The outdoors is full of stories. We look up to the clouds and see stories that come in on the wind, and look outward for stories that are revealed in the rocks and on the land. Around campfires, stories and memories cross time and generations. Yet, for all these “big” stories, it’s the little ones, those within an arm’s length or two, that mesmerize me the most. These are the stories told by the creatures themselves, and left all around us in tracks, and signs, smells and sounds.
Raccoon, skunk, cat, dog, bird, ungulate, rodent.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the US, you likely have your fair share of these where you venture. Any season. Anywhere. Any time. Venture out at night. Take your SUP and look for the otter’s V in the moonlight, and startle at a sudden beaver slap. Even the sky has its actors in the night birds and mammals. You saw the evidence during the day – now come for the show at night.
It’s a bloody miracle, isn’t it, the first time someone who knows a bit walks you through a story you’d blundered blithely, and unknowingly through a million times before. A meandering coyote track. A jackrabbit’s cautious exploration. Coyote meets jackrabbit scent and track, and no more meander. Stalking track. A leap. This one got away.
While the experts can differentiate hundreds of different tracks, I’ve been happy just being able to tell the difference at a high level – felid, canid, ursid, ungulate – and not so fussed about whether it’s a bobcat or a cougar (although my eyes do go wide at a large print and long stride – maybe I’m not at the top of the food chain any more…).
For the most part, I know that creatures are driven by stomachs or hormones. I’ll bet, like me, you can untangle tracks with only a little natural history, pretending to think like an animal and knowing who’s a carnivore, herbivore or omnivore, prey animal or predator, and which prints show adaptation for digging, scraping, paddling, killing, running?
My pleasures are simple. For a good story, you don’t need to be 100 percent certain if your actor was an elk or a moose, large bobcat or small cougar, coyote or a dog. How fast was the animal moving? Did the bird hop or walk? (There’s a story in there!) What might our creatures have been eating/doing?
Put yourself in scene with whatever natural history you’ve got - everyone has an idea of the animals (and birds) from golf-ball size to cow- (or condor-) size that likely live where you are standing. Step off the trail, especially in areas likely to trap tracks (dusty, muddy, by water or shelter, by vantage or food, travel corridors) and pause. You have eyes, but the land tells its stories for all your senses, and in all dimensions.
Sit. Do a 5-4-3-2-1 meditation for the senses. What five things can you see? Chew, scratch or rub marks on trees? What's in the scat? Pellets of bone and feather puke under that tall juniper? Urine streaks on cliffs? Do you see a bed, or a wallow? Depressions in the dirt that show the paws, claws and feet of passers-by? Were the passers hurrying, or wandering? Hunting, or hunted? What four things can you hear? What can you smell and feel? Smell who inhabits a burrow or den, or whose scent comes in on the fall air. Close your eyes and run your fingers across the land until you hit that well-formed print in the mud. You get the picture - all the senses contribute.
Put it together with what natural history you know – cliff-side white marks revealing a nest, owl pellets under the tall juniper, further out on the trail maybe a feather, or brushed feather marks in the dust, rodent tracks, fur – a story starts to unfold! And no need to rush. This is outdoor time. And how fast would you rush through a museum?
You don’t have to be an expert. Just the basics can reveal another world. Just having a thread to pull on can start a lifetime of revelation. Find a buddy with a tracker fascination, look at the quick reference in the Tribe Pilot library, and go deeper if you want. Teachers abound. Absorb, connect and just enjoy.
Here are a few of the common tracks we see here in the northwest.