I well remember the first time I suffered from otter envy. I was skiing across a frozen lake in northern Michigan's Sylvania Wilderness one fine February day, and I came upon some strange marks in the snow. There were several bounding paw prints followed by a 20-foot-long skid mark. To my amazement, this dot-dot-dot-dash pattern repeated itself for more than a mile as the otter, taking several running steps for momentum and then bellyflopping forward, hopped and slid to the next fishing hole. Winter, ever since, has become prime time for me to find otters and watch their slithering, skidding, sliding antics.
Sylvania, with 18,000 acres of pristine, otter-friendly forest and 36 named lakes, is an ideal place for a weekend trip in search of the furry funhogs. One of the best options is the 2-mile
ski along Clark Lake to a campsite known as Birch, a cozy, south-facing cove that makes a superbly located basecamp. From there, a 9-mile loop connects Loon, Florence, Big Bateau, Cub, and Deer Island Lakes and their portage trails.
The journey through
Sylvania alternates pleasantly between dense forests and open lake basins. The portage trails are like hallways through stands of old-growth white pine, hemlock, yellow birch, and sugar maple, while the lakes are vast rooms, each with a unique shape and atmosphere. Time after time you'll emerge from a forested hallway into a wilderness playroom, and there before you will be skidmarks in the snow. Then you'll know: Frolicking otters are close by.
From Watersmeet in far northwest Michigan, take US 2 west 4 miles to County Highway 535, then go south 4 miles to the trailhead.
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, by John O. Whitaker Jr. (Knopf, 800-733-3000; $19).
Watersmeet Ranger District, Ottawa National Forest, (906) 358-4551; www.fs.fed.us/r9/