River otter sketch from sketchbook of famed naturalist/wildlife biologist, Olaus Murie.

With a fresh skiff of snow, it was time to get outside to play. I quickly rubbed in a thin layer of green (cold weather) wax over the kick zone of my classic cross country skis and headed out. Twenty minutes later I skied out on to the white expanse of Horseleg Lake. Conditions were perfect and even though I didn’t have a groomed trail, it was delightful striding down the lake.

Up ahead of me I spied four trails of tracks converging towards me. Approaching the snow paths, the imprint appeared as a winter morse code with a long dashes, interspersed with two pairs of punched dots.  A few more strides and I glided to a stop over the tobogganing tracks of river otters.

I smiled, remembering a bitter cold hike with a University mammalogist up in Itasca State Park during a Christmas Bird Count back in the mid 1970s. I was engrossed with his tracking knowledge, particularly in identifying small mammal tracks. He became excited when we came across the track of an otter sliding through the woods. He pointed and said, “Otter tracks are like the front of a 1967 Pontiac. . . .the pushing pair of back feet resemble the stacked pair of headlights and the slide through the snow is the grill of the car connecting the other pair of headlights.”

The lake tracks I studied were clearly laid out. Each stretching glide over the snow was interspersed by two or three pushes with their feet. Sliding in snow is more efficient than continual loping on short legs.

The foot print itself is broader than a fox, more the size of a smaller coyote. Like other members of the weasel family there are five distinct webbed toes on each foot. The back foot is slightly larger than the front and I could make out the distinct rear foot toe that sticks slightly out to the side.

Was this quartet of mustelids a family group of now nearly full-grown otters? Or was it just a bunch of cronies out for a slide?

I decided to follow their path. It’s always exciting to find fresh tracks because you absolutely know that at the end of those tracks is a live animal. And in following and reading the tracks you get a snapshot of their lives. You can learn things such as the track-makers behavior and rate of travel.

The four trails converged, leaving the unbroken lake surface to disappear into the bordering wall of thick dried cattails. To navigate the dense cover, I had to get out of my skis and make my way slowly through the snapping and breaking cattails. 

I didn’t have to go far before I found a saucer-sized hole in the ice not far from the snow-covered dome of a muskrat house. A stain of mud rimmed the hole and bending closer I spied what looked like a twig but was a small jointed leg of a crayfish. Otter food. 

So what appeared as a playful slide across the lake was in fact a commute of sorts to a food source. Wildlife biologists and naturalists have noted that the incidence of otter play, fooling around wrestling with each other or sliding down a bank and in the snow, is more likely when they have an abundance of food. It makes sense. Low food resources or other stresses results in less energy to waste in playful activities.

A few years ago while winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, I had the opportunity to watch an otter emerge from a dark section of open water where a stream entered the lake. The slender predator had a small fish in its mouth. A second otter soon slipped out of the water and pushed itself close to the successful angler. The otter with the fish quickly chewed and swallowed the fish.  Both otters began to roll over and over in the fresh snow. They vigorously rolled and shook the snow off and finished with another snow roll. 

Even though the air temperature was around zero, the fluffy snow serves as a thick towel of sorts to wick the water off the brown guard hairs of the otter. Beneath the glossy guard hairs is the soft dense layer of oily underfur. Underfur, like the down feathers of a chickadee, trap air and serve as an ideal insulating layer.

The otters loped to the sloped shoreline and lunged up the shoreline hill. One otter wheeled and pushed itself down the hill. The second followed and soon they resembled kids repeatedly climbing a slide and sliding down to repeat it again and again. This was not hunting behavior. It looked to me like sheer play. 

When defining what constitutes “play,” there are a handful of factors to meet. First, according to  University of Tennessee ethologist, Gordon Burhardt, “the action of play doesn’t serve a functional purpose and is performed solely for pleasure.” Burghardt is clear that play is valuable and significant in the development of young animals. Adult animals will also engage in play but it could originate from boredom or simply pleasure.

Clearly, play hones motor skills, strengthens cardiovascular systems, and enhances social communication and bonds. 

Now two weeks later, those benefits of play remind me of the need on this cold, sub-zero day to step back into skis with my wife, Nancy, to get out and have fun in the snow. Move the body, breathe big, enhance bonds

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