By Brad Salon:
Learning wildlife tracking was pivotal for me. There is life before tracking and life since tracking. It is a mindset and skill-base that once acquired, adds a layer to everything you perceive around you. As for outdoor skills, tracking is a cheat code.
Imagine walking through the landscape and knowing all the animal species that live there, their population density, what they are eating, where they are sleeping and how they are surviving.
When I first began to learn tracking it was as confusing and foreign as learning a new language. There was lots of new terminology to learn, lots of facts to remember and a new way of “seeing” to figure out. It seemed like a skill that would take a lifetime to learn and that it would be a struggle. Now, after 20 years of studying and teaching tracking, I can happily confirm that was not the case.
How to Learn Tracking
The comparison of tracking and language is not an accident. Our ability to see a shape on the ground and have it turn into an image in our heads, comes from millennia of our ancestors tracking. It is that ability that allows for humans to read languages, as we perceive shapes on a page, C-A-T and in our minds we see a cat.
When learning a language, the first thing to learn is the alphabet. In tracking, the alphabet is the front and rear track of all the animals that leave tracks in your bio-region. Just like learning an alphabet, you have to work at rote memorization here, and the more you immerse yourself in it the quicker your mind will hold onto the shapes and number of the toes, the claws being long, sharp, or not showing, the heel pad shape, and so on. I recommend flash cards or posters that you can hang around so that your eyes see the shapes often and start to pattern them. Either way, if you don’t put in the time, learning the language will be impossible.
Finding and identifying tracks is about building a search image for the pattern the track makes. The image of the track in your head allows you to recognize it in the natural world. The more time you invest in learning the shapes, the faster your brain will be able to see tracks on surfaces that are more difficult than sand or snow. This is like learning to read someone’s bad handwriting. Once you know the alphabet well it is possible to decipher someone else’s chicken scratch handwriting.
So to learn identification, the alphabet, you need to get a field guide and start looking for the easy places animals leave tracks. Along the river or creek, the edge of a tilled field, on dirt roads, in the snow, are all great places to start. For tracking guides I emphatically recommend, “Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species,” 2nd Edition, by Mark Elbroch. Give yourself a realistic goal and try and learn four or five a month. In a year you will know which animals live around you, what habitat and food they need, population density and more.
Once you have identified the animal species, then you get to learn how to interpret the trail. This is like putting a sentence together. Instead of just seeing “deer,” you now see “deer walking” or “deer running.” Reading a gait is looking at the distance between the tracks and their orientation relative to each other. You can understand this by looking at your own trail. Go to a place where your tracks are obvious, like a beach or in soft dirt, and take 10 steps each at a slow walk, walk, fast walk, jog, run and sprint. Measure the distance between the tracks. The faster you go, the more space between the tracks. Animal gaits can seem complex at first, but it is really just a pattern of the order the feet hit the ground, and it tells you the speed the animal was moving. This helps us to tell the story. If the deer goes from a faster direct register walk to a slower under step walk, they are slowing for a reason. Are they starting to feed? Am I seeing missing plant parts or other feeding sign? Does the trail meander? Or are they scared and sneaking away? Do they know someone is tracking or hunting them? It’s easy to tell after a few times what it looks like when your quarry has busted you.
You then start to put it in context. What time of year is it? A little research can tell you if it’s breeding season, if there are young being born, if there are particular migrations at hand. You add this to the terrain you are in, the trees and plants you are seeing, and you start to build a pretty full picture of what was going on for that animal and the ecosystem it is engaging with.
Are these tracks fresh? Make a fresh track next to them and compare. Do they look more weathered? More or less sharp and clear? Can you see tiny spider webs forming in them or signs they have been rained on? What has the weather been like the last few days and how would it impact tracks and sign?
After a little while, all the experiences start to build on each other and you only need the field guide every once in a while when you discover something new in your area or you travel to a new one. Then you really start to learn all the little details that make it fun and exciting as you see the details of how amazing animals really are.
And what about all the things animals leave behind that are not actually tracks? Trails, nests, dens, feeding signs like chews, seed hulls, kill sites, scat, claw marks on trees, fur, feathers, skulls and bones, are just some of the interesting things you will find when you start looking for what animals leave behind besides tracks.
Learning sign tracking is a lot of looking at what you are finding in the field and then flipping through the field guide trying to find something that matches. The best way to learn sign is to go tracking with people who are better at it than you, and ask lots of questions. Then do the research.
I find it helpful for students to imagine their daily life and what kind of sign they leave behind. Is there a trail of wear down the middle of your stairs and not the edge? Is the floor more worn in front of the kitchen sink or your favorite chair? When you are cleaning do you find hair or crumbs? This is just like finding trails, beds, feeding sign, etc. Animals are very habitual, and those patterns and habits create disturbances that can tell us a lot about how animals live. Is this a feeding lay where a deer laid down for an hour to chew its cud on a temporary food source or is it a daily lay spot worn almost to dirt with plenty of hair in it? Again, you have to take it one little mystery at a time until you build up your vocabulary of animal disturbances.
Be okay with being wrong!
Trackers who don’t often answer, “I don’t know there is not enough information but my best guess is…,” are most likely selling something you don’t want. There is so much variability of substrate (the types of tracking surfaces), animals are all individual and have individual characteristics, and aging and landscape distortion can absolutely complicate track and sign interpretation. You have to be willing to look hard, try and find all the relevant details, and still be comfortable leaving it a mystery.
Down the road you will see these tracks or signs again but there will be more information, or it will be more clear, or you actually see an animal do something and go investigate what it left behind. The answers may come quickly or slowly, and the more passion and attention you devote to it the more it gives in return.
As time goes by you develop a very real understanding of tracking as a skill, but also an understanding of the interconnections of the ecosystems. There is a good argument to say that tracking is the first language we learned to read and interpret. It is at the heart of human curiosity and exploration and it asks our minds to perform at the top of their game. To take in all that our senses have to offer and then to synthesize it with our previous experiences as well as the information we have studied.
Learning tracking is like planting an apple tree, the best time to do it is 10 years ago but the second best time is today. Grab a field guide and let your next adventure in the wilderness be a little richer with mystery.