s just not quite complete.  But sooner or later, those otters are going to slip up.  One of them is going to fail to notice that I’m there and it’ll pop out of the water with a fish in its mouth and start tap dancing on the bank – as they do when I’m not around.  But THIS time I’m going to be there.  With my camera.  And we’ll see who’s laughing then, won’t we??

Yes we will.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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20 Responses to My Long Irrational Nightmare is Over. Sort of. Nevermind.

  1. Tara Baranowski says:

    Very entertaining post…if it’s any consolation I’m still waiting to see them in Ohio’s Lake Erie marshes. I know they’re here…somewhere…perhaps hiding behind the beaver that I do see, and laughing at me nonetheless.

  2. kocart says:

    You are so funny! Every wildlife photographer has one of those boogeymen–uh–otters. And twenty years sounds about right. Now perhaps you’ll see them all over the place. Good luck!

  3. James C. Trager says:

    I believe you actually saw them in the Niobrara, Chris, and I also believe the Otter Photo-Avoidance Conspiracy is real. :~)

  4. shalm2014 says:

    Hang in there! I had some pileated woodpeckers involved in the same sort of scheme against me a while back until I finally got my photos of them. You will be rewarded.

  5. Kim says:

    Congrats, I think.

  6. Jennifer Pospichal says:

    Very fun! What an adventure!

    Jennifer Pospichal outdoor recreation products 402-289-0400 800-747-5437 1055 North 205 Street Elkhorn, NE 68022 jenniferp@outdoorrec.net check out our website! http://www.outdoorrecreationproducts.com

  7. Paul says:

    Congratulations Chris!! You wouldn’t have waited THIS long to make this up if it weren’t true!! Plus, who wouldn’t trust your wife – – right? Winter is a good time to catch them, and confluences like the one you were at are not a bad place to look. I think 2016 is going to be your year. Find a spot with fresh sign and get out late evening and early morning . . . and have lots of patience!!

  8. Dwight Jundt says:

    A case of Otter Envy obviously. Could happen to anyone.

  9. lv says:

    Such fiery passion over the most adorable critter to swim in our waters! I ask others and they’ve got photos…i hope one day…i too will see them on the banks, in their tap shoes enjoying life…a little fishy? Nope, otterly adorable!

  10. Hilarious! This reminds me of one of my own otter experiences. One popped up maybe 10 feet from me eating a bullfrog. I didn’t even know otters were in the area. Did I have my camera? Of course not!

  11. Tom Koerner says:

    Hi Chris,

    I call them River Ghosts for the same reasons, see lots of sign, but rarely get to see them and never get a good photo. Finally had the planets align, but the sun had already dipped below the horizon. Did manage a few salvageable ones though, he he ;-)

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Nobody likes a show off, Tom. Also, I hope that smirking otter chokes on his stupid fish. (Good to hear from you otherwise – I hope you’re well.)

      • tomkoerner says:

        The problem with electronic communication is I could not see you smile or hear you laugh after that one! Life is treating me better than I deserve. You continue to have a great blog going after time has passed, and that is not an easy task to keep the creative juices flowing. Be well my Friend!

  12. Terry says:

    Nice picture of the hole in the ice … never, ever give up ;)

  13. Eric Fowler says:

    You know my thoughts on the subject. I hate otters. Congrats!

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  15. lancemfoster says:

    Maybe you broke an otter taboo. Better offer sacrifice to the Master of Otters, maybe he will take pity. Every species of animal has a Spirit, a “Master” of that species. I’m not joking.

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