A few weeks ago I was walking in to one of my favorite stretches of the Kinzua Creek in McKean County for a last hurrah in trout fishing. Big browns come upstream for the fall spawn and I wanted to try some of my best holes before switching to “hunting mode” for the season.
It was a cold, clear morning, with that rich, earthy smell of fall. I knew I’d be alone — not only was it late in the year for casual fishermen to be out, this part of the Kinzua is one of its most remote.
As I approached a big pool at a bend under tall hemlocks, I saw movement on the water’s surface. At first I thought it was a beaver swimming in the hole, which actually was a bit annoying — I figured the trout in the hole would be disturbed.
As I edged closer to the bank, I realized there was swirling activity throughout the pool, but it wasn’t beavers.
It was a family of river otters.
What I assumed to be a mother and three pups were diving and swimming in the pool. I was lucky to be screened by low-hanging hemlock bows so they didn’t see me — and standing mere feet away I was treated to one of the most thrilling wildlife sightings of my life.
While the pups played, Mom was more businesslike. She dove under and then would reappear a few moments later, getting up on a fallen tree in the creek to eat her catch, perhaps a chub or crayfish. One pup also alighted on a log at the top of the pool a couple times, gobbling its catch between intervals of twisting, turning water play with its siblings.
It lasted a few minutes. A pair of the pups got up on the bank almost at my feet. The closest otter had a small sucker in its mouth, which explained why its sibling was in pursuit. The otter with the fish froze in an instant, let out a small squeak and dove over the bank into the water.
Like that they were gone.
I scored myself a little for not having my cell phone — and its camera — with me, but only a little. Had I been fumbling with it, trying to get a shot, I would have been detected all the sooner and I would have missed much of the show.
And, truly, the episode will be etched in my memory, almost as if I had video to play back time and time again. The fact that it can’t be shared with others perhaps makes it even more special.
The encounter was certainly proof of the success that Pennsylvania wildlife managers have had in reintroducing otters into the Allegheny and Susquehanna river systems, an effort that began in the 1980s. I had never seen an otter myself, but I have seen otter sign along the Clarion River and had certainly read about otters expanding their range.
It’s a conservation success story made possible by a combination of protections as well as improvement of environmental standards from a time when clean water and air was not always the first priority.
That part of the Kinzua I was on has old, capped oil wells along its banks. Yet here and there, especially in the spring when so much water is welling out of the saturated ground, a broken pipe can still let out a small petroleum ooze. In my opinion, nothing to get alarmed about, but it’s a reminder of what once was.
Almost a century ago, I’m not sure anyone could have witnessed otters frolicking in upper Kinzua Creek, reintroduction efforts or not.
In a region where so many hunters and fishermen share politically conservative views, terms like “environmental regulation” and “clean water” need not be spoken as curse words. The life we lead, much of it centered on outdoor recreation, depends as much on prudent, vigilant stewardship of our natural resources as so many jobs and livelihoods depend on what we can extract from our forests and hillsides.
At Thanksgiving time, it’s appropriate to suggest there is room at the table — indeed there must be — for the points of view regarding economic necessity weighed with preserving what makes living and recreating in the Twin Tiers so wonderful.
How could anyone thrill at seeing a bald eagle flying over yet begrudge the environmental protections that allowed such a successful comeback of the species? Who would relish a delicious dinner of fillets from fat walleye caught in the Allegheny Reservoir yet reflexively oppose anyone who demands protection of water-quality standards?
We need heat, light and transportation to live, absolutely. We need the energy that comes out of Pennsylvania’s ground. But we also need the best practices in taking out that energy while still making our life here worth living.
It’s up to us — all of us — to continue to figure out how we can have both.
(Jim Eckstrom is executive editor of Bradford Publishing Co. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)