Thursday, November 7, 2013

Otter Memories: Ode to Joy

photo credit

Slides, wallows, tracks and scat! Oh, my!

I was lost.  
Sometime after having Thanksgiving dinner by myself in a piano bar in the middle of a completely empty downtown Berkeley, and three Christmas dinners with my boyfriend's feuding family components, he and I just took off and hid for a week.  
I held my nose and talked like an adenoidal head case when I called in sick to work.  
"Yeth, ah tink ah will be owt awl week," I told my Department Chair.  We never said Chairperson, Chairman, Chairwoman.  We just called him "The Chair." 
Jeff was a trust fund baby -- feuding family components make for many guilt-induced cash deposits -- and didn't have to call anyone.  He just made abject excuses to his professors, as he was something of a, well, excuse me for telling the absolute truth -- Jeff was a brown-noser of the first order.
"So where are we going, Bright Eyes?" asked my guy, as he lubed whatever one lubes, and checked tires, and cleaned his beloved rebuilt grey Mustang.
I don't know where it came from, except perhaps for my coffee mug.  I'd never even seen one.  Except on my coffee mug.  It was an off white mug, too small, really, for the amounts of caffeine that I required, and my fingers always felt scrunched and cramped by the handle.  But it had an overlay in dark brown and blues of river otters, two, to be precise, floating on their backs and looking for all the world like God's most contented creatures.  If I could get that much joy from a coffee mug, imagine the possibilities were I to meet the real animals. In my head, I thought "and they, me," but darned if I would have Jeff laughing at me before we even left town.
"We are going to observe otters.  River otters and sea otters." I leaned casually against the tarry telephone pole next to the car, as he slid under the chassis doing whatever it is one does under the chassis.  All I knew was that I had tar on my jeans and a splinter in my behind.  
"Okay," he yelled, though yelling wasn't necessary.
I was shocked but had enough gumption to run with it.  We were renting an apartment in the basement of a lovely old home on a very dangerous street in Oakland -- clued into its existence by Jeff's cousin, who was writing his doctoral thesis on national parks and their various subdivisions and subcultures.  Although he very rarely left his easy chair by which he stockpiled Rainier Ale on ice in a huge red cooler, Brian was a font of information on where to find stuff.  Otters were stuff, I reasoned, jogging to his front door.
"Hi ya, Brian, can I pick your brain?" I greeted him.
Still wearing the green flannel bathrobe he'd sported three days earlier, he repeated the offer of three-days ago, as well:  "Rainier?" 
I ignored him as he popped the tab. "Your cousin and I are playing hooky this week, and going on an Otter Quest -- you know, those joyous little bubbling blobs that float down our riverways..." 
"The coffee mug strikes again," he crowed.  He was observant to an annoyance and had often remarked on my otter romance, as I suckled my morning brews.
"So where do we go?  How do we catch 'em unawares, twirling and dancing and cavorting and such? C'mon, I know you know," I cajoled.  If that didn't work, I was gonna grab the cooler and run.
"Well, first thing, Grasshopper, snatch the pebbles from my hand... Okay, okay, just leave my cooler alone.  You can start right over in Marin.  Not much of a trip, but they've got otters.  I don't know about the twirling, dancing, cavorting, joyous stuff.  They're animals.  They do what they do.  You are the worst anthropomorphist of all anthropomorphists."
"Thank you," I yelled, barreling through the bushes to our place, where Jeff was washing up, and organizing atlases.  
"We're not going to the North Pole, Sweet Cheeks. In fact, Brian says we can start in Marin!" 
Did I mention that we could hear Brian from our place?
"River Otter Ecology Project, Tomales Bay,  East Bay Regional Park District, you crazies!" yelled Brian.
We set off.  I was just grateful Jeff hadn't dumped all the maps on me, as my idea of west is left, and north?  Well, north is obviously straight ahead.  On our last jaunt, out to find the former Cat Stevens who was visiting a tiny monastery off the Pacific Coast Highway, I used my unique map-reading skills to take us off road and into a weird realm where llamas ruled...
Jeff coordinates everything.  Looking for Yusuf Islam, we had all his albums, from Catch Bull at Four to Tea for the Tillerman to loud voices-lost-in-the-wind renditions of "Trouble," because I'm a Harold and Maude freak and "Peace Train," because, well, "Peace Train" is just a great song to sing in the car.
I settled into my appointed passenger bucket seat, and inquired about the music.  The CD jewel cases were all a little dusty and none jumped out as familiar to me.  Oh, no, he didn't!
Oh, yes, he did.  He was continuing the fruitless endeavor of training me to be like a seal balancing a ball on its nose, waiting for fish -- he was forcing me to love classical music.  Jeff knew everything about music; all I knew was what I knew, and that was whatever I happened to hear and like.  He said snotty things like, "Actually, that's a perfect foundation!" 
We stopped in North Beach at Sotto Mare, and he had a suggestive number of oyster shooters, and kept winking at me.I munched on olives and cheeses, and aromatic breads, washed down with lemon seltzers.  Anyway, I only got us lost once, when I interpreted a veer eastward as taking a right at the end of the next block...
"The theme of this journey to the otters is joy, as the otter is, for you, at least, the very emblem of joy.  Our music, therefore, is joyful. Please insert, dear navigator, the first CD," said the know-it-all driving the car.
I glanced at the case. I knew this one.  Everyone knows this one.  Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Concerto No. 1 -- "Spring."  I rolled my eyes at Jeff.  He laughed and told me to shut up and listen.  
There was an unusual jam on the Golden Gate and I had to admit, as I watched the ships sailing, felt the wind blowing, then warmed my skin with my eyes closed, that Vivaldi might be onto something.  But the joy was so... light.  So into itself. So tra-la-la and I just knew otters were more than skin deep joshing and trills.  I couldn't say any of that, of course, because I know how dumb it sounds.  I just wanted to see an otter, a free otter, and I fell asleep as fumes built up over the bay, all these cars full of fun-seekers, probably a mess of otter seekers among them, everyone listening to otter joy tunes...
"Psst.  Hey, you... Bright Eyes... We're here," whispered Jeff and I was thankful he knew just how to wake me. "Welcome to Tomales Bay, and to the pretty unimpressive headquarters of the River Otter Ecology Project."  
"How many centuries of old dusty joy music did I miss during my snooze?"  I teased.
"I saved the best for last.  Let me finish this Diet Coke, while you wake up to the lovely strains of... ta da...  Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, sometimes just called the Choral, one of the first choral symphonies, where the voice was counted as an instrument. You know it, I know you do.  It's the 'Ode to Joy,' " and he was so joyous in the telling about it that I leaned back in shade of that gravel parking lot, scent of cedar, scent of pine, and let the well-known song bring me to full wakefulness.
"I do know this.  My mom practically strong armed my sister into having it as the processional at her wedding.  I love it...  I do know this!" 
Turns out those were some serious folk at the River Otter Ecology Project, and I had to sort of put a lid on my whatchamacallit anthropomorphism and walk through exhibits about wetlands and learn that my beloved little otters were carnavores and a bit, well, sneaky.  No, "elusive," that was it!  The focused blond people, brown and muscled, all called my balletic water loves "elusive," like they were talking about joyless creatures into hiding and evading, not cavorting and well, you know, all the joyful stuff I was there to witness.
It was hard to pay attention with Jeff humming "Ode to Joy" in my ear.  They'd made a comeback, it turns out, these river otters.  The experts had set up 11 main sites along a huge swath of the coast north of the Golden Gate and used community spotters and trackers, but mostly relied on motion sensitive cameras.  Get this, the community volunteers?  They're called "Otter Spotters." 
"Otter Spotters," I muttered to Jeff. "Where are my otters, cavorting, playing, loving in the sun?"
My darling dear responded as only he could: 
"Smarty pants," but I loved him keeping notes of odes, chorals, bits of Beethoven joy alive even as the khaki ones handed us the tools we needed as we set out to match our joy with the joy of the free river otters -- Scat Bags.  He grinned.  I grit my teeth.
They explained that we'd probably find two different kinds of scat.  Slimy scat and, um, your regular type scat.  This scat was vital, we were told.
We were told about their research and preservation efforts on behalf of my jovial Lontra canadensis, watched videos, and felt ready to take on these fey creatures.  "When do we get to play with the otters?" I whined -- quietly -- as mid-afternoon approached.
And he grinned.
"Okay, you guys are all set to go looking for otters, hopefully to find some family groups, maybe even some pups.  Hang on to your Scat Bags, remember to hang back, be unobtrusive, to never hinder. Key things: Slides, wallows, tracks and scat!  Leave nothing behind!" 
A khaki blond muscled person then gave us a detailed map, with our chosen sector blown up, and asked which we preferred, bicycles, kayak, or canoe? I looked at Jeff and giggled to see that he wasn't emitting musical notation.  "Bicycles, I think," I told her, suddenly feeling like the grown-up in charge.
We really had a nice ride, tiring, and hard, but so cool, so fresh, such smells.  Moss smell, and music in the trees.  Music was beginning to be everywhere.  Voices, and the beginning notes of water, here and there.
Suddenly the path narrowed to brush and grasses, and we were at the water, an inlet, noisy and buzzing, dripping and dipping.  We dropped the bikes and crept forward, both working the mantra:   "Slides, wallows, tracks and scat!  Slides, wallows, tracks and scat! Oh, my!"
And there they were, my water bug love bunnies.  There they were!  Wallowing in their wallow, munching on some unfortunate crustacean, leaning back in water hay, enjoying their day.  Three adults, in otter barcaloungers.  They'd told us back at the Project Center that if we were a bother, the otters would promptly leave.  If we were okay by them, they'd ignore us.
They ignored us!  Well, there was one of the three, the one in the middle, whose butt kept slipping down into water, and was clearly embarrassed about it, that one... I'm pretty sure he flashed me a peace sign and a quick wink.
Done noshing, they slid into the water as if it were part of them, and began to spin, slowly, slowly, faster, slow again, take a quick dip, get that last bit of crustacean crumbs washed away.  The sun was giving out, they were moving on, but making a show of joy for me, for Jeff, for all the Scat Collectors, first.  I heard some squeaks and laughs, saw rotations of delight, and the beginnings of a low-level game of chase.
They circled back around, and my favorite slick guy raised a claw or a paw in gracious good-bye, took a final synchronized dip, and then made their way upstream.
Our legs were rubber by the time we turned in our empty Scat Bags and quietly thanked our hosts for the education, and promised we'd be back.
Jeff was staring at me, lopsided, like I like it. "What?" I asked.
"Your eyes," he said.
Feeling playful, I leaned into him, knowing exactly what I smelled like, for I could smell the river on him, and mud, and sweat. "What, dah-ling, what do you see in mine beautiful eyes?"
"Joy," he said. "Joy."
We headed south to Monterey, stayed in Carmel, saw otters in the ocean, in the aquarium, but headed toward home early to stop again in Marin.  Jeff seemed to think my classical music education was sufficient for the time-being, and we sang a lot of Bonnie Raitt going north, which is, as everyone knows, always straight ahead.

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