The same day that the river otter researchers were due to come to the Iceberg lodge to give a presentation on their research, we found a dead river otter floating in the lagoon. It was floating intestines up; we went over to it because at first I thought we were looking at the back of a seal’s head. Turns out, not so much. River otters are a little like big, streamlined brown ferrets; they are so adorable that they even look moderately cute when floating head-down in salt water. My clients in the canoe were clucking and making how sad noises. So, we looked at the dead otter, and I made the mistake of telling my clients that this was the third dead otter we’d found in the lagoon in a month, and that, coincidentally, a team of river otter researchers from the University of Wisconsin would be coming over to give a presentation on their research in just a few hours. Immediately, a few people in the boat asked if we ought to bring the dead otter back to the lodge, so that the researchers could do an otter autopsy and try to find out why the otter had died. I wasn’t totally sure if the otter team’s research goals included playing CSI: Aialik Bay – as my clients very obviously wanted to do - but I figured they would probably be interested in the otter. I asked if everyone was OK with having a dead otter sitting in the back of the canoe for the rest of the tour. Surprisingly, everyone was.
So we turned the canoe around, and after a few minutes of searching, resighted the otter. Now that I knew that I had to pick the thing out of the water, it suddenly looked a lot less cute and pathetic, and a lot more dead. But the coat seemed to be in good shape, and it seemed to be pretty much intact and un-decayed. At least, as undecayed as a zombie floating dead river otter can look. I maneuvered us as close to the otter as I could, which was complicated by the fact that all of the clients on the boat were looking over their shoulders to try and watch their guide do something gross in the name of science. I reached into the water, trying not to picture what would happen if the otter suddenly woke up and sank its zombie teeth into my hand.
I grabbed the zombie otter by the tail and pulled. The first thing I noticed was that a waterlogged river otter is actually quite heavy. The second thing I noticed was the vibration as the tail vertebrae dislocated from the spine. The third thing I noticed was that this otter was definitely a male. I pulled, and the otter slid up the side of the canoe, its big rat-like feet dangling over the gunnel. The otter felt even heavier. Then the otter’s pelt started to split open along the back like someone undoing a zipper. The smell hit us like the world’s worst port-a-pottie, and I immediately dropped the otter back into the lagoon. The smell, unfortunately, stayed around (albeit in a much diluted form) for the rest of the canoe tour, probably because I had managed to liberally spritz my clothing with otter juice in the process of hauling him into my canoe. I used the boat pump (normally used to pump rain water out of the canoes) to pump a few quarts of lagoon water into the boat to try and dilute the smell, which sort of worked. The clients coped admirably – fishing him out was their idea, after all – and we finished the rest of the tour without incident. I left one of the other guides to put my boat away, and immediately went to shower and wash my clothes.
The researchers were, indeed, interested that we’d found so many dead otters in such a short span of time, although they said that from what they’d seen of the otters, they all seemed to be pretty healthy. They did not, however, seem terribly interested in haring off into the lagoon to relocate the dead otter after hearing my clients’ description of its condition.
One of the maintenance men, however, did go haring off into the lagoon after the otter, and returned with it floating in a five-gallon bucket. (The trick to keeping the smell at bay is to keep them submerged at all times. Going forward, if any guests want to bring back dead animals they find in the lagoon, I will lasso them with the canoe’s bowline and drag them behind the boat like a sea anchor.) He plans to drop the otter into a crab pot for a few weeks, to let the crabs (and any other sea creatures with indiscriminate gustatory habits) strip the meat away from the carcass. We’d be left with a jumble of bones which he could theoretically glue and wire back into shape, sort of like a very complicated tinkertoy project. I would like the skull for the interpretive corner at the guide desk, which is already liberally covered with various parts and pieces of dead animals (seal and otter pelts, snail shells, urchin tests, bird feathers, and a bear skull). Ultimately, the zombie otter stayed in the bucket for over two weeks, and every day it looked a little more like a giant floating mass of hair that someone had pulled out of a shower drain. It disappeared from the bucket shortly before the maintenance man left to visit his wife. I am hoping that M did not show up at home after being gone for two weeks with a decayed otter in tow…
A few days later, I got the fright of my life when the canoe’s drain plug got knocked loose during a tour, instantly unleashing a torrent of salt water flooding into our boat. Fortunately, we were in the mouth of Addison creek, which is a great place to have a canoe emergency because the water is only four feet deep. Even though hearing the water rushing into the canoe was quite alarming, I also realized right off the bat that this was a situation everyone would be walking away from – since if the canoe sank out from under us, this is pretty much what we would do. I shouted at my clients to paddle, got the boat to shore, hopped out in knee deep water and spent a few minutes wresting the drain plug back into place. (When used correctly, the drain plugs have a lever that allows them to expand once they’ve been inserted into the draining hole. In this case, someone had expanded the drain plug before inserting it, so the plug didn’t fit securely in the drain, and got jostled out.) Once the flooding stopped, I unloaded everyone on the creek bank, and pumped the water out of the canoe. We paddled back to the lodge, while I tried to pretend that I hadn’t just had the fright of my life.