Tracking reinspired

One of my childhood favourites was Mark Trail’s Book of Animal Tracks, a book brought into the household collection from one of my parent’s childhood bookshelves. (As a child I often pondered the surprising appropriateness of the author’s name – a penname? Or the inevitable outdoorsman career choice with a name like that, like lawyers with the surname Law? To my disappointment I discovered recently the solution to that puzzle –  this childhood figure’s perfect name is due to his fictional status.)

It was a delight to find a track around the farm and to take its features back to Mark Trail’s little illustrated book to play the matching game. A similar joy that birdwatchers (or listeners) find in identifying a bird call.

There’s something special about encountering wild animal signs first-hand. It’s a connection, tangible proof of asynchronously shared space with these often unseen near-neighbours.

Cross country skiing around Jasper earlier this winter I encountered several intriguing trails that rekindled my interest in track mastery. On the first afternoon’s trip we cut our own fresh trail, then on the 2nd morning when we followed it again, an interesting fresh track revealed that an animal had frolicked around the base of a tree. Backtracking, I saw it had come from the direction we had come the previous day. The trail shortly disappeared into thin air. I peered to the near and far side of our ski trail – a blank slate of snow – only to discover that the cheeky creature had trotted in right up our own ski trail: hidden its tracks in ours. We also spotted some Whitetail deer feeding on grass, and, as they thoughtfully vacated on our approach, we were able to look at their digs. Some stand-offish elk studied us from behind the trees, and I was delighted to later come across the field of snow they waded through to arrive there.

Obviously, track photography is another skill I can work on! It’s tough!

In Jasper I acquired 2 remote teachers: I discovered two excellent tracking handbooks to be my lesson books – Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch, and Tracking & The Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign, by Paul Rezendes – carefully selected for stock at the Friends of Jasper shop. Of course, first-hand mentorship is best for these kinds of lessons, but it’s a start.

Of course I am a beginner and a dabbler yet – to really become adept I have a long road ahead. Learning the appearance of a particular kind of animal’s track is one thing, but the layer upon layer of complexity makes it a lifetime’s study! Animal behavior – what attracts and repels each species; why they move and how; what speeds do they travel and what gaits do they use – which produces variation in the track arrangement and print registry. That old book of Mark’s initiated me, but I’ve got a long way to go!

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