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On the Ichetucknee River

Animal Encounters of the Best Kind

By Virginia Seacrist

July 2013

As the river fills up from days and nights of July rain, it blackens the confluence of the Santa Fe River at the Ichetucknee; I can easily hydrobike upriver. Normally the Ichetucknee Head Spring spouts many thousands gallons of pure, clear water, which ripple only inches, or a few feet, over stones seven miles later; that's where it meets the Santa Fe River. One can lie stiffly prone and body surf over those rocks. The Suwanne River fills, pushing excess water into its tributary, the Santa Fe River, which pushes its dark water into its tributary, the clear, blue Ichetucknee. Floods challenge the normal flow from downstream to upstream and rob the Ichetucknee of its clarity.

One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, says, “I can't take you to see the …” whatever wildlife she encounters only by being there. She “stayed too late” by Tinker Creek one night when she had the thrill of seeing an otter tumble in the creek's waters.

She's not quite right, I think, because animals do live in specific places, and they do have routines. For instance, while touring the Galapagos Islands one can be sure to see the penguins or frigate birds or tropic birds, because guides know when they dive from the cliff or nest or mate.

So, on an early morning ride, I am not surprised to see my otters. Usually I can see their little heads float downstream off my bank about 9 AM, as they munch tiny fish they have dived to catch. They have breakfast and dinner at predictable times. They rest on docks or in the shallows at predictable times.

But, they are surprised to see me on my long yellow pontoons this morning. Now, remember that on weekends when the Ichetucknee is flowing in its normal, clear state, you can count 20 to 50 motor boats at the same confluence. But dark water precludes this gathering of Spring lovers. I and the otters are alone during flood times.

As I peddle with the Santa Fe flow into the Spring, two dark little heads are gleefully chewing their breakfast. I glide into their territory, silently, because the hydrobike has no motor; its my energy, not gasoline, peddling to turn the propeller behind the pontoons.

The bike catches both animal's eyes simultaneously. They pop up, as if standing on the river bottom, alert, motionless, four eyes glued on the unusual animal coming their way. One glances at the other, then back at me. As if watching a tennis match, their heads rivet on me, then on each other.

I stop peddling, remaining motionless in what the flood has now created: a still, black lake.

Quite soon the two slim water mammals return to their foraging, ignoring me and my big yellow float. They dip, dive, pop up, chew, even squeak to each other while I observe in silence for over ten minutes.

What comes next is the surprise: as I glide closer and closer to observe more details, they detect me, and they might be afraid...or at least cautious. Who is the otter's enemy? alligator? man? What else? Hydrobike?

One of the otters, why do I assume it's the male? Pushes his long, svelte body waist high out of the water, and he begins to yap. It's not a threatening growl or even a bark, but more a nervous chatter, almost like the Wrens do when they see a cat.

I remain motionless, but they retreat into the cypress grove.

Can you believe it? Once at the side of the river, one otter darts behind a cypress trunk, while the other...must be the female, less bold? takes cover behind him. Then they both stand so high their front paws are out of the water. They peak around the tree to see if I'm still there, playing hide and seek like two grandchildren, checking to see if the intruder is still there. Picture a woman half hiding behind her mate's back, her arms on each side of his broader shoulders. Meanwhile both are yapping gently, more of curiosity than fear, I think.

I cannot delay my journey that morning longer, and it is only when I move upstream that our game ends. We both resume our mornings, having had this strange encounter on the river. I wonder if they chattered together about it, as I am writing now.

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