It’s been nearly a week since we turned the clocks back. Now that we’ve moved to Eastern Standard Time, the sunlight fades quickly by the end of the afternoon.
My friend figured that if we could launch the canoe by quarter past three, we’d have a good hour’s paddle on the river before dark.
It was a short drive to the access point. We donned our life jackets, eased the boat into the water and climbed aboard. Soon we were gliding downstream with the current. The surface of the river was smooth and flat.
“I fished this section quite a bit this past summer,” my friend said, as we drifted past scoured tree trunks half-submerged along the far bank. “Right here it drops off. Big bass lie in the deep holes under the wood.”
I looked down into the black water. You could see yellow leaves lying in the muck on the bottom; then suddenly, the bottom fell away.
We paddled downstream to the old red-stone bridge abutment on the bank.
“This is where the railroad crossed the river,” my friend said. “You can see the old pilings near the far bank.”
We eased up into the current to survey the stonework.
Downstream we picked up speed as we pulled deep and feathered our paddles.
Suddenly, I heard a shout from the stern. “Look!” My friend gestured toward the bank with his chin as he held his paddle firmly in the water.
There, silhouetted at the top of the rise, four dark forms undulated upstream in a line.
“River otters!” my friend cried, as he swung the canoe around.
We watched them bob along in single file. Shortly, without warning, the lead otter careened down the bank and entered the water with a splash. A second followed closely behind, while the other two held steady at the top of the rise.
Heads bobbed up above the surface, then disappeared in rings of water. As we maneuvered closer, I saw a dark form leave the water and disappear into the muddy bank beneath the bare roots of an old tree. Another form soon followed.
Shortly, we heard a series of mewing sounds from inside the bank, as well as from the top of the rise.
“There’s two adults and two kits,” my friend said. “They’re calling the young into the water.”
Silently, we waited, dead in the water.
Suddenly, one of the otters emerged from the hole in the bank and slid into the river with a small splash. The other one was not far behind.
We traced the string of bubbles as they moved toward a stand of wood. Finally, two heads bobbed to the surface.
I held my smartphone up and tapped the button several times.
Another set of splashes sounded behind us. The two remaining otters had slid down the bank into the river.
We followed them across to the other side, where they disappeared for good.
We turned the canoe around just below the second set of old pilings and paddled hard against the current.
By the time we had the canoe secured to the roof rack on the car, the oaks on the far mountain blazed burnt orange in the last rays of the evening sun.