J. David Solf -
Otter Research Pioneer

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It was fortunate for me that one of Solf's old friends/colleagues still worked for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, otherwise I might never have learned any more about him. His friend's name was Don McKnight, and he had known David Solf since they attended Washington State University together in the late 1950s.

Speaking with Mr. McKnight, I sensed that he felt David's loss as though it had happened only yesterday. Solf died at the age of 39, so the element of an early tragic death made the loss particularly poignant. Mr. McKnight told me that David was a commercial fisheries biologist who had spent his whole working career in the region of Prince William Sound; mostly near Cordova and on Chenega Island and more specifically, that his otter observations took place at Eshamy Bay and Creek where he was the resident keeper of a salmon hatchery. Solf had started his otter observations around 1958 and he'd continued this work right up to his death in 1974, compiling, by his own reckoning, approximately 15,000 hours of observations. Sixteen years - that was 10 years longer at that point than I'd been studying otters. Solf's experience totally eclipsed my own.


Salmon Run, Sheep Bay, Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1961.

Mr. McKnight then told me something that struck me deeply. David Solf had died of hypothermia after falling through ice while he was tracking otters. On January 16, 1974, Solf had been out on a boat with a Forest Service crew in Olsen Bay when he saw otter tracks on some stream ice, he followed them, and fell through the ice. The boat crew was not able to reach David in time to save him.

What can be said about someone who was so dedicated to his personal pursuit of knowledge that he would risk and lose his life in that pursuit? Here was a scientist and naturalist who was perhaps the first to study Lontra canadensis in detail by direct observation, and he died in the field during the actual course of his work.

Fully appreciating then not only the pioneering aspect of Solf's work, but also his ultimate, untimely tragic sacrifice, the man became my instant hero.


Aboard USFWS vessel "Heron", Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1961.

I asked Mr. McKnight if he knew of anyone else that I could speak with about David Solf. Did he have family? Mr. McKnight told me that as far as he knew, Solf's mother and two sisters still lived in Washington state, and he gave me their contact information.

When I called Mrs. Solf, there was apparently a family gathering taking place at the house at the time. When I told the person who answered that I wished to inquire about David Solf and his otter work, they fetched his sister Bettijane. Meeting her over the phone for the first time, I had no way of knowing then that my relationship to David Solf, his otter legacy and his family was only just beginning.

 


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Text Copyright © 2007-2017 by J. Scott Shannon, Photographs Courtesy of Bettijane Solf Boltmann. All Rights Reserved. Contact: