You Don’t Have to Go To the Adirondacks to Find River Otters

It was Columbus Day weekend 2009 and my wife and I were trying to decide where to go for a quick getaway with our kayaks. After some discussion, we decided one of our favorite destinations, the Adirondacks, was not practical. Time and money dictated a different plan – one that more and more people are opting for as well – the stay-cation! But where could we go that could match our expectations? After all, years of mountain vacations had spoiled us for scenery and wildlife and now we longed for a similar unforgettable experience – just closer to home.

A logical choice seemed to be somewhere that held equally significant memories. It was the place my father took me and my brothers to hunt our first deer. It was where I’d wait anxiously to return each year: High Tor Wildlife Management Area. Little did we know how fully it would meet our “mountain needs.” Although I had not been back to High Tor in years, I knew it would be a great way to spend our day. Located southeast of Canandaigua Lake and four-and-one-half miles north of the Village of Naples, it was close enough to enjoy all it had to offer during the day while having plenty of time to return home at night. And since we’ve recently become empty nesters, it seemed like the perfect time to re-discover High Tor together – to start a new tradition from a time gone by.

With the picturesque West River in our sights, we drove through Geneva and headed south on Route 245. Just a few miles past Middlesex, we found the small state-access boat launch where we put our kayaks in the water. It was a chilly autumn morning as we paddled north, then rounded the horseshoe shape of the river toward Canandaigua Lake. The fall foliage on South Hill was a beautiful mixture of green, yellow, orange and red, reflecting off the water of West River. It was as if we’d been transported to a small Adirondack mountain stream. As we continued north toward the lake, ducks and geese flew above and swam beside us on that crisp morning.

Our chilly noses and hands reminded us that it was almost time to head back. Roughly 300 yards later, we saw what appeared to be a few muskrats off to our left. I peered through my camera’s telephoto lens to take a closer look. We were thrilled to realize they were not muskrats at all but a family of six river otters. They pondered our movements and began to voice the whistling, chirps and chuckles typical of the species. Three of them hid on the bank quickly while the others stayed in the water, allowing us to watch their slippery, playful antics for only a couple of minutes. They then disappeared in the brush up over the shore, chattering back at us as we drifted by. I was fortunate to snap a couple of pictures before they all disappeared. We looked at each other in awe. Who knew we would find such a treat this far southwest of the Adirondacks.

Not knowing how the rare river otter came to be in the Finger Lakes Region, I began my research in the 2009-2010 New York Hunting & Trapping Guide. I remembered seeing a sidebar in the guide that read: “Have you seen an otter?” I found that river otters were released in Central and Western New York between 1995 and 2000. Current efforts to restore this species focus on documenting the distribution and abundance of otters in those areas. I reported our sighting by calling Region 8 headquarters in Avon. The DEC officer was very happy to hear of our sighting story.

With all of the efforts taken to protect and restore river otters throughout New York State, my wife and I feel privileged to have had such a unique experience. We will definitely plan to kayak the West River again soon in hopes of another otter sighting.

The New York River Otter Project
I recently attended a lecture by Dennis Money, who served as president of the New York River Otter Project. During 1995 and 2000, in cooperation with Cornell University, the ROP trapped otters from other higher otter populations in New York State and relocated 286 otters to 16 different sites – West River being one of them. Prior to the project, there were none in the Finger Lakes. They had disappeared from Central and Western New York State over 100 years ago due to habitat loss, water pollution, and unregulated hunting and trapping. The New York ROP was developed in partnership between the private community and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to bring otters back to this part of the state. The New York ROP is considered one of the most successful otter restoration projects ever.


by Kevin Graham