Footprints Across The Landscape: An education in tracking
(Reprinted by permission of The North Georgia Journal magazine.)
BY MARK WARREN
How often do we look up at clouds drifting overhead on a sunny day and remember that stars hide beyond that great blue vault of sky? It is easy to forget them until the night rolls in to reveal them twinkling by the thousands. Tracks are like stars in that way. They are all around us all the time. On a winter’s morning when we awake to a world blanketed in snow we are surprised by the criss-cross of tracks stitched over our backyards. Snow is like the revealing night sky – or perhaps it is the forensic investigator’s fingerprint dust in reverse (dust goes down after a track, snow before).
For the most part these busy comings-and-goings of animals are a nightly occurrence. It is the secret time when humans sleep. One reason wild creatures are active in the dark, of course, is that tracking was originally a hunter’s tool. The point is: tracks are everywhere all the time with or without snow and so transitory.
In fact when you think of it, everything is really a track. A maple tree can be considered the final track of the winged seed that twirled to earth along a path driven by the wind. The tree is a monument to that seed’s landing place. Even your home is the complicated convergence of many tracks where workmen’s hands, trucks, and tools left their marks. An empty beer can beside the road is a track of ignorance or arrogance or apathy or anger or who knows what?
To a tracker the earth is a manuscript full of stories – some written in a child’s block letters (deer tracks in soft mud) and others secretly encoded in faint, wispy lines that beg scrutiny (the tree-side landing pad of a flying squirrel). All the stories are written in disappearing inks of varying longevity.
Here in north Georgia humidity determines the life-span of a track. Serious humidity (rain) erases tracks. On the other hand the moist day or two after a rain can present new tracks with biscuit-cutter precision in muddy spots. Instructive as it is, looking at isolated soft mud patches is merely “track sight-seeing”. Real tracking – that is, following a particular animal’s passage through the wild – rarely involves such ideal terrain. It is hard work. It can be exhausting. So to make any headway at all as a tracker you must start easy.
Sand is very accommodating for clearly defining a track. It is not too difficult to understand why the Apache of the Southwest acquired their reputation as trackers extraordinaire. The Sonora desert virtually forced this skill upon them.
Imagine growing up there, each day making fresh tracks to the creek to fill your family’s empty water pouch. As you return with your burden you cannot avoid seeing your “to-the-creek tracks”. Let’s say you accidentally left your knife at the creek. You hang the pouch from a rock and go back. As you return you see your heavier “carrying-water tracks”. You compare. Then while retrieving your knife, you watch the wind ripple patterns across the surface of the creek. Returning to the pouch you take note of that wind’s alterations of your previous tracks. Like it or not, your tracking education has begun.
Sand – and really all substrates, especially soft mud – behaves somewhat like a liquid when a track is made; it’s just not as fluid. You could observe this phenomenon by slapping your hand into a deep dish of dry flour. Waves of powder will swell and try to rush away from the impact, but since they are not liquid the waves will “freeze” outside your handprint as part of your track.
So to begin Tracking 101 let’s go to a beach – river or ocean – to track the easiest, most accommodating animal you’ll ever work with, you. First learn what your natural walking tracks look like. Get to know the length of your stride, the pitch of your feet as they angle outward from your centerline of travel, the straddle (how far your feet extend sideways from that same imaginary line), and the treads of that particular pair of shoes.
Now vary your speed a bit. On a stroll, note the drag mark left by your toe as it leaves the track. When you pick up your pace a bit this sign disappears, and the front of your shoe’s track becomes a well-defined arc. Plus, your stride has lengthened. Speed up more and you will discover the wave of disturbance you create as sand is pushed toward the back of the track, eventually dislodging a circular chunk of sand as if you had accidentally stepped on a buried saucer.
If you sprint down the beach, churning your legs as fast as humanly possible, you’ll be surprised at the new length of stride. If you are in decent shape, that measurement will far exceed your body height. Already you have learned quite a few tricks about tracking.
In Tracking 101 there are no unknowns. You are an eye-witness to each track that you study. It’s going to get harder, so enjoy this first stage of the discipline. You could continue to learn new things from yourself for many months, even years, in Tracking 101: tracks of you carrying something heavy, tracks of you constantly looking over one shoulder, you stopping suddenly, and so on.
With a friend who also wants to learn, you can graduate to a higher tracking level on sand. While you close your eyes, your friend can walk through a deliberate scenario; such as: veering toward a curious object, stopping, going down on one knee to inspect, picking up the stone or shell, and skimming it out over the water. Your job is now to “read” the tracks – to interpret the marks in the sand as live action. Note the tiny but abrupt pile-up of sand at the front of the track when your friend halted. Observe the slant of the track as his weight leaned forward to bend, the knee print, the gouge made by the toes behind that knee, the track left by the stone and by the fingers that pried it up. And finally study the unique scrapes made by the feet during a throw by hand.
A hundred scenarios later you are ready for semi-sandy woods and then north Georgia’s piedmont and mountains to learn about additions to the landscape such as dirt, leaves, sticks, logs, rocks, plants and bark. You can learn to identify fresh breaks in twigs (versus old breaks) by studying color, moisture and texture. This can be accomplished simply by comparing to another fresh break you perform manually on the spot. Rocks might be scarred by hoof, claw or boot or slightly dislodged from their “sockets” in the earth. Leaves present more volumes of information. Their cracks, shears, folds, bruises, wetness, and color each carry a message – especially living plants whose leaves have been stepped on and disoriented from their preferred angles for catching sunlight. The brighter, less chlorophyll-laden undersides of leaves are like neon clues in the forest. Even a plant’s smell, though fleeting, is a sign.
Once while tracking two runaways from a youth program in Pisgah Forest, I came to a dead-end where the boys had apparently turned very stealthy. Their tracks seemed to disappear. A dry barkless log that sloped downhill to a creek presented one possible path they had taken. Or maybe they had continued straight ahead with more carefully placed steps. It is a situation like this that will remind you the trackee has a huge advantage over the tracker.
I began a series of concentrically wider semi-circles to pick up their trail, but after three circuits I had found nothing. I stood very still trying to think like these boys, to see what opening in the forest might have drawn them; when a gentle wind brought to me a gift – a smell I knew. It was the aroma of hay-scented fern, a fragrance emitted only when the plant is crushed. My eyes turned instantly upwind toward the creek’s floodplain. The ferns were there. I went back to the log, descended and found perfect footprints pressed into mashed ferns. I was back “on track” and found the boys within a half mile.
To track humans can be a useful tool, but let’s get to wild animal tracking. The ultimate tracking adventure would be to bump into the back of the animal you are tracking. This is seldom done by anyone. But by reading the earth’s story of a bobcat or deer or boar, you have identified an area where that “creature of habit” will likely return another day. This is your impetus to return as a stalker to observe the animal making its own tracks – which is why this article on tracking follows last issue’s article on stalking. The best way to learn to read a track is to see the track made. To be an audience to this you must know how to stalk – part of which is the ability to sit, kneel, lie or stand very still for a long time. Few people can claim this as a natural talent. As easy as it sounds, it takes practice.
There is much more to a track than an impression in the ground, but the impression is a good starting point. It is important to learn the difference between a raccoon’s front foot and rear foot, the number of toes on the feet of rabbit and squirrel, the unique heel pads of bobcat and gray fox, the long reach of a skunk’s claws. These details can be gleaned from any number of books on animal tracks. (Three good ones are: Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendez, Camden House Publishing; A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America by James Halfpenny, Johnson Publishing; Peterson Field Guide Series A Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus Murie, Houghton Mifflin. Note of an additional source added in September of 2020 “Stalking, Tracking and Playing Games in the Wild” by Mark Warren Waldenhouse Publishing and newly reprinted by Lyons Press.)
In your reading beware of “rules”. Nature loves to humble rule-makers. Here is an example: the wild cats retract their claws so that claw marks do not show up in a track. This is true most of the time. But once at Warwoman Creek I watched a bobcat make a graceful leap over water into sand. Both front prints showed four distinct claw punctures. Wouldn’t you want the largest “shoe” possible when landing on uncertain sand that might sink with your weight?
As a tracker, you must also consider patterns of tracks. As a two-legged you may not appreciate how many pattern variations are possible with four legs. And the thing is, each animal has its preferred gait, just as you do. Even if you are a runner or a cyclist, you spend 95% of your leg-locomotion-time in the gait we call “walking”. But not just any kind of walking. You and I follow a formula hard-wired into our genes. When the left leg moves forward, so does the right arm. Diagonal appendages work together. When you first crawled as a baby, you followed that recipe without benefit of instruction.
Deer, fox, bobcat, and lots of other animals use this same gait 95% of their lives. When they shift gears into another gait, something special has called for the change. Cause and effect is at work. Maybe the animal is stalking or chasing or chased or worried or threatening. Each gait leaves its own pattern.
If you sloshed wet red paint on your knees (rear feet) and green paint on your hands (front feet), got down and crawled as you did as a baby, then studied your colorful tracks, you would see a pattern. Each green track appears paired with a red track right behind it (see Diagram 1). With many four-leggeds who walk this way, the front foot actually lifts to allow the rear foot (on the same side) to step into its track and partially or completely overlap it. For example, when you look at a deer print, more than likely you are really looking at two prints, one inside the other (see photograph 1). What happens if you speed up using this same gait? Your knee print catches up to then passes its paired handprint. The same thing happens when a deer speeds up.
Okay, let’s pretend you slosh on the paint again for a new gait. Still on all fours, lift both left “legs” for a step then both right “legs” for a step. This is how raccoon, bear, striped skunk, beaver, and opossum walk, to name a few. Of these raccoon is the most agile. To walk like raccoon, your left knee must come all the way up next to your right hand, leaving a nice pattern of alternating pairs (see Diagram 2) as you raccoon-walk along. But raccoon can walk like deer and deer like raccoon. Why would they? Deer might assume raccoon’s one-side-at-a-time gait to appear bigger and, therefore, threatening. Even people do this “gunfighter’s walk” when they want to look intimidating. Raccoon would assume deer’s faster walk simply to speed up considerably, such as when he hears you approaching in the distance.
My greatest tracking teacher was my dog, Elly. I constantly watched her shift through all the gaits according to need: stalking a chipmunk, same-side walking when she was bored or eyeing a strange dog, diagonal-limb walking as was her doggy norm, trotting when something perked her up like the appearance of a friend, loping when going for a run with me, bounding then galloping when chasing a squirrel or rabbit. If you have a dog, consider yourself its student.
I’m reluctant to admit this for fear of letters I may receive from your dog, but once I even painted Elly’s feet and had her move across a long sheet of paper. Very instructive for me. For her, one of those moments she wondered about me and gave me that look all dog-owners know.
Another facet of tracking is reading the nuance of a single track. Does it show the beginning of a directional turn by its tilt or extra build-up of a dirt wall on one side? Does it show a limp or lethargy or nervousness? You can teach yourself these tricks in a sandbox by returning to Tracking 101.
And then there is the skill of determining how old a track is. Who hasn’t grown secretly quiet with envy in a dark theater when the Indian scout climbs off his pony and kneels in the prairie grass and says, “Three men. Two days ago. Riding hard.” No one can teach you this. You’ve got to earn it by religiously visiting a prepared friable dirt site every 12 hours (or 6 or 24, depending on what you demand from yourself as a tracker) and pressing your fist into the dirt exactly the same way each time in a different spot. On each visit you will see a fresh track next to a 12 hour-old track next to a 24 hour-old track, and so on. And you will monitor the weather to see how that affects the prints.
Basically you will learn from this aging-lesson that the interior of a fresh track is crisp in detail and grainy in texture, while older tracks get a glazed-over and crumbly appearance. But beware: a light sprinkle or heavy dew can make an old track look fresher than it is.
Our final aspect of tracking is psychological. Can you think like your trackee? Humans will almost always seek the easier route. They will walk around a low limb rather than bend down. Animals are not too different if you remember to consider in the equation that they are in much better shape than we are. If you were the size of a bobcat, an encumbrance that might veer you off course might be nothing to a bobcat, especially since they seem to cherish secrecy. Bobcats do not like to leave a track anywhere.
Some of the most difficult natural terrains on which to track are grassy meadows and established trails (which are already a massive collection of tracks). Leave those alone until you start to feel part-Apache.
In the meantime you may be surprised where tracking will lead you. You’ll learn about animal habits, their burrows and nests, what they eat, and how they eat it. Deer, for example, have no upper incisors and rip plants with a jerk of the head with a stem pinched between lower incisors and upper gum, leaving a trademark ragged tear. And you may discover where some animals sleep, for some like fox and deer sleep in the open and leave clear impressions called “forms” on ground cover.
And because you are paying attention to the plants these animals use, you’ll begin to learn about plants and where they prefer to grow. You’ll find animal scrapes, scratchings and droppings, some of which have dangerous parasites you could inhale – so be careful. And it’s a guarantee that one day while you are on your belly studiously and patiently reading a track, one of the phantoms of the forest will move right through your area and contribute to your schooling in the art of tracking.