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Animal Tracking: Learning To See With All Five Senses

Updated on September 30, 2013
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It’s been over fifteen years since I took that first Animal Tracking class. I’ve lost many of the skills I learned but that experience remains one of the pivotal experiences in my life. It was the experience that taught me to see beyond the surface of things. Fifteen years later I can still hear the words of the teacher, “try Linda, just try”.

The teacher was a friend and mentor; well respected for his knowledge and skill. I didn’t want to disappoint him. Although he taught classes in making fire with hand tools and human tracking, it was his animal tracking class that interested me the most. It was a weekend long class and I didn’t have a clue what to expect. I just knew I wanted to learn from him and I saved for months to be able to afford the class.

My arrival and introduction to tracking

We, the students, arrived on Friday afternoon and were instructed to get our tents set up. We would meet for dinner around 6:00 P.M. and get an introduction to the class afterward. There were about ten of us and most of us already knew each other. I remember thinking that this was going to be great fun; a shared experience among friends. Nothing was further from the truth.

Animal Tracking 101 turned out to be one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences of my life.

After a quick dinner, we gathered in a makeshift classroom in the garage. Introductions were made and then we were each asked why we signed up for the class. My answer was simple and I thought the most obvious. I wanted to enhance my outdoor skills and become more at home in the natural world. I wanted to learn to read the signs of the animals that shared my neck of the woods. Some of the other participants had more intelligent answers but I don’t think anyone wanted to be there more than me.

Required Reading

A prerequisite for attending the class was to read "Seeing With The Mind's Eye", a book by Michael and Nancy Samuels. I read it from cover to cover and it was fascinating. Granted, I didn’t understand all of it but I was still fascinated. It was a book about seeing beyond the obvious. The book introduced me to the concepts of seeing texture and color in nature as signs of life. It introduced me to the idea of using my sense of touch to detect temperature and direction. All of these concepts were alien to me. I had always seen nature as a gift from God, not something to be understood. In truth, as I read the book I feared that this experience of the tracking class was going to strip the mystery right out of my God in nature philosophy.

Tracking Deer in the Dark

Back to the classroom. After a brief summary of the weekend’s schedule, we were told to put our materials away and prepare for our first clinical experience. A few minutes later ten naïve students were in the woods (in the dark) on our hands and knees. Oh yes, we were tracking a herd of white tail deer. Well, we were mostly pretending to track them. Some of us got lucky and did discover tracks with our fingertips; tracks we would never “see” with our eyes. Not these particular tracks anyway. When our instructor asked who could tell him the direction of the deer, how many there were, and if they were in a hurry or not, I knew I was in trouble. Those deer may have scampered up this bank on their way to their evening graze but I would never know. I would never live long enough to accurately answer his questions. This was the first sign that I might be in trouble. Long after midnight we were excused with a warning - the weekend would be exhausting and we needed to sleep well and quickly.

Source

I woke just before the sun came up and gobbled down a Peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. As the remaining students came to life, we were summoned to the back side of the property. There at the edge of the woods was a sandbox. We were encouraged to take a closer look and there in the sand were several obvious tracks of animals I could not identify. Our instructor explained that this was an inexpensive way to get acquainted with the animals in our neighborhood. A simple sandbox and a water hose to wet the sand at dusk would almost always provide a series of tracks of the curious critters who wander in the safety of the darkness.

After a short session in the classroom, we loaded up in trucks and vans and headed out to a wooded area owned by one of the local electric companies. Desolate and far from the traffic of the city, the area was known for frequent sightings of bobcats, bear, turkeys, and other small wildlife. Our instructor had already scouted the area and began to assign each of us a set of tracks to work up. Our instructions were to identify the animal, determine the direction it was going, the pace of its travel, and if possible, it’s size and gender. I looked around at the other students and most appeared to be as bewildered as I was.

I was assigned two sets of tracks. One, a bobcat and the second, a rabbit. And that is as much as I could tell you about my assignment. I was embarrassed and clueless. And then, things got worse.

Our instructor told us that to be a good tracker, we needed to keep a tracking journal. Apparently serious trackers keep a journal of every track they encounter. It becomes a diary of sorts and contains one or more drawings of the track, measurements of the depth and width, and notes of any variations in either. Finally, there is a description that provides details about the soil’s moisture content, texture, and color. Variations in color are important too but I didn’t realize that yet.

When I explained that I was no artist, the instructor told me to “try Linda, just try”. Well, I tried, and tried, and tried again. I finally drew something that looked vaguely like a bobcat track, if you had a vivid imagination. I still have that journal and occasionally try again to draw that track and I’m no better now than I was then.

Source

A Red Fox Will Awaken Your Senses

For the sake of time, I’ll move along. Late in the afternoon we returned to base camp, ate a quick dinner, and fell into our tents exhausted and probably more humiliated than we would admit.

Morning arrived too soon and we were told to pack up our tents and prepare for a long day. After all the gear was packed up, we headed out to the woods again. This was a different day and started out to be much more pleasant. This new area was deeply wooded and beautiful. There was a slight trail that meandered around the pines and rocky hillsides. The instructor paused along the way to show us the pellet discarded by an owl that contained the tiny bones of the mouse it had for dinner. Further along we became aware of an odor. Musky and strong, we were asked to guess its source. No one could of course. Our instructor explained that it was the scent of a red fox and that experienced trackers can locate a fox by their scent long before they see it visually. With a scent that strong, I had no reason to doubt it. Sometimes I can close my eyes and still smell that musky odor. I find it odd that it has remained with me for so many years but then, that was the purpose of taking this class.

A Tracker I Am Not

We finally made our way to the bottom of the land where a beautiful creek provided the cool shade we all needed. Once again, we were assigned tracks and I must admit that the little muskrat whose track I identified remains a mystery to me. The sound of the little creek carried any desire I had to track that muskrat right out of those woods. Water has a way of doing that to me. Hours later, the instructor wandered over and just looked at me, shook his head, and laughed. He knew, and so did I, that I would never follow in his footsteps. I would never be his competition, and, I would never really be a tracker. And we were both okay with that.

What I did learn was to see with my mind’s eye. I now see things in multiple dimensions. I look at the clouds and trees and I see more than the obvious. When I watch the sunset I am aware of the sounds of birds and the direction of the wind. The leaves are now more than color. They are textures and shadows and yes, they are a sign of the season. Yes, I have learned to see with my mind’s eye and although I will never find an elusive animal by its tracks in the soil, I am aware of its presence in my world and I am grateful.

The Experience

Sometimes we do things and wonder what in the world possessed us to do them. Sometimes we do things and we wonder why we waited so long. And sometimes we do things and wonder if we’ll ever understand the full impact of the experience. And sometimes, it doesn’t matter. It’s really all about the experience.


© 2013 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.


"The continued existence of wildlife and wilderness is important to the quality of life of humans." - Jim Fowler

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  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

    That would be an incredible class to take. Wish I had taken one; of course, it isn't too late. :) Great read! Of course, hiking as much as I have, I have seen many a track, but in all honesty I never knew what I was looking at other than deer.

    Have a good week at work, Kindred! You are a very interesting person my friend.

  • Jackie Lynnley profile image

    Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

    Oh, I think I would be just like you. The sky, woods, water and sounds of the birds would never let me keep my nose to the ground! You are OK, and at least you gave it a try! We can't do everything we think we can, but we can probably do much more than we think we can. Interesting read!

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

    Thank you so much for this. I was a real Nut when it came to the outdoors.

    i.e. Why don't you drink alcohol before hiking out of the Grand Canyon? Why are kosher hot dogs a bad idea for a 5 day hike?

  • profile image

    alloporus 4 years ago

    Nice Hub. It is great to know that courses exist to help us reconnect with our innate ability to really see the world around us. As an old Africa hand it reminded me of all the stories told in the spoor. Voted up.

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Bill, you're right. It's never too late. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. I learned more than I anticipated but not what I thought I would learn. If nothing else, get that book and read it. It's one I have read and re-read many times.

    Thanks for the good wishes for the week ahead. I'll be checking in with you and hope to keep up on my reading a bit better this week. Hugs to you and Bev. I hope she is feeling much better.

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Jackie. It's nice to know someone else would lose their focus too. lol It was still an awesome experience though. Thanks for sharing it with me.

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi MH! Isn't it wonderful that we do get a bit wiser with age? Thanks for the visit my friend.

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hello alloporus! Thanks for the visit and for voting this one up. I classes such as this are available all over the world but get too little publicity. I am currently watching a television series about the wildlife in Africa and, my bucket list includes an Australian walk-about. I am endeared and fascinated by both places. Thank you for you comment.

  • JimTxMiller profile image

    Jim Miller 4 years ago from Wichita Falls, Texas

    Ever since discovering and reading Tom Brown, Jr.'s books on tracking several years ago, I've had a hankering to attend one of his survival schools. Perhaps I should add that one back on the bucket list. Thanks!

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

    Linda, this is such an interesting story. I'm glad the experience broadened your senses rather than diminish your vision of Nature as Godly. You're very brave. I'd be afraid of lions and tiger and bears, oh my!

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Jim. Do it! I can almost guarantee you will never regret it. Although I did not turn out to be a skilled tracker, the new awareness I acquired has been an amazing gift. Thanks for reading this one. I too am a big Tom Brown fan. I've added a link to a group that I can endorse with confidence that offers classess too.

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Shauna, it was a wonderful experience. The key is to have confidence in your instructor. Not all who teach this stuff are worthy of their fame.

  • shiningirisheyes profile image

    Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

    Wow - Linda, this is a fantastic and interesting course. I commend you for taking me through this journey and showing me the equally important lesson you learned and adapted to your every-day life. Who says you didn't become a master tracker? Depends on what you are using that mind's eye for, right? And besides, I bet that peanut butter sandwich tasty mighty fine at the time.

    Great write.

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I love go to tracking. Where my parents lived in Florida and my Mother would take me out to see all of our visitors incluidng deer and fox. She was so into the outdoors and nature that she would never miss a chance to share her love of all things nature with me. What a wondrous time.

    You are so right..it is all about the experience.

    Sending Angels your way :) ps

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Wow I never thought about it from your perspective. Awesome. Sometime I will tell you about learning what skunk tracks are like. I learned the hard way thinking they we possum tracks -- you can guess.

    Your hub brought back many olfactory memories. Thank you much for a wonderful job.

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Becky. I do love a peanut butter sandwich. lol No, I'm not a great tracker but I learned a lot in this class. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I would recommend a tracking class for anyone who really appreciates nature and wildlife.

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Paula. I think I would have loved your mother. Did you ever get to see the baby foxes playing? They are so adorable and fun to watch? I'm glad you liked this one and that it brought back some great memories for you.

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Eric, I would love to hear about your skunk. lol This class was so awesome and I would love to take the advanced class now that the dust has settled. I think once you understand that almost everything in nature is a track or sign, it gives you a unique perspective. Thanks for the visit and for arousing my curiosity about the skunk, :-)

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Honey Linda bear, I ask you to do two things prior to embarking again:

    Take some serious time studying the botany of the area, spend three days previous not eating meat and only showering with water, better one shower on the first day and no more.

    You cannot smell you but I can. A small critter can smell a carnivore from a mile from their odor, and they can smell deodorant even farther.

  • xstatic profile image

    Jim Higgins 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

    This is a beautiful piece of work and there is no way that the class was a failure for you, since it opened your eyes to Nature and the changes that take place in it. This gives me an idea for an interview with an experienced man-tracker here in town who has helped find lost people and maybe even some criminals. Thanks!

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Eric, thanks for the advice. I was aware, thus - the peanut butter sandwich. -) And, showers were forbidden two days before arriving at camp. It's funny how easily we can ignore the smell of dirty sweat when everyone in a group smells the same way. What a society we are.

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Jim, thanks. Go after that interview. The instructor/friend of mine who taught this class eventually narrowed his focus to teaching human tracking for the military and law enforcement. He is the consumate professional and I have enormous respect for him. I would love to read an interview of your man-tracker.

  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

    Science is simply the understanding of the miraculous creation all around us. It will never take the wonder and beauty of it away,though. I understand how you felt Linda when something that is formally pure and easy comes up against something that maybe isn't so much. if this makes no sense then please forgive me. Once, not so very far from you, i discovered what can only be called a mountain lion track. It was up a mud bank in a most inaccessible spot. It changed my paradigm on what I thought was what very rapidly. And so far, a once in a lifetime discovery.

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Alastar, you make perfect sense. It is no myth that there are mountain lions here. Some will say otherwise but I have heard from many who really know these mountains that they are here. You were blessed with the gift of that paradigm shift. What a blessing.

  • MartieCoetser profile image

    Martie Coetser 4 years ago from South Africa

    Animal tracking, as well as the tracking of humans, is indeed a very interesting and rewarding experience. Every track tells a story and I normally hang on the lips of a field guide/instructor. Thanks for a most interesting hub, Irc :)

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Martie. Thank you for the visit. I am certainly no expert but I love the experience of looking for tracks. When I wrote this one, it was my hope that others would become interested enough to seek out a class. It's a wonderful way to learn how to really see the natural world, isn't it?

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 4 years ago from United States

    I never even knew a class like this existed, but it sure makes sense. This is an interesting hub and you really had a unique experience by taking that class. I'm sure you learned things that I will never know. I'm glad you wrote this hub about your experience. Voted up+++

  • lrc7815 profile image
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    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Pamela, hi! It's good to hear from you. It was an awesome experience and there are lots of teachers out there in the big old world. You would enjoy this class, I'm sure. Thanks for the vote up.

  • ChristyWrites profile image

    Christy Birmingham 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    What an interesting day you had. I like how you took us through it, tracking along with you. I know little in this area so it was great to learn more!

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Christy. Thanksfor the visit. This was a wonderful experience, If you ever get the chance to take a class, I highly recommend it. Glad you enjoyed reading abuot my class.

  • marcoujor profile image

    Maria Jordan 4 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

    Wanted to track you down and wish you a happy and peaceful birthday, dear friend. You are on my mind every day. Love, Maria

  • lrc7815 profile image
    Author

    Linda Crist 4 years ago from Central Virginia

    Maria, you are a creative hoot! I love that you put your birthday message on this hub. You are special and have made my birthday special too. Love right back at ya.

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