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Column: In this Minnesota whodunit, chomp on girl's foot points to muskie

Despite being attacked by something -- perhaps a fish -- in Island Lake on Wednesday afternoon, 11-year-old Maren Kesselhon was doing well on Thursday. "She's not too shaken," said her father, Ryan Kesselhon of Duluth. Ryan Kesselhon photo1 / 2
Eleven-year-old Maren Kesselhon's foot was lacerated, possibly by a large fish, Wednesday afternoon on Island Lake north of Duluth. Her foot and leg were cut in 25 places, said her father, Ryan Kesselhon of Duluth. Nine of the cuts required stitches at St. Mary's Essentia Health in Duluth, and one of her tendons needed repair, Kesselhon said. Ryan Kesselhon photo2 / 2

***Editor's Note: A photo within this story shows the severity of the injuries and may be disturbing to some readers.***

MINNEAPOLIS - Had Maren Kesselhon suffered severe lacerations to her left ankle and foot in any Minnesota body of water other than Island Lake north of Duluth, the incident would have been shrouded less in mystery, and controversy, than it is.

Maren, 11, was being pulled slowly on a paddleboard behind the family's 16-foot boat about 1:30 recently when, not atypically, and wearing a life jacket, she jumped off the board to end the ride. The boat was powered by a 1959 5-horsepower Evinrude.

"She was hanging onto the paddleboard, waiting for me to turn around and pick her back up when she screamed," Ryan Kesselhon, Maren's dad, said this week.

Kesselhon's two other daughters, ages 9 and 13, were with him, and Maren was bleeding badly when her father pulled her into the boat. Her foot had been sliced in 25 places, nine deep enough to require stitches.

Unreported until now--because the young girl hadn't previously been asked--was that Maren was wearing a bracelet around her left ankle--a bangle that might have attracted a nearby muskie or northern pike.

Maren told her dad and mother, Lora, that she didn't know what bit her. But the water, she said, swirled around her foot before she was bitten, and she felt the attacker's mouth close around her foot briefly before she kicked at it with her other foot, freeing herself.

In addition to muskies and northern pike, Island Lake is home (or was home) to at least one river otter that attacks people.

We know that because Leah Prudhomme of Champlin, a triathlon competitor, suffered 25 bites by an otter on July 12, 2012, while swimming there. Prudhomme, 38, was wearing a wet suit that, punctured and torn, now hangs on a wall at the Island Lake Inn, a local gathering place.

"As I was swimming, passing an island, I got bit on the heel," Prudhomme recalled this week. "I immediately started treading water. That's when an otter popped its head up about 10 feet from me. Then it tucked back under the water and came at me again and again, from all directions. It would bite, sink its claws into my wet suit and dart off.

"While this was happening, I thought: I've got to protect my face and my upper body. I couldn't let it get to my neck."

Hearing screams, Prudhomme's dad rescued her in a boat. Later, at a Duluth hospital, she was vaccinated against rabies, receiving one injection in every wound, for 25 total.

"After the shots I threw up all over the doctor's office," Prudhomme said.

When Maren Kesselhon reached a Duluth hospital after her calamity on Island Lake, doctors determined she would have to be anesthetized while they closed her deepest cuts and repaired a torn tendon.

Attention at the hospital also quickly turned to what had bitten Maren. If a mammal had struck her, she also would have to be vaccinated against rabies.

Like a ghost, the 2012 Island Lake otter attack hung over that discussion.

"The doctor said he was 100 percent sure it was a fish, but at first I was hesitant to believe him," her father said. "From some of the photos of her leg, I know some people say, 'It wasn't a fish.' There was a lot of pushback from fishermen online. They said, 'It looks like a couple of (otter) canines made those cuts.'

"It's hard to know who to listen to in these instances. But Maren's mother and I have a lot invested in the truth of this answer, and I'm 100 percent sure it was a fish. It wasn't an otter. I can rest at night knowing that."

Observations:

--I also believe the villain here was a fish, probably a muskie (a 55-incher was caught there last summer), but perhaps a northern pike. One reason is the distance between the lacerations on the left side of Maren's left ankle, which generally is the same as the distance between the left and right sides of a muskie's lower jaw, where its longest canine teeth are located. The distance left to right in the front of a 50-inch muskie's jaw is about 2.5 inches. In the rear, about 4 inches.

--The roof of a muskie's mouth contains rows of numerous smaller teeth (as well as some that are canine-like), which might explain the presence on Maren's heel and foot of what her dad describes as "razor sharp micro cuts."

--Given the depth of the lacerations, and the fact that they exist on both sides of Maren's foot, it's unlikely an otter, with its smaller (but nonetheless powerful) jaw could have left the marks with a single swipe. Also, an otter's lower teeth are molar-like--meaning flat--and seemingly incapable of producing deep cuts.

--Island Lake's tannic color perhaps played a role here. Its clarity is 5 feet or less, increasing the likelihood of mistaken prey selection by a muskie or northern pike.

Finally, muskie anglers worry with justification that the freak incident will discredit their favorite fish and sport. Already some lake home and cabin owners don't want muskies introduced to their lakes, and some walleye anglers argue muskies disproportionately prey on their favorite fish.

But that's no reason, in this whodunit, to frame otters, when the evidence more convincingly points to a muskie or northern pike.

This column was written by Dennis Anderson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and published with permission through Tribune News Service.

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