Archived Mountain Voices

Otters are what beautiful aspires to be

Earlier this week about nine in the morning, I was standing on the Everett Street bridge in the heart of downtown Bryson City. Looking down I saw two otters in the dark-tinted currents of Tuckasegee. I retrieved my binoculars from my car and watched them cavort in the water and on the bank near the county administration building. I watched until they disappeared downstream.

I had been rivited once again by otters. The river had been “alive” while they were passing through. To say that they are beautiful creatures is inadequate. They are beyond beautiful. They are what beautiful aspires to be.  

I was reminded of the times back in the late 1980s when I had the opportunity to observe and write about the initial otter releases in the Great Smokies. Then, in late January of 1991, I was able to observe and write about the first controlled release of otter in the mountains of North Carolina west of the continental divide. Here’s some of what I wrote at that time:

“Monday morning,­­­ North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission furbearing specialist Mike Carraway set free eight river otters on the east bank of the Little Tennessee River in Swain County. According to Carraway, otters disappeared from WNC as pioneers settled the region and began hunting the animals for their luxurious brown pelts.  That practice combined with habitat destruction led to the elimination of the otter in the mountains by the mid-1930s, when the last otter sighting was made in the Catalooche section of the Great Smokies.

“But otters did survive in the remote swamps of eastern North Carolina, and that population has served as the source of the NCWRC’s restoration program in WNC.  Within the last year, 22 otters have been trapped down east and released in the Catawba River beween Lake James and Morganton east of the continental divide.

“Monday’s release in the Little Tennssee involved seven males and one female. Carraway — who was assisted by wildlife officers Dave Allen of Andrews and John Rogers of Franklin — hopes to return next week and release additional females in the same area several miles north of the line dividing Swain and Macon counties.  He’s hopeful the otters will pair off and reestablish a thriving population along the river and its tributaries.

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“Both the Catawba and Little Tennessee rivers offer prime otter habitat: long stretches of slow-moving, moderately deep water with pools, waterfalls, riffles, and rapids. Carraway noted that studies of otter scat indicate the playful mammals feed upon slower moving rough fish like suckers and stonerollers rather than expending energy chasing trout, and that the reintroduction program has the full support of various wildlife organizations like Trout Unlimited.

“This NCWRC otter project and the ongoing river otter reintroductions taking place since 1986 on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park provide wildlife officials with a justification for hoping that these playful and engaging animals will soon become a permanent fixture once again in the southern highlands.”

The red wolf introduction that was going on about the same time in the Smokies failed for environmental and strategic reasons. (They shouldn’t have been “reintroduced” in the southern mountains since they were never really here in the first place.) The river otter program has been a success because it was well-planned and environmentally sound.

Otters are long, streamlined animals that may live up to 15 years.  An average of two to four young are born in the spring of the year, with a family group sometimes staying together for over a year.  They live in cavities among the roots of trees or rocks, thickets of vegetation, or in burrows made by other animals.

Otters are the barn swallows of the aquatic world. What a swallow can do in the air an otter can — in its own way — duplicate in water. Our greatest living Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, had these impressions:


The Otter

When you plunged

The light of Tuscany wavered

And swung through the pool

From top to bottom.


I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,

Your fine swimmer’s back and shoulders

Surfacing and surfacing again

This year and every year since.


I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.

You were beyond me.

The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air

Thinned and disappointed ...


Turning to swim on your back,

Each silent, thigh-shaking kick

Re-tilting the light,

Heaving the cool at your neck.


And suddenly you’re out,

Back again, intent as ever,

Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,

Printing the stones.   


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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