North·Photos

Playful otters celebrate spring with sliding party near Yellowknife

A group of picnickers outside of Yellowknife got more than they bargained for on Easter weekend. 'They were peeking at us, running across the snow, in and out and down the trail… It was amazing!' says Donna Dooley.

'They were peeking at us, running across the snow, in and out and down the trail… It was amazing!'

Donna Dooley just wanted to see whether the ice on the Cameron River outside of Yellowknife had thawed when she, her daughter and her daughter's friend went to the Cameron Ramparts for a picnic on Easter Monday.

"We had the campfire going and we were starting to cook bannock and smokies and had sat down by the campfire and my daughter said, "Oh my God! There goes an otter!"

Dooley says she'd hung her camera on a tree branch and scrambled to get a shot as the animal disappeared over the bank. "I thought 'Oh that was so exciting but, aww... I just got a picture of its butt, oh well.'"

But the show wasn't over. 

Dooley says as they sat, looking out over the river, they saw three otters going in and out of a hole in the ice. Then they disappeared from sight.

"Next thing I know, they were coming up the trail behind us and sliding down!" she says. 

For the next half hour, Dooley witnessed a group of otters running straight across the river ice and sliding down the hill into a hole.

"They were peeking at us, running across the snow, in and out and down the trail… It was amazing!" she says. "They were having a good time."

Otters common in N.W.T.

River otters are fairly common in the territory, where they're found all the way up the Mackenzie River and the territorial mainland to north of Inuvik, says Suzanne Carriere, an ecosystem management biologist with the territory's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Carriere says although they're in the same family as weasels and wolverines, otters are much different.

"These guys are very social, sometimes even a bunch of guys just hang out together, not just families."

Carriere says that playfulness speaks to their high level of intelligence. 

"If you have animals that are more intelligent they'll have play as part of their behaviour," she says, citing wolves and ravens as doing the same.

Carriere also says the otters can swim "really fast" underwater and can spend up to five minutes below the ice.

River otters make their homes in holes in the sides of river banks or in old beaver lodges, but they like to travel and make their homes from one body of water to the next.

Culturally significant

Besha Blondin, a traditional healer in the N.W.T., says the cultural significance of otters to First Nations people runs deep. The Dene story, "The Old Man with the Otter Medicine," is read in classrooms across the territory.

Blondin says the animals have been used traditionally in healing because of their medicinal role.

"If a person is really sick with internal sickness, or emotional problems, they'd look for an otter to use the healing power to fix them and get healthy," she says.

Blondin says her people know that every spring is a playful time for the otters. 

"So if people see them playing, it's like a gift given to you," she says.

Dooley agrees. She says she and the girls packed up their picnic and left their site when the otters appeared to have done the same.

"As we were leaving we were yelling, 'Thank you Mother Nature!' I think if anybody was around they probably thought we were crazy," she laughs.

"It was just so amazing to see them."

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