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A Washington triathlete staying at Cliff Lake in Madison County was attacked Tuesday by a pair of otters while swimming, he said.

Stew Larsen, a chemical engineer from Longview, Washington, said Wednesday that he was staying at a resort near the lake south of Ennis for a family reunion when he decided to take advantage of the rare chance for a high-altitude training swim.

“I’ve never swam in a place that’s as wild as this place,” he said.

About 500 yards in to the out-and-back swim, Larsen said, he stopped to check his watch and noticed an otter staring him down from perhaps 10 feet away.

“It wasn’t barking, snapping, anything like that, just looking at me, so I kind of splashed and yelled,” he said.

The critter retreated, so he figured it was just curious and continued his swim.

On his return leg, though, Larsen said, he paused at about the same spot, only to see a pair of otters, even closer. And this time, his splashing didn’t scare them off.

“It didn’t deter them at all that time,” he said — even after he started making a “real commotion,” they closed in.

In the resulting waterborne scuffle, Larsen said he “connected with one of them” and ended up bitten on his right thigh, where an otter’s fangs cut through his wetsuit to draw a bit of blood.

“I had been thinking that if they’re protecting a den, I’d be better off in the middle of the water and away from the shore,” he said, “but I finally figured that if I’m going to be bitten, I need to be on land and I swam with everything that I had left.”

Eventually, he said, he was able to make it to some rocks, where the otters backed off and a relative in a boat was able to make a rescue.

Otter attacks are a rare but occasional occurrence in southwest Montana. In 2013, for example, an area woman was hospitalized overnight after being attacked by an otter while floating the Madison River.

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Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

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