Stories from the Mississippi
A small frog along the bank of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
Bald Eagles and Otters Mark a River's Comeback
Wisps of early morning fog drifted across the surface of the Mississippi River. I wondered if this could be the water spirit the Ojibwa Indians had told me about.
As I loaded my canoe, small frogs hopped around my feet. A few yards down river, a couple of turtles sat perched on a large rock that protruded from the water. A deer grazed along a narrow side channel. The air was quiet, peaceful.
Soon the heat of the sun melted the fog, leaving blue skies and clear water.
It wasn't that long ago when the health of the Mississippi River was so promising. But, industrial waste has taken its toll on the river.
"In 1965, you could stick your arm in the water up to your elbow and not see your hand," said Dave Peterson of Little Falls, Minnesota.
Discharge from paper mills and factories into the river almost killed it. The Clean Water Act of 1972 saved the river and has helped return it to a healthier state.
An abandoned paper mill on the Mississippi River near Sartell, MN.
The one animal - river otter - I was hoping to see on the river had eluded me. Heading outdoors and being surrounded by nature is not like going to the zoo where you are guaranteed to see animals. There are several variables that influence animal behavior. Things like time of year and time of day can have a large impact.
As I paddled down the river, I spotted an adult bald eagle perched in a dead tree. Below was a brown juvenile on the bank. As I got closer to the eagles, I saw three dark-bodied animals swimming around in a bed of weeds.
My heart started to race a little faster as I realized it was a family of wild river otters frolicking in the morning sun.
With as little movement as possible, I tried to paddle closer and get in the right position for a photo. Just as I lifted my camera, they spotted me. That was it; they jumped out of the water and disappeared into the tall grass. The camera shutter clicked, but I only got the back view of the last otter slipping off into the tall green grass. I waited a bit, hoping they might become curious about me. No such luck.
I drifted for a few moments to relish in my brief experience. I am always in awe of the never-ending ways life expresses itself. A brief feeling of disappointment for missing the photo tried to creep into my space, but I pushed it away and refused to allow it to taint my joyful moment.
Two animals represent the Mississippi River's comeback: the river otter and the bald eagle. And I had encountered them both.
Concerns about the environment are still valid. At Lake Itasca, for example, the number of loons has diminished.
"We feel it has to do with the BP oil spill in the Gulf because the loons spend the winter on the Gulf Coast," said Captain Coborn as he guided his boat across Lake Itasca. "Last year we had three nesting pairs. This year we have none."
"Another concern is personal watercraft," said Chuck Leavell, a naturalist and retired college professor who spends his summers in northern Minnesota.
"Canoes and jet skis get closer to nesting areas for loons. The proximity of canoes and wakes by the jet skis cause stress and disturb the birds," Leavell explained.
"We don't know the entire impact of the Gulf oil spill. Scientific research needs to be conducted," Leavell concluded.
I do know this. Without the evening calls of the loons, Minnesota would be a very different place. Once you hear the call of a loon, you never forget it.
An hour later, as my canoe glided over the water following the west bank, I encountered a solo river otter. Fortunately, I had not been detected as I watched it play 30 yards downstream. The wind played with my canoe as I tried yoga positions previously unknown to my body, twisting it to get a photo.
In the shade of a branch hanging over the river, the otter played and danced in the water for a few minutes. Suddenly its head popped out of the water. He was checking me out. Otters are shy, and that marked the end of our encounter as it dashed up the bank and into the tall weeds.
For the rest of the day, I guided my canoe to Little Falls - past swans, geese, loons and more wildlife - with a big smile.
A wild river otter checks out my canoe on the upper Mississippi River near Little Falls, MN.