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Animal Tracking: Learning To See With All Five Senses

Updated on September 30, 2013

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.


Get a Journal

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.


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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