We are all trackers. It’s in our blood. Before modern technology brought the world to our doorstep, our ancestors had to track on a daily basis to find food, water, and resources. They knew the tracks of each animal, how the animals used their bodies, and where they moved seasonally. Tracking allowed them to live sustainably within the cycles of the planet.
Nowadays it’s not essential for us to track animals for food, and many of us have lost the ability to track. What we have retained from ancient times is our innate sense of curiosity about the animals we encounter. If you have ever been curious about an animal sign or track, you are already a tracker. Whether we get our food from our backyards or the grocery store, understanding the patterns and behaviors of the animals around us is vital in a life lived in partnership with nature.
Read on for three of my own tracking stories, each with corresponding pictures. Can you solve these tracking mysteries?
Children are blessed with innate curiosity about the world around them and, if allowed, can become master trackers with little instruction. When I was a child, I lived in a house backed by forest. Although I was able to explore the forest, most of the intriguing tracks were close to home. One winter day, when I was 14, I discovered two different sets of tracks in the snow around our house. One set approached the front steps and disappeared into a hole under the steps. Looking for corresponding signs such as holes, nests, hair, or scat is an important part of tracking. The second set began at the bottom of the steps. It followed the first set of tracks, and then turned abruptly to make a perfectly straight path across the lawn and into the forest. I followed the second set into the forest. After about a quarter mile, the tracks suddenly ended at the base of a tree.
The most useful piece of tracking advice I have ever received was from a professor in a mammal tracking course. He told us, “When in doubt, follow it out.” I used this advice when I saw animal tracks during a hike by a frozen lake. These tracks were scattered by a spot of open water on the lake’s edge, and they had long ‘fingers’ that almost made them look like little human hands. The footprints were facing every direction, and had no obvious pattern. Remembering my professor’s advice, I looked around to see if there were any tracks separate from the cluster. Bingo! I saw some tracks follow the lake’s edge to a frozen spot, and cross the lake. The animal’s gait (or pattern of walking) was tracks in pairs with about 15 inches between each set. I noticed another set of tracks a few feet to the left and realized that this animal had been walking with a fellow. At the other side of the lake, the tracks disappeared at the base of a tree.
Mud and wet sand are great substrates for animal tracking. Some of my best tracking, though, has been in snow that has melted just enough to make it wet. One of these snowy adventures brought me again to tracks by a lake. The footprints were alternating, and each print spread out in a webbed arch. At first I spotted them in the forest, and then followed them towards the lake. Closer to the lake, a 3 to 5 inch-wide line appeared in the middle of the tracks, as if something was compressing the snow between the animal’s legs. Further on, the landscape sloped downhill towards the lake’s edge. The footprints were replaced by a 4 to 5 inch-wide concave depression that led all the way to the water. During this tracking experience, emotion and instinct were equally as important as know-how. Master trackers balance their knowledge with gut feelings. I noticed that I was giddy with joy when I saw these tracks. I wanted to be just like that animal and belly-slide right into the lake!
After you’ve solved my tracking mysteries, get out and find your own! There are great resources out there to help the amateur tracker. One of my favorites is the book Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes. Also, if you are going on a tracking journey, it is helpful to take a hand-held track finder, a camera, and a small tape measure to measure tracks and to provide a size reference for photographs.