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An otter's tale: The best in animal body part place names

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OTTER TAIL COUNTY, Minn. - Your mind has plenty of time to wander on the four-and-a-half-hours-plus between Duluth and Fargo. The road signs help by encouraging no end of mental meanderings.

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Like what's with the fascination over otters and their tails?

There's the Otter Tail River and Otter Tail Lake. There are the city and county of Otter Tail and at least a couple giant otter statues. A sign with a smiling otter on it (its head, not its tail) leads me along the "Otter Tail Scenic Byway."

Check that: It's the Otter Trail Scenic Byway, though I still can't make head or tail out of it all.

Neither can Dave Jensen, who's lived in Otter Tail County all of his 27 years except for a bit in San Diego.

"I told people the county I was from and realized it was a rather unusual name, like 'Chicken Toe' or something," he says. "People would just look at me funny and chuckle."

Though he guesses it has something to do with the shape of the lake, Jensen says, "It doesn't take on the appearance of anything like an otter tail in my mind."

He's not looking closely enough, I learn when calling Kathy Evavold, a curator at the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

"Otter Tail Lake was named because of its shape by the river," she explains. "The river makes the tail. It's an inlet that goes into the lake."

The book, "Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Origin and Historic Significance," by the late Warren Upham (1850 -1934), describes it in detail, as "a long and narrow sand bar, having an outline suggestive of the tail of an otter," with the Ojibwe name Nigigwanowe.

Having gone that far, I look up Upham's explanation of Crow Wing County, another Minnesota entry in the genre of places named for animal body parts. It too traces the shape of a river and, though without quite the ottermania of its sister county, has its share of depictions of crows, says Jennifer Simota of the county administrator's office.

"We have doorknobs in the original courthouse that have a picture of a crow on them. They're amazing," she says.

The whole crow or just the crow's wing?

"No. It's the entire crow."

Or raven, she adds, also reading Upham to find the Ojibwe name Kagiwigwan or Gagagiwigwuni, translated as "Raven Feather River," or in the French as "Riviere a Aile de Corbeau" - River of the Wing of the Raven.

Simota is so enthusiastic she emails me a link to Beaverhead County, Mont. - "named for a rock in the Jefferson River shaped like a beaver's head" - and a list of "Best U.S. Counties Named After Animals" that includes all three.

By then I'm on the phone with Mary Csar of the Boca Raton (Fla.) Historical Society, who's insisting that name - yet again inspired by an inlet - isn't Spanish for "Rat's mouth" as many people think.

"It's more of a mouse than a rat," she says, adding the town only got stuck with it by accident.

"It was actually a mapmaker's mistake. The original inlet that was named Boca Raton was in Biscayne Bay in Miami" - one reason, perhaps, that Boca Ratonians haven't embraced their animal like you would an otter or a crow.

"We don't have rats or mouses around here," Csar says. "It's definitely not an icon or anything."

Where else would you go from a rodent's mouth but to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan - though alas, the most famous animal body part place name in the Great White North has nothing to do with a moose's mandible after all.

"The name Moose Jaw comes from a Cree name for the place, moscâstani-sîpiy, meaning 'a warm place by the river.' The first two syllables, moscâ-, sound remarkably like 'moose jaw,'" the website www.moosejaw.ca states.

Supporting that is an article in the March 26, 1951 Moose Jaw Times Herald stating: "The popular and often heard legend about the white man mending his ox-cart with the jawbone of a moose is not supported or authenticated by any evidence thus far discovered."

And that can lead nowhere but back to Minnesota and the Moose Horn River and Moose Lake's Moosehead Lake - the former quite clearly resembling moose's horns and the latter becoming clear only when you turn the map upside down.

They're both right here in our own Carlton County. Nowhere near the otter tail.

Robin Washington is editor of the Duluth News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com

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