Doing math on the sighting of a lifetime

Doing math on the sighting of a lifetime
John C. Lorson

A trio of North American river otters hunt a small stream along the Holmes County Rail Trail in early October. Mother otter seemed to be conducting a workshop on chasing and catching small fish for her two pups — all of it visible from a trail bridge just a few yards away.


Last week I set the stage for a really big reveal of what I saw on my ride to work a few days before. In my run-up to the announcement, I extolled the virtues of being “out there in it” as much as possible to increase your odds of encountering something really cool. Just for the fun of it, let’s run through some of the math that went into my sighting of a lifetime.

I’ve traveled from home in Orrville to my office in Millersburg each workday since early 2008. The vast majority of those trips have either been entirely by bicycle or a combination of truck and bike where I leave the truck in Fredericksburg and ride the trail the remaining 10 miles into town. I rarely miss a day on the trail.

There are 260 work days in a year, but we can peel off 12 of those for holidays and a couple of weeks for vacation and then just round the whole mess down to a conservative 200 round-trips per year on that same chunk of trail. That’s 4,000 miles (or about 200 hours) each year — for 12 years. That pencils out to around 48,000 miles or 2,400 hours. That’s the time I put in to finally have a “close encounter” with a species I’ve been fascinated with since I was a kid: the North American river otter.

The stars seemed to align almost magically to put me in the right spot at precisely the right second to spy not just one otter, but also a family of three happily slinking their way along the trail and headed right at me. Just a few minutes before, I had paused along the route to watch a quartet of sandhill cranes settle into the wetland. Had I not slowed to marvel over the clatter of the gigantic birds, I would have surely ridden up on the otters at full speed and undoubtedly frightened them off. Instead, I was able to quietly coast my bike to a stop, hidden by the wooden railing of a bridge over a small tributary draining to nearby Killbuck Creek.

I surmised the trio was headed to hunt a little pool in the stream channel that had been held back by the latest efforts of the ever-busy beaver family that calls the nearby marsh home. Figuring I’d never be lucky enough to grab a clear “still” photo of the swiftly moving critters, I pulled my iPhone from my pocket, set it to video and aimed the camera at the water.

Seconds seemed like hours, and I doubt I even had the presence of mind to breathe as I waited, praying for just a glimpse. And then it came. One splash, then a second and a third, and three of the most exciting, entertaining and rarely seen animals in Ohio were swimming around not more than 15 yards away from me. I caught about two full minutes of video until it became apparent the mother otter and her two pups were in no hurry at all to travel on.

This little pool was the perfect site for the day’s lesson: how to catch fish with nothing more than whiskers, paws and teeth. I put down the phone and reached into my jersey pocket for my camera and started shooting.

Although a native species of the state, the last remaining river otters were driven out of Ohio in the early 1950s. Over-harvesting along with habitat loss while the frontier was being “tamed” had been the early culprits, but declining water quality was the final death knell. A voracious hunter, the otter had lost the majority of its diet (fish and amphibians) to widespread water pollution in the years before the Clean Water Act. This, along with the decimation of the water-loving mammal’s favored habitat of wetlands and tree-lined riparian (river) corridors, had left only a handful of isolated, dead-end populations. By mid-century even those enclaves were gone.

Things began to turn around with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. These two critical pieces of legislation worked to halt the relentless degradation of natural ecosystems and began the restoration of habitats capable of supporting populations of river otter, sandhill cranes, bald eagles and so many other species I write about on these pages. The biggest leap in the right direction for the river otter came in 1986 when the animals were reintroduced to our area. I’ll be telling you more about that in next week’s column.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email

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