One of the best things about our cabin in Silver Gate is that it’s bordered on two sides by Soda Butte Creek, a beautiful mountain stream that eventually joins the Lamar River, the Yellowstone River, the Missouri River, and finally the Mississippi River before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to old mining activities around Cooke City, just four miles upstream from us, Soda Butte Creek used to be heavily contaminated. But an extremely successful clean-up operation from 2010-2014 restored the creek to full health, and once again it’s filled with native Yellowstone Cutthroat trout.
Soon after moving to Silver Gate, Marie and I asked Jill and Greg – our neighbors (who also sold us our cabin) – if they’d ever spotted otters in the creek. They said that in the 20 years they’ve been living here they’ve only seen otters twice, once in the summer and once in the winter. It made me happy to know that encountering otters is a possibility, even if the odds are low. I love watching otters, and finding them at our place at some point over the coming years would be a dream come true.
Turns out I only had to wait five months. Early one afternoon in mid-January, while Marie was visiting her family in Florida, I happened to be staring out the window as I talked on the phone with my mom. A slender dark shape suddenly emerged from Soda Butte Creek in front of Jill and Greg’s place. “I just saw an otter,” I blurted, “I gotta go!” Mom agreed it was a good reason to end the call.
My camera with the big lens was in my car, so I grabbed my camera with the smaller (100-400mm) lens and rushed out along a path through the snow from our place to Jill and Greg’s. Worried the otter might vanish at any moment, I stopped a good distance away for a quick shot of it eating the trout it had just hauled out of the creek.
As I crept closer two more otters emerged from the creek, both chewing on pretty large fish. The three of them noticed me approaching but didn’t appear concerned. I stopped at what seemed like a respectful distance for more shots.
Realizing that the otters might stick around for a while, I ran back to our garage for my big (600mm) lens. It killed me to miss even a second of the show, but thankfully all three otters were still there when I returned. They fished, darted around playfully, and explored the mostly-frozen creek. Every now and then one of them would pop up in the middle of some random patch of snow like a jack-in-the-box. Few animals seem to have as much fun as river otters.
After a while the otters began moving up-creek, where they stopped to rest on a sheet of ice in front of our cabin. I struggled to keep up without spooking them, and the light coming from the southwest made it difficult to get a good angle for photos. Finally I decided to wade across the creek and shoot from the other side, despite the problematic backlighting.
Eating such a big trout lunch must have made the otters sleepy, because soon all three of them sprawled out on the ice and drifted off for a cozy afternoon siesta.
Gradually returning to action, the otters began moving up-creek again, one at a time. Something ahead startled them, unfortunately, and in a split second they reversed course and bolted back towards Jill and Greg’s place. Soon they were completely out of sight. The otter’s big visit to Silver Gate had come to an abrupt end, but I couldn’t wipe the (goofy, no doubt) smile from my face until much later.
Special wildlife encounters have a way of investing the place where they happen with additional depth. When I drive by Blacktail Pond I remember the cold November afternoon I spent there watching the entire Wapiti wolf pack. Passing North Twin Lake takes me back to the time I saw Grizzly 815 appear with her three cubs-of-the-year. I’ll never forget finding a fox sleeping in the snow near Petrified Tree, accidentally getting too close to a grizzly near Grand Prismatic, or spotting a great gray owl by Icebox Canyon. And now, thanks to those three otters, every glance at our own back yard is capable of triggering a particularly happy memory.