I arrived at Russell Pond in the heart of Baxter State Park around ten in the morning, just as resident park ranger Brendan Curran was doing his dishes and preparing to backpack out to the closest road at Roaring Brook campground a little more than seven miles away, then head off home to Hope for his days off. 

On my fourth hiking day, including a traverse over the grueling Traveler mountains in the north end of the park on what turned out to be a full-gallon-of-drinking-water day, my feet were patched with a variety of gel dressings and duct tape, but my legs had found their hiking muscles. Finally, my new ankle-saving German leather hiking boots were broken in. 

Curran, who has worked as a seasonal ranger at Russell Pond for over two decades, could hike barefoot around the roots and rocks in the dark, probably. 

He had been there enough years to see the resident beavers engineering the water levels at the pond, which is not only home to the most remote campground in the park, but grows enough pond weeds to attract moose, otters, and mink. The moose eat the weeds. The otters and mink eat what lives in and around them, from fish to frogs, muskrats to baby ducks. Otters and mink are related — both are weasels — and both live in and out of the water, but they are hardly friendly cousins.

The otter, which grows from three to about four feet long and weighs from 11 to 30 pounds, is more specifically adapted to a watery life, with its eyes, ears, and nose located near the top of its head so it can see, hear, and smell what is above the water while remaining mostly submerged. Flaps close over its nostrils, allowing it to stay underwater for up to eight minutes. 

Otters are known for their sense of play, slipping and sliding in the snow and mud, playing tag with each other. Most of this happens at night, of course, so all I could hear was splashing while I imagined they were playing volleyball with a freshly caught fish and clapping their webbed feet together in glee.

Otters like unpolluted places with plenty of shoreside vegetation, so their numbers in Maine declined during the river log drives, which scoured the quieter waterways. Prior to regulations on what could be dumped into waterways, sewage and sawdust and paper-making chemicals contributed to the otter’s decline. Their comeback in the region is tied to the return of healthier aquatic systems.

Certainly, the center of Baxter park, which is managed not so much for people as for keeping the wilderness wild and minimizing the impact of visitors on the area, appears healthy in a messy, natural kind of way.

Otters have been known to companionably take up tenancy in a beaver lodge to raise their young, with a beaver family in residence. It apparently works out fine, according to the biologists who documented it. And perhaps that is not a surprise, because while both otters and beavers are fully toothed, one chews wood and the other catches fish. They aren’t competing for the same food sources and the otter is surely smart enough not to try to snag a baby beaver for dinner. 

Not so with the close weasel cousin, the little mink, which punches heavier than its weight class. Stretching out at less than two feet, a third of which is tail, and weighing between two and four pounds, minks are also curious and can be playful. But they are adept predators, too. Otter pups, which are born in early summer and stay with the otter mother for up to a year, must be a mighty tasty temptation for a mink.

Curran showed me a photo of a mink that had, perhaps, been caught too close to the otter pups. Mink have few natural enemies in the wild, but their otter cousins are one of them. This mink had not fared well in the exchange, whatever had prompted it. It had not been killed outright: instead, its hindquarters had been savaged, its spine exposed, its spinal cord apparently damaged. 

It’s an important reminder that wilderness is not a scenic backdrop. Once, when there was lots of it and it stretched west and north and there were wolves in the night, it was considered hostile. Now that there is so little left, it is seen as a sanctuary. And it is that but, no, it’s not cuddly. That’s what we put on it. It’s not benign. Not hardly. An otter isn’t a puppy dog. It’s wild straight through. Those teeth are real. 

Curran hiked out and I was left alone at Russell Pond for the day. A cow moose and her calf were happily submerged up to their nostrils in the pond, avoiding the persistent deerflies and cooling off on another scorcher. What I took for a tan rock lifted its head out of the water, revealing itself to be a yearling moose, its mouth dripping with pond weeds. 

Christine Parrish, a former field biologist technician and a longtime staff writer, is back in the office.