Gateway to the Classics: Secrets of the Woods by William J. Long
Secrets of the Woods by  William J. Long


WHEREVER you find Keeonekh the otter you find three other things: wildness, beauty, and running water that no winter can freeze. There is also good fishing, but that will profit you little; for after Keeonekh has harried a pool it is useless to cast your fly or minnow there. The largest fish has disappeared—you will find his bones and a fin or two on the ice or the nearest bank—and the little fish are still in hiding after their fright.

Conversely, wherever you find the three elements mentioned you will also find Keeonekh, if your eyes know how to read the signs aright. Even in places near the towns, where no otter has been seen for generations, they are still to be found leading their shy wild life, so familiar with every sight and sound of danger that no eye of the many that pass by ever sees them. No animal has been more persistently trapped and hunted for the valuable fur that he bears; but Keeonekh is hard to catch and quick to learn. When a family have all been caught or driven away from a favorite stream, another otter speedily finds the spot in some of his winter wanderings after better fishing, and, knowing well from the signs that others of his race have paid the sad penalty for heedlessness, he settles down there with greater watchfulness, and enjoys his fisherman's luck.

In the spring he brings a mate to share his rich living. Soon a family of young otters go a-fishing in the best pools and explore the stream for miles up and down. But so shy and wild and quick to hide are they that the trout fishermen who follow the river, and the ice fishermen who set their tilt-ups in the pond below, and the children who gather cowslips in the spring have no suspicion that the original proprietors of the stream are still on the spot, jealously watching and resenting every intrusion.

Occasionally the wood choppers cross an unknown trail in the snow, a heavy trail, with long, sliding, down-hill plunges which look as if a log had been dragged along. But they too go their way, wondering a bit at the queer things that live in the woods, but not understanding the plain records that the queer things leave behind them. Did they but follow far enough they would find the end of the trail in open water, and on the ice beyond the signs of Keeonekh's fishing.

I remember one otter family whose den I found, when a boy, on a stream between two ponds within three miles of the town house. Yet the oldest hunter could barely remember the time when the last otter had been caught or seen in the county.

I was sitting very still in the bushes on the bank, one day in spring, watching for a wood duck. Wood duck lived there, but the cover was so thick that I could never surprise them. They always heard me coming and were off, giving me only vanishing glimpses among the trees, or else quietly hiding until I went by. So the only way to see them—a beautiful sight they were—was to sit still in hiding, for hours if need be, until they came gliding by, all unconscious of the watcher.

As I waited a large animal came swiftly up stream, just his head visible, with a long tail trailing behind. He was swimming powerfully, steadily, straight as a string; but, as I noted with wonder, he made no ripple whatever, sliding through the water as if greased from nose to tail. Just above me he dived, and I did not see him again, though I watched up and down stream breathlessly for him to reappear.

I had never seen such an animal before, but I knew somehow that it was an otter, and I drew back into better hiding with the hope of seeing the rare creature again. Presently another otter appeared, coming up stream and disappearing in exactly the same way as the first. But though I stayed all the afternoon I saw nothing more.

After that I haunted the spot every time I could get away, creeping down to the river bank and lying in hiding hours long at a stretch; for I knew now that the otters lived there, and they gave me many glimpses of a life I had never seen before.

Soon I found their den. It was in a bank opposite my hiding place, and the entrance was among the roots of a great tree, under water, where no one could have possibly found it if the otters had not themselves shown the way. In their approach they always dived while yet well out in the stream, and so entered their door unseen. When they came out they were quite as careful, always swimming some distance under water before coming to the surface. It was several days before my eye could trace surely the faint undulation of the water above them, and so follow their course to their doorway. Had not the water been shallow I should never have found it; for they are the most wonderful of swimmers, making no ripple on the surface, and not half the disturbance below it that a fish of the same weight makes.

Those were among the happiest watching hours that I have ever spent in the woods. The game was so large, so utterly unexpected; and I had the wonderful discovery all to myself. Not one of the half dozen boys and men who occasionally, when the fever seized them, trapped muskrat in the big meadow, a mile below, or the rare mink that hunted frogs in the brook, had any suspicion that such splendid fur was to be had for the hunting.

Sometimes a whole afternoon would go slowly by, filled with the sounds and sweet smells of the woods, and not a ripple would break the dimples of the stream before me. But when, one late afternoon, just as the pines across the stream began to darken against the western light, a string of silver bubbles shot across the stream and a big otter rose to the surface with a pickerel in his mouth, all the watching that had not well repaid itself was swept out of the reckoning. He came swiftly towards me, put his fore paws against the bank, gave a wriggling jump,—and there he was, not twenty feet away, holding the pickerel down with his fore paws, his back arched like a frightened cat, and a tiny stream of water trickling down from the tip of his heavy pointed tail, as he ate his fish with immense relish.

Years afterward, hundreds of miles away on the Dungarvon, in the heart of the wilderness, every detail of the scene came back to me again. I was standing on snowshoes, looking out over the frozen river, when Keeonekh appeared in an open pool with a trout in his mouth. He broke his way, with a clattering tinkle of winter bells, through the thin edge of ice, put his paws against the heavy snow ice, threw himself out with the same wriggling jump, and ate with his back arched—just as I had seen him years before.

This curious way of eating is, I think, characteristic of all otters; certainly of those that I have been fortunate enough to see. Why they do it is more than I know; but it must be uncomfortable for every mouthful—full of fish bones, too—to slide uphill to one's stomach. Perhaps it is mere habit, which shows in the arched backs of all the weasel family. Perhaps it is to frighten any enemy that may approach unawares while Keeonekh is eating, just as an owl, when feeding on the ground, bristles up all his feathers so as to look as big as possible.

But my first otter was too keen-scented to remain long so near a concealed enemy. Suddenly he stopped eating and turned his head in my direction. I could see his nostrils twitching as the wind gave him its message. Then he left his fish, glided into the stream as noiselessly as the brook entered it below him, and disappeared without leaving a single wavelet to show where he had gone down.

When the young otters appeared, there was one of the most interesting lessons to be seen in the woods. Though Keeonekh loves the water and lives in it more than half the time, his little ones are afraid of it as so many kittens. If left to themselves they would undoubtedly go off for a hunting life, following the old family instinct; for fishing is an acquired habit of the otters, and so the fishing instinct cannot yet be transmitted to the little ones. That will take many generations. Meanwhile the little Keeonekhs must be taught to swim.

One day the mother-otter appeared on the bank among the roots of the great tree under which was their secret doorway. That was surprising, for up to this time both otters had always approached it from the river, and were never seen on the bank near their den. She appeared to be digging, but was immensely cautious about it, looking, listening, sniffing continually. I had never gone near the place for fear of frightening them away; and it was months afterward, when the den was deserted, before I examined it to understand just what she was doing. Then I found that she had made another doorway from her den leading out to the bank. She had selected the spot with wonderful cunning,—a hollow under a great root that would never be noticed,—and she dug from inside, carrying the earth down to the river bottom, so that there should be nothing about the tree to indicate the haunt of an animal.

Long afterwards, when I had grown better acquainted with Keeonekh's ways from much watching, I understood the meaning of all this. She was simply making a safe way out and in for the little ones, who were afraid of the water. Had she taken or driven them out of her own entrance under the river, they might easily have drowned ere they reached the surface.

When the entrance was all ready she disappeared, but I have no doubt she was just inside, watching to be sure the coast was clear. Slowly her head and neck appeared till they showed clear of the black roots. She turned her nose up stream—nothing in the wind. Eyes and ears searched below—nothing harmful there. Then she came out, and after her toddled two little otters, full of wonder at the big bright world, full of fear at the river.

There was no play at first, only wonder and investigation. Caution was born in them; they put their little feet down as if treading on eggs, and they sniffed every bush before going behind it. And the old mother noted their cunning with satisfaction while her own nose and ears watched far away.

The outing was all too short; some uneasiness was in the air down stream. Suddenly she rose from where she was lying, and the little ones, as if commanded, tumbled back into the den. In a moment she had glided after them, and the bank was deserted. It was fully ten minutes before my untrained ears caught faint sounds, which were not of the woods, coming up stream; and longer than that before two men with fish poles appeared, making their slow way to the pond above. They passed almost over the den and disappeared, all unconscious of beast or man that wished them elsewhere, resenting their noisy passage through the solitudes. But the otters did not come out again, though I watched till nearly dark.

It was a week before I saw them again, and some good teaching had evidently been done in the meantime; for all fear of the river was gone. They toddled out as before, at the same hour in the afternoon, and went straight to the bank. There the mother lay down, and the little ones, as if enjoying the frolic, clambered up to her back. Whereupon she slid into the stream and swam slowly about with the little Keeonekhs clinging to her desperately, as if humpty-dumpty had been played on them before, and might be repeated any moment.

I understood their air of anxious expectation a moment later, when Mother Otter dived like a flash from under them, leaving them to make their own way in the water. They began to swim naturally enough, but the fear of the new element was still upon them. The moment old Mother Otter appeared they made for her whimpering, but she dived again and again, or moved slowly away, and so kept them swimming. After a little they seemed to tire and lose courage. Her eyes saw it quicker than mine, and she glided between them. Both little ones turned in at the same instant and found a resting place on her back. So she brought them carefully to land again, and in a few moments they were all rolling about in the dry leaves like so many puppies.

I must confess here that, besides the boy's wonder in watching the wild things, another interest brought me to the river bank and kept me studying Keeonekh's ways. Father Otter was a big fellow,—enormous he seemed to me, thinking of my mink skins,—and occasionally, when his rich coat glinted in the sunshine, I was thinking what a famous cap it would make for the winter woods, or for coasting on moonshiny nights. More often I was thinking what famous things a boy could buy for the fourteen dollars, at least, which his pelt would bring in the open market.

The first Saturday after I saw him I prepared a board, ten times bigger than a mink-stretcher, and tapered one end to a round point, and split it, and made a wedge, and smoothed it all down, and hid it away—to stretch the big otter's skin upon when I should catch him.

When November came, and fur was prime, I carried down a half-bushel basket of heads and stuff from the fish market, and piled them up temptingly on the bank, above a little water path, in a lonely spot by the river. At the lower end of the path, where it came out of the water, I set a trap, my biggest one, with a famous grip for skunks and woodchucks. But the fish rotted away, as did also another basketful in another place. Whatever was eaten went to the crows and mink. Keeonekh disdained it.

Then I set the trap in some water (to kill the smell of it) on a game path among some swamp alders, at a bend of the river where nobody ever came and where I had found Keeonekh's tracks. The next night he walked into it. But the trap that was sure grip for woodchucks was a plaything for Keeonekh's strength. He wrenched his foot out of it, leaving me only a few glistening hairs—which was all I ever caught of him.

Years afterward, when I found old Noel's trap on Keeonekh's portage, I asked Simmo why no bait had been used.

"No good use-um bait," he said, "Keeonekh like-um fresh fish, an' catch-um self all he want." And that is true. Except in starvation times, when even the pools are frozen, or the fish die from one of their mysterious epidemics, Keeonekh turns up his nose at any bait. If a bit of castor is put in a split stick, he will turn aside, like all the fur-bearers, to see what this strange smell is. But if you would toll him with a bait, you must fasten a fish in the water in such a way that it seems alive as the current wiggles it, else Keeonekh will never think it worthy of his catching.

The den in the river bank was never disturbed, and the following year another litter was raised there. With characteristic cunning—a cunning which grows keener and keener in the neighborhood of civilization—the mother-otter filled up the land entrance among the roots with earth and driftweed, using only the doorway under water until it was time for the cubs to come out into the world again.

Of all the creatures of the wilderness Keeonekh is the most richly gifted, and his ways, could we but search them out, would furnish a most interesting chapter. Every journey he takes, whether by land or water, is full of unknown traits and tricks; but unfortunately no one ever sees him doing things, and most of his ways are yet to be found out. You see a head holding swiftly across a wilderness lake, or coming to meet your canoe on the streams; then, as you follow eagerly, a swirl and he is gone. When he comes up again he will watch you so much more keenly than you can possibly watch him that you learn little about him, except how shy he is. Even the trappers who make a business of catching him, and with whom I have often talked, know almost nothing of Keeonekh, except where to set their traps for him living and how to care for his skin when he is dead.


Once I saw him fishing in a curious way. It was winter, on a wilderness stream flowing into the Dungarvon. There had been a fall of dry snow that still lay deep and powdery over all the woods, too light to settle or crust. At every step one had to lift a shovelful of the stuff on the point of his snowshoe; and I was tired out, following some caribou that wandered like plover in the rain.

Just below me was a deep open pool surrounded by double fringes of ice. Early in the winter, while the stream was higher, the white ice had formed thickly on the river wherever the current was not too swift for freezing. Then the stream fell, and a shelf of new black ice formed at the water's level, eighteen inches or more below the first ice, some of which still clung to the banks, reaching out in places two or three feet and forming dark caverns with the ice below. Both shelves dipped towards the water, forming a gentle incline all about the edges of the open places.

A string of silver bubbles shooting across the black pool at my feet roused me out of a drowsy weariness. There it was again, a rippling wave across the pool, which rose to the surface a moment later in a hundred bubbles, tinkling like tiny bells as they broke in the keen air. Two or three times I saw it with growing wonder. Then something stirred under the shelf of ice across the pool. An otter slid into the water; the rippling wave shot across again; the bubbles broke at the surface; and I knew that he was sitting under the white ice below me, not twenty feet away.

A whole family of otters, three or four of them, were fishing there at my feet in utter unconsciousness. The discovery took my breath away. Every little while the bubbles would shoot across from my side, and watching sharply I would see Keeonekh slide out upon the lower shelf of ice on the other side and crouch there in the gloom, with back humped against the ice above him, eating his catch. The fish they caught were all small evidently, for after a few minutes he would throw himself flat on the ice, slide down the incline into the water, making no splash or disturbance as he entered, and the string of bubbles would shoot across to my side again.


With back humped against the ice above him, eating his catch.

For a full hour I watched them breathlessly, marveling at their skill. A small fish is nimble game to follow and catch in his own element. But at every slide Keeonekh did it. Sometimes the rippling wave would shoot all over the pool, and the bubbles break in a wild tangle as the fish darted and doubled below, with the otter after him. But it always ended the same way. Keeonekh would slide out upon the ice shelf, and hump his back, and begin to eat almost before the last bubble had tinkled behind him.

Curiously enough, the rule of the salmon fishermen prevailed here in the wilderness: no two rods shall whip the same pool at the same time. I would see an otter lying ready on the ice, evidently waiting for the chase to end. Then, as another otter slid out beside him with his fish, in he would go like a flash and take his turn. For a while the pool was a lively place; the bubbles had no rest. Then the plunges grew fewer and fewer, and the otters all disappeared into the ice caverns.

What became of them I could not make out; and I was too chilled to watch longer. Above and below the pool the stream was frozen for a distance; then there was more open water and more fishing. Whether they followed along the bank under cover of the ice to other pools, or simply slept where they were till hungry again, I never found out. Certainly they had taken up their abode in an ideal spot, and would not leave it willingly. The open pools gave excellent fishing, and the upper ice shelf protected them perfectly from all enemies.

Once, a week later, I left the caribou and came back to the spot to watch awhile; but the place was deserted. The black water gurgled and dimpled across the pool, and slipped away silently under the lower edge of ice undisturbed by strings of silver bubbles. The ice caverns were all dark and silent. The mink had stolen the fish heads, and there was no trace anywhere to show that it was Keeonekh's banquet hall.

The swimming power of an otter, which was so evident there in the winter pool, is one of the most remarkable things in nature. All other animals and birds, and even the best modeled of modern boats, leave more or less wake behind them when moving through the water. But Keeonekh leaves no more trail than a fish. This is partly because he keeps his body well submerged when swimming, partly because of the strong, deep, even stroke that drives him forward. Sometimes I have wondered if the outer hairs of his coat—the waterproof covering that keeps his fur dry, no matter how long he swims—are not better oiled than in other animals, which might account for the lack of ripple. I have seen him go down suddenly and leave absolutely no break in the surface to show where he was. When sliding also, plunging down a twenty-foot clay bank, he enters the water with an astonishing lack of noise or disturbance of any kind.

In swimming at the surface he seems to use all four feet, like other animals. But below the surface, when chasing fish, he uses only the fore paws. The hind legs then stretch straight out behind and are used, with the heavy tail, for a great rudder. By this means he turns and doubles like a flash, following surely the swift dartings of frightened trout, and beating them by sheer speed and nimbleness.

When fishing a pool he always hunts outward from the center, driving the fish towards the bank, keeping himself within their circlings, and so having the immense advantage of the shorter line in heading off his game. The fish are seized as they crouch against the bank for protection, or try to dart out past him. Large fish are frequently caught from behind as they lie resting in their spring-holes. So swift and noiseless is his approach that they are seized before they become aware of danger.

This swimming power of Keeonekh is all the more astonishing when one remembers that he is distinctively a land animal, with none of the special endowments of the seal, who is his only rival as a fisherman. Nature undoubtedly intended him to get his living, as the other members of his large family do, by hunting in the woods, and endowed him accordingly. He is a strong runner, a good climber, a patient tireless hunter, and his nose is keen as a brier. With a little practice he could again get his living by hunting, as his ancestors did. If squirrels and rats and rabbits were too nimble at first, there are plenty of musquash to be caught, and he need not stop at a fawn or a sheep, for he is enormously strong, and the grip of his jaws is not to be loosened.

In severe winters, when fish are scarce or his pools frozen over, he takes to the woods boldly and shows himself a master at hunting craft. But he likes fish, and likes the water, and for many generations now has been simply a fisherman, with many of the quiet lovable traits that belong to fishermen in general.

That is one thing to give you instant sympathy for Keeonekh—he is so different, so far above all other members of his tribe. He is very gentle by nature, with no trace of the fisher's ferocity or the weasel's bloodthirstiness. He tames easily, and makes the most docile and affectionate pet of all the wood folk. He never kills for the sake of killing, but lives peaceably, so far as he can, with all creatures. And he stops fishing when he has caught his dinner. He is also most cleanly in his habits, with no suggestion whatever of the evil odors that cling to the mink and defile the whole neighborhood of a skunk. One cannot help wondering whether just going fishing has not wrought all this wonder in Keeonekh's disposition. If so, 'tis a pity that all his tribe do not turn fishermen.

His one enemy among the wood folk, so far as I have observed, is the beaver. As the latter is also a peaceable animal, it is difficult to account for the hostility. I have heard or read somewhere that Keeonekh is fond of young beaver and hunts them occasionally to vary his diet of fish; but I have never found any evidence in the wilderness to show this. Instead, I think it is simply a matter of the beaver's dam and pond that causes the trouble.

When the dam is built the beavers often dig a channel around either end to carry off the surplus water, and so prevent their handiwork being washed away in a freshet. Then the beavers guard their preserve jealously, driving away the wood folk that dare to cross their dam or enter their ponds, especially the musquash, who is apt to burrow and cause them no end of trouble. But Keeonekh, secure in his strength, holds straight through the pond, minding his own business and even taking a fish or two in the deep places near the dam. He delights also in running water, especially in winter when lakes and streams are mostly frozen, and in his journeyings he makes use of the open channels that guard the beavers' work. But the moment the beavers hear a splashing there, or note a disturbance in the pond where Keeonekh is chasing fish, down they come full of wrath. And there is generally a desperate fight before the affair is settled.

Once, on a little pond, I saw a fierce battle going on out in the middle, and paddled hastily to find out about it. Two beavers and a big otter were locked in a death struggle, diving, plunging, throwing themselves out of water, and snapping at each other's throats.

As my canoe halted the otter gripped one of his antagonists and went under with him. There was a terrible commotion below the surface for a few moments. When it ended the beaver rolled up dead, and Keeonekh shot up under the second beaver to repeat the attack. They gripped on the instant, but the second beaver, an enormous fellow, refused to go under where he would be at a disadvantage. In my eagerness I let the canoe drift almost upon them, driving them wildly apart before the common danger. The otter held on his way up the lake; the beaver turned towards the shore, where I noticed for the first time a couple of beaver houses.

In this case there was no chance for intrusion on Keeonekh's part. He had probably been attacked when going peaceably about his business through the lake.

It is barely possible, however, that there was an old grievance on the beavers' part, which they sought to square when they caught Keeonekh on the lake. When beavers build their houses on the lake shore, without the necessity for making a dam, they generally build a tunnel slanting up from the lake's bed to their den or house on the bank. Now Keeonekh fishes under the ice in winter more than is generally supposed. As he must breathe after every chase he must needs know all the air-holes and dens in the whole lake. No matter how much he turns and doubles in the chase after a trout, he never loses his sense of direction, never forgets where the breathing places are. When his fish is seized he makes a bee line under the ice for the nearest place where he can breathe and eat. Sometimes this lands him, out of breath, in the beaver's tunnel; and the beaver must sit upstairs in his own house, nursing his wrath, while Keeonekh eats fish in his hallway; for there is not room for both at once in the tunnel, and a fight there or under the ice is out of the question. As the beaver eats only bark—the white inner layer of "popple" bark is his chief dainty—he cannot understand and cannot tolerate this barbarian, who eats raw fish and leaves the bones and fins and the smell of slime in his doorway. The beaver is exemplary in his neatness, detesting all smells and filth; and this may possibly account for some of his enmity and his savage attacks upon Keeonekh when he catches him in a good place.

Not the least interesting of Keeonekh's queer ways is his habit of sliding down hill, which makes a bond of sympathy and brings him close to the boyhood memories of those who know him.

I remember one pair of otters that I watched for the better part of a sunny afternoon sliding down a clay bank with endless delight. The slide had been made, with much care evidently, on the steep side of a little promontory that jutted into the river. It was very steep, about twenty feet high, and had been made perfectly smooth by much sliding and wetting-down. An otter would appear at the top of the bank, throw himself forward on his belly and shoot downward like a flash, diving deep under water and reappearing some distance out from the foot of the slide. And all this with marvelous stillness, as if the very woods had ears and were listening to betray the shy creatures at their fun. For it was fun, pure and simple, and fun with no end of tingle and excitement in it, especially when one tried to catch the other and shot into the water at his very heels.

This slide was in perfect condition, and the otters were careful not to roughen it. They never scrambled up over it, but went round the point and climbed from the other side, or else went up parallel to the slide, some distance away, where the ascent was easier and where there was no danger of rolling stones or sticks upon the coasting ground to spoil its smoothness.

In winter the snow makes better coasting than the clay. Moreover it soon grows hard and icy from the freezing of the water left by the otter's body, and after a few days the slide is as smooth as glass. Then coasting is perfect, and every otter, old and young, has his favorite slide and spends part of every pleasant day enjoying the fun.

When traveling through the woods in deep snow, Keeonekh makes use of his sliding habit to help him along, especially on down grades. He runs a little way and throws himself forward on his belly, sliding through the snow for several feet before he runs again. So his progress is a series of slides, much as one hurries along in slippery weather.

I have spoken of the silver bubbles that first drew my attention to the fishing otters one day in the wilderness. From the few rare opportunities that I have had to watch them, I think that the bubbles are seen only after Keeonekh slides swiftly into the stream. The air clings to the hairs of his rough outer coat and is brushed from them as he passes through the water. One who watches him thus, shooting down the long slide belly-bump into the black winter pool, with a string of silver bubbles breaking and tinkling above him, is apt to know the hunter's change of heart from the touch of Nature which makes us all kin. Thereafter he eschews trapping—at least you will not find his number-three trap at the foot of Keeonekh's slide any more, to turn the shy creature's happiness into tragedy—and he sends a hearty good-luck after his fellow-fisherman, whether he meet him on the wilderness lakes or in the quiet places on the home streams where nobody ever comes.

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