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Monday, October 3, 2011

By Popular Demand, Otters

You will have to picture in your mind the images to accompany this story.

Back in the days before there were big, expensive houses on Gills Pier Road, the place where Roaring Brook poured out into Lake Michigan was a good spot for fishing, and one family came regularly to make their summer home at the mouth of the creek. The father would fish, the mother (a medicine woman) would collect herbs and roots for healing, while the three children played happy in the creek with a couple of young otters.

When fall arrived and it was time to move to winter quarters, the otters sensed the family’s imminent departure, and on their last morning at Roaring Brook, the children found five freshly killed trout laid out in a row in front of their summer home. Surrounding the fish were otter tracks, running back and forth from the brook. The trout were a farewell gift to the family from the otters.

At least, that is the story David remembers hearing, and for a storybook it's a version that would certainly suffice. The woman who told my husband the story was one of the children in it. She grew up to be a teacher for years in the Leland Public School, known as Mrs. Peschel, although she had been taught by her mother to be a medicine woman herself before she went to college. Later in life, she went back to graduate school to earn a doctorate degree in ethnobotany at the University of Michigan. She spent summers then studying and gathering herbs and tending graves on Garden Island, one of the small islands in the Beaver Island archipelago and home to many Native American graves, and served as Lecturer of Ethnobotany and Philosophy of the Western Great Lakes Indian at the University of Wisconsin.

It was an honor to have known Keewaydinoquay Peschel even as slightly as I did. You can read about her life in the book Keewaydinoquay: Stories from My Youth, edited by Lee Boisvert, but there you will find a much longer, more detailed and rather different account of one child’s “Otter Summer.” Reading the story in the book, I see that the “Otter Summer” took place not at the family’s summer fishing camp but at what was at the time their permanent home. I can’t even tell for sure if the place the family was living then was Roaring Brook or somewhere north of Northport. There is only one child in the story. I need to read the whole book carefully from start to finish, and then, if I’m still unsure, maybe Paul Peschel, our county animal control officer and Dr. Peschel's son, can clear up the confusion.

Or maybe, if confusion remains, it won't matter. What, after all, is the heart of the otter story? Although I confess I like to picture children and otters playing together in Roaring Brook, so close to my home, it is the interspecies rapport and friendship that make this story one that could be translated around the world, the way I see it--the reminder that we share our world with many different kinds of creatures, all with their own valuable lives. But clearly, I am neither journalist, historian nor biographer. What do you think?


BB-Idaho said...

I'm neither a journalist, historian
nor biographer either. With that caveat, I'll wade in and observe
that the Ottowas at one time likely
lived in that area. We learn that Pontiac was from the highly
regarded group that had the otter
totem. The otter, especially the young, are playful and curious. One can well imagine the early
native kids cavorting with them.
I've canoed a lot of rivers, but
unfortunately have never met with
the clever animals.
I worked with a Nez Perce and was always amazed at his eye for
nature.."see the horned larks, they
only eat the yellow grasshoppers and leave the green ones".."Up behind that rock outcropping there
is a nest of young golden eagles;
you can tell by the behavior of
the parents." So I can imagine the
value of Dr. Peschel in helping us
relate to nature..and am thankful
for the diversity among us humans.

P. J. Grath said...

Ottawa people still live in Leelanau County, BB. So do Ojibway people, or Chippewa. Kee Peschel’s family was Ojibway. The local group finally recognized with sovereign nation status in 1970 is the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Historically, culturally, politically and in economic terms, the GTB is a vital presence here today.

There are regularly otters around Roaring Brook and the Leland River, and David and I encountered one on Victoria Creek, marvelous and mysterious that courses through impenetrable swamp to join the Cedar River and pour into Lake Leelanau, eventually making its way to Lake Michigan via the Leland River.