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.