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In Our Own Backyard...You 'otter' be in pictures

It only took me one paddle stroke to feel as though I'd never been away.

The ice on our small lake didn't go out until early last week, but I was out on the water in my kayak by Thursday. It was just a month ago that I walked down to the lake in snow over my knees and spotted the spine of my bright yellow kayak sticking out through the snow like a beached banana.

The whole "spring thing" happened so fast this year that I was startled to see how rapidly the snow disappeared, leaving my kayak high and dry and ready to launch.

My day off couldn't have come at a more opportune time. I waited until the sun was high enough in the sky to actually generate some warmth before climbing into my kayak boots and fleece jacket and heading for the shoreline with camera in tow.

We'd been hearing the loons fly over for a good week and a half before the ice ever went out. It took them only a matter of hours to discover a strip of open water big enough to allow them enough space to land. Generally in the spring of the year, one loon comes back first and spends a week or two of lonely longing before the second one joins him. That was not the case this year. As I paddled up to the pair in a secluded bay of the lake, they were quietly fishing together. Every once in a while they'd set up a clamorous (or should I say, "amorous"?) series of calls and yodels that filled the airspace over the lake that had long been silent.

It was too early in the breeding season for the loon pair to be concerned about me and the strange, floating watercraft I paddled in, and they frequently surfaced so close that I could easily see the red of their eyes. I felt as though some strange part of me was suddenly whole again.

As I worked my way down the lake, I realized the loons and I weren't the only ones to be taking advantage of the sudden appearance of spring. I spied a large turtle sunning itself from atop a deadhead just off shore. It wasn't long before I spotted another sunning turtle, and then another, and another. And pretty soon, I realized that almost as far as the eye could see, every rock and exposed timber had a turtle sitting atop it in the sunshine! I soon discovered they were far shier than the loons, however, and as I glided silently forward, each of them slid urgently into the water. I almost felt bad to think I had taken them away from their sun baths!

As I was looking at the turtles, a large shadow passed over the water from above, and I gazed up just in time to see an adult eagle soaring around that end of the lake. His wings were set as he somehow detected hidden air currents and moved in giant circles without ever having to flap his wings. In another month and a half or so, his presence will set the loons into panicky cries as they attempt to decoy him away from their chicks. But for today, at least, his passage was silent and dignified.

I have a favorite channel that leads into a neighboring lake, where the shoreline is close on either side and a natural dam attracts all kinds of wildlife to the pool just above it. As I paused to look around, I heard a slight rustling along the shoreline, and I looked up just as a weasel -- the brown version of winter's ermine -- skittered along the dam and disappeared into the woods.

Thinking I really should get my camera out, I heard a much louder rustling along the shoreline. I gazed over my shoulder and came eye to eye with an otter. He had been headed along the top of the bank when the two of us spotted each other, and there's no telling which of us was the more startled. I recalled a similar encounter last summer when four otters came swimming obliviously right toward me. Rather than take advantage of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shoot a remarkable close-up, I panicked, recalling that a woman had been attacked by an otter a couple of years ago in Wisconsin.

It took me a long time to stop kicking myself over blowing that photo opportunity, but here it was again, right at my fingertips! The otter came charging down the bank, seemingly straight at me. I nervously fingered my camera for a split second, but then I recalled that another woman had been attacked by an otter last summer in nearby Island Lake. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I panicked once again, stuffing my camera back into its case and preparing to deter the charging otter. As he reached the water, he plunged in with a mighty splash and I held my breath, with paddle poised above the water -- as a trail of underwater bubbles disappeared down the channel.

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