Searching for river ghosts

This piece appeared in the Suffolk Magazine, as part of a collaboration with photographer Sarah Groves. Her wonderful images and blog can be found at the bottom of this entry. It was written in February but I like to give the magazine some breathing space before posting here.

The moon is beginning to sink as I drive away from my house. Low on the horizon and waxing towards full. A gleaming fish belly with an otter-sized bite taken from its left side. On the radio the World Service is on, delivering news of cancelled elections in Nigeria and trade disputes with China. I turn it off and wipe sleep from my eyes. The clock says 4.15am. There’re not many things that can drag me from my bed at this time but the chance of seeing an otter is one of them.

 I can’t remember when I first fell for otters: started seeking out their tousled tom-cat heads; dreamt of watching their hump-backed gambol over land; their ruddering through water.

Perhaps it all started with Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water. Growing up, I read and re-read it. It was a story that I felt, in a very peculiar and intense way, was mine alone. Although I lived in suburban Essex, Maxwell’s remote cottage in West Scotland was my home. I roamed Camusfearna in my daydreams. I played with Mij, Edal and Teko: delighting in their games, grieving at their deaths.

 As an adult, a deep love of otters stayed with me. In fact, it grew. Most of my honeymoon was spent inside a wooden hide on the Isle of Skye where I scanned the wrackline and kelp-covered rocks for the dark outline of otters. My wife, Jen, ever patient, sat beside me, trussed up against the November cold, quietly reading her copy of Vogue.

My daughter is even named after an otter: a beautiful wide-eyed orphaned kit called Eliza, who we sponsored through the International Otter Survival Fund. Her photograph is still stuck on our fridge, jostling for space alongside paintings and drawings created by Eliza 2.

Yet for all the looking, all the years of yearning and searching, I can still count my sightings of otters on my fingers. Five or six of them on the Isle of Skye (not a single one from the hide); a lithe rope of an otter swimming in the Devon river that shares its name; one more in a mist-filled Galloway pool and another – my only sighting in Suffolk – a dog otter carrying away a fish by the visitor centre at Lackford Lakes.

Most of the time, the encounters have been down to chance, rather than fieldcraft. Even on the Isle of Skye, it was only when I gave up hope of ever seeing an otter that I saw one. Checking a map at the side of the road as we headed to a restaurant, one skittered past just a metre from the car window. He stood on the rocks for a heart-stopping second, giving us a glimpse of water-webbed whiskers, a broad head, deposited a derisory spraint and then was off.

Part of me wonders if it is the challenge, the rarity of clear sightings, which is part of the attraction. Otters, nocturnal and easily spooked, are illusory, liminal creatures, haunting land and water, half-glimpsed in the half-light. To see one is like receiving a gift from the river. But as I pull into the car park at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hen Reedbeds, I still have a flutter of hope. After all, today, I won’t be looking alone.

My friend Sarah Groves, who lives nearby and has spent many hours photographing the land and skyscapes of Hen, arrives five minutes later. It was one of her pictures, a shot of otter tracks leading across the moussey-mud plains of the River Blyth’s estuary, which prompted this trip. I love Sarah’s work. She really sees the land and as a result captures it in a way that feels rare. Her aperture doesn’t just let in light, it lets in something else. Salt, mud, earth, reed. It sounds hackneyed, but she captures an essence. A feeling.

The twilights are beginning to melt into each other as we walk towards the River Blyth, bleary-eyed but otter-hungry. Astronomical makes way for nautical, the highest points of the sky blueing from the rays of a sun which is still hidden beneath the horizon. Light bleeds slowly down, is reflected up by the river and creeks, which also cradles the bright, white spots of Venus and Jupiter: glinting like sewing needles half pushed through dark denim.

The river here is beautiful. The Blyth’s name comes from the Old English “blithe”, meaning “gentle or pleasant” and there is certainly a gentleness here. A soft coming together of water and mud flats accentuated by the pre-dawn light. The tide is low and it’s hard to see what is water and what is shimmering mud, the course of the river lost in an archipelago of salt-crusted land and briney, winding creeks.

We move as quietly as we can down the path, which although foot-fretted and muddy, is still stiff with frost. Our conversation, already barely above a whisper, stops completely as we go further along the river wall. Instead Sarah communicates by pointing: there a mole hole in the path; there a slot from a water deer; and there a channel in the grass where an otter has slipped on its belly into the river.

We stop to look, following the channel to the river with our eyes. One of my favourite poems is, unsurprisingly, about an otter. Ted Hughes describes a “four-legged yet water-gifted” animal, whose nose, eyes and ears are all perfectly adapted for hunting under water can “outfish fish”. The otter, he writes, does not enter the river, but melts into it; it transforms from land-lubber to liquid muscle.

I stoop and run my hand over the pathway. To see an otter in water is to forget that it can make an impression on land. This slipway down to the creek, looks like it could have been made by the passage of water rather than the movement of flesh and fur. The otter, the river wolf, is a river ghost. A life flow that is of the water rather than in it.

It seems almost beyond belief that England’s otters nearly became a ghost in a very real sense.  The twentieth century was a tough time for the otter: persecuted, poisoned by pesticides and made homeless through the destruction of wetlands, an animal that was once widespread was pushed to the brink of extinction. Thankfully, following the banning of a range of pesticides, including the now notorious DDT and efforts to improve water quality and habitat (this reserve is itself man-made, created to help rescue the bittern), the otter is back on every river catchment in the country.

We decide to head to one of Hen’s hide, opening the wooden shutters and wincing as they creak on the hinges. Sarah takes one side, wiping away condensation from the window and scanning the river wall, while I fix my eyes on a reed-fringed scrape. All is still. There are no birds to shout about the presence of a rudder-tailed predator, no silvery skein of bubbles suggesting an underwater hunt. The only movement comes from the reeds, which reflect from water that continues to brighten with the coming dawn.

The sky is burning now, a litmus paper of colour, the east horizon acid red, moving through orange to the white, blue of the upper reaches. It won’t be long before the sun rises. We return to the slipways to look for footprints, but the ground is too hard to have recorded any recent tracks. But there is spraint. Deposited on grass, twisted into a peak by ottery paws, to give it due prominence. A greyish-black communication poo, rammed full of scales and fish ribs. Think roll-mop dipped in an ash-tray.

While the land is still frozen, the rising light reveals a mass of tracks on the mud of the creek. Egret, curlew and other waders have left starbursts of footprints over the mud flats. Skirting round them and then sticking tight to the bank are those of an otter. The prints, characteristically asymmetrical, are fresh and purposeful. While many prints will only show four toes, here all five are clear: the soft mud even capturing a hint of webbing. It is as if the otter becomes more of the water the closer to the river it gets.

These prints won’t last for long. The tide is already creeping along the Blyth, the water is visibly rising at a second-hand tock, coming from both ends of the crescent-shaped creek. We watch the river rise and reclaim, over mud, around island, the footprints filling up then disappearing. The otter melting away again.

We sit and drink tea, listening to the sounds of the birds growing as the sun finally hefts up over Southwold, heavy with red light. The curlew calls are joined by skylarks, their songs a scribble of sound connecting heaven and earth.

Sarah thinks the otter whose tracks we saw is probably still close. Perhaps, she says, he’s watching us now. It makes me look differently at every bubble popping to the surface, every shift of water, every scrap of seaweed. But there is a calmness too. It is enough to know that otters are here.  There will be other days. There will be other otters.

Please check out Sarah’s blog and photos here

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