An otter onslaught: Cliff Lake otter attacks visiting triathlete over holiday weekend

It seemed like a normal training swim for Stew Larsen – taking to the mountain lake known to locals and visitors alike as Cliff Lake. But Larsen finished this swim with more than your typical sore muscles and pumping heartbeat. He finished with bites.

Larsen, a competitive triathlete, was staying at a resort near by Cliff Lake, celebrating the Fourth of July holiday with his family. After ringing in America’s birthday, Larsen geared up in a wetsuit and took to the lake to train.

“Where I live, we’re basically at sea level so it was a rare opportunity for me to be able to train at altitude,” said Larsen, originally from Washington.

Larsen said he and his family members had been in the lake prior to the incident and all seemed well. So, he figured a 1,600 meter swim across the lake would be nothing.

“I stopped about 500 yards out to check my time and distance and I turned around and there was and otter about 10 feet away,” Larsen said. “I didn’t know what to think of that – they’re awful cute but I didn’t want it near me and I didn’t want to disturb it either.”

Larsen said he “didn’t think too much of the otter” and said “it seemed like a weird coincidence” as he continued his swim to the end of the lake. On the way back, however, Larsen stopped in the same spot, roughly, only this time two otters appeared only 7 feet away.

“It was almost like this coordinated thing,” he said. “They went back and forth and one would go under the water and then the other.”

Goggles in tow, Larsen dipped under the water to keep an eye on the animals and did his best attempt to scare the otters away by splashing and thrashing around.

“I felt my foot connect with one and moments later, the other bit me mid-thigh – from there it gets a little blurry,” he said.

The otters managed to puncture holes in Larsen’s wetsuit and break skin, though Larsen calls it a surface scratch.

“I was lucky I had the wetsuit on for a couple different reasons,” he said. “I probably would have been worse off without it and the buoyancy of the suit helped to keep me afloat. I was pretty winded after kicking and thrashing around and being at that altitude – if I didn’t have the buoyancy of the suit, I don’t know if I would have been able to stay up.”

Larsen was able to swim to the side of the lake and flag down a family member to come pick him up and take him back to the dock.

“My legs were frozen at that point and nobody at the dock had any idea what had happened,” he said.

Janet and John Duncan own the resort where Larsen was staying and said the area is known for otters.

“They come and go and we’ll see them from singles to eight or 10 together,” said John.

John said he was at the resort when Larsen returned after being bitten.

“He was here for a family a reunion and is mother was here and she’s a registered nurse,” said John. “She said it looked as if he didn’t need medical attention but the otters bit through the wetsuit he had on, which was thick, neoprene material – he might have been worse off if he didn’t have the wetsuit.”

John said the resort has never experienced an otter attack before, and that they are rare events.

“I think the last one was a few years ago while someone was floating the river, but they’re very rare,” he said. “And we don’t know why these ones attacked (Larsen).”

“I mean, it’s sort of funny and it’s sort of not,” said Larsen of the attack.

Larsen said he later did research on otter attacks and found there had only been 39 reported cases since the late 1800s.

“Lucky me,” joked Larsen, adding his wife went to buy a lottery ticket that night.


Otters and disease

Otters are carnivores and natural born predators. They feed on fish and fresh water mussels and are best left alone or viewed from afar.

Wildlife veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey with Montana FWP said like all mammals, otters can be carriers of rabies and other bacteria.

“Rabies are very rare in most mammals but it’s not unheard of,” Ramsey said. “In Montana, we usually find rabies in bats and skunks.”

Ramsey said any bite could be at risk of infection due to any bacteria a wild animal might be carrying.

“Risk of infection would be of concern,” she said, due to any oral bacteria. “It’s similar to a dog or cat bite and there’s the potential that any mammal could be infected.”

Larsen said he had begun the rabies vaccines and was given a tetanus shot after visiting with his doctor. He also said he was hoping to visit with local game wardens about the attack.

“I’m just so thankful to learn more about them,” said Larsen. “I want to respect nature and I think I always had a false sense of what they’re like because they’re awfully cute. But they were just doing what was natural to them.”

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