J. David Solf -
Otter Research Pioneer

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Looking back now, my first phone conversation with Bettijane Solf Boltmann was a true milestone in my personal search for knowledge about otters. Until I found out about David Solf, I genuinely believed that no one before me had studied the animals by direct observation. To learn that I was actually following in someone else's footsteps all along was both humbling and thrilling, because it meant, most of all, that I was no longer alone. I had a peer a true colleague at last.

Bettijane was initially quite surprised that someone was inquiring about David. I told her that I, too, was studying otters; how I'd read the pamphlet David had written and how excited I was to see several very new statements in it that were so apt to my otters that I could have written those same words myself. I mentioned that I had spoken with Don McKnight; that he had told me many things about her brother, but that I wanted to learn more about David and his studies, and felt that I could only do that by speaking with his family.

Most of all, though, I told her that I wanted to do what I could to help David and his work achieve broader recognition. It was my belief - and still is - that David Solf really was THE pioneer of wild river otter research in North America; a man easily a generation ahead of his time. Bettijane was very pleased to hear this. She said she was afraid that David had been forgotten. I knew what she meant. Until I stumbled upon that pamphlet, I myself had never heard of David Solf. Here I thought I had known everything in the literature about otters, but I would soon find out that my knowledge was, in fact, egregiously incomplete. I still had so much to discover and to learn.

Bettijane did give me one particularly good piece of news. David's field journals still existed! I was so relieved to hear that. She told me she would have a look through his writings to see if there was something she could send me. Not long after, I received a thick packet from Bettijane containing a copy of a comprehensive summary of David's field notes that he himself had transcribed and typed.

Near Olsen Bay, 1972. Photo courtesy Bettijane Solf Boltmann.

I was simply amazed by all that I found in Solf's notes. They spanned the period from his first otter sighting in August 1954 through to August 1967. Page after page, my esteem for David Solf increased. How I wished I could speak with this man! Barring that possibility, however, his journal entries spoke volumes for him.

I called Bettijane and told her how impressed I was by David's notes; what a treasure trove they were. Everywhere I found affirmation of things that I'd seen at Trinidad. It was a breathtaking revelation. Then I told Bettijane that just a couple of months from now, there was going to be an international meeting of otter researchers in West Germany, and that I'd decided to dedicate a section of my presentation to David's findings. Perhaps needless to say, she was thrilled about that. I felt it was my duty to tell others at the colloquium about David Solf, and that I did.

Tragedy came into my life, however, after I returned from Germany. My mother passed away, and I was swept into the maelstrom of my parents' estate. Then, two years later, the otter population at Trinidad was nearly destroyed by internecine murders (a phenomenon that Solf, too, may have witnessed, judging by descriptions I found in his field notes). All through this dark period in my life, Bettijane and I kept in touch. That was a great comfort to me. I had so few friends in those days. I felt so alone. But time and again this kindly woman let me know that she cared about me, and I appreciated it more than I could express.

One thing that was a continual encouragement to me was her standing invitation to come up to Washington and stay for awhile with her and her husband, Walt. I fully intended to visit them some day, but for all those years when I was bogged down by estate matters, it just wasn't possible. Then, after I got on the internet, I found a partner for myself, and that made planning extra trips a challenge, as well. Finally, a circumstance arose that made a visit to the Boltmann's an absolute necessity...


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Text Copyright © 2007-2023 by J Scott Shannon, Photographs Courtesy of Bettijane Solf Boltmann. All Rights Reserved. Contact: