A Few Tips
To begin with, keep in mind that tracking isn't just about identifying and interpreting animals' pug marks. Other sign is equally important. Urine and scat have their stories to tell, too, as do scuffed earth, claw marks on tree trunks, and gnawn bark. Nor is that all. There are even more rules to this game:
- Keep your distance from wildlife; there's no need for close pursuit
- Watch where you put your feet: it's easy to obliterate tracks
- Leave Fido at home. He can't be expected to watch where he puts his feet, can he?
- Always carry the Ten Essentials
- Be extremely careful if you venture out onto ice
- Make a record of all you see; your notebook and camera are your best friends
Most of this is self‑evident, to be sure, but some of the points are important enough to bear repeating. Winter is a harsh and dangerous time for wildlife — and for would‑be wildlife‑watchers, as well. Food and shelter are precious commodities, obtained at great cost. Further stressing wild creatures by forcing them to move about unnecessarily isn't doing them any favors. So keep your distance if you cross paths with any of the forest's permanent residents. It's their home, after all. You're just a guest. Behave like one. Binoculars or a camera with a long telephoto lens will bring you as close as you need to get to any wild animal, and the camera will capture a permanent record, as well.
You can't theorize without data, right? Make every effort to avoid treading on tracks, scat, and other sign. Expect to log a good few miles in your search, too. Gear up for traveling in the winter woods, and be cautious when trekking cross‑country. New‑age crampons like Yaktrax are light and compact. They can be stowed in your rucksack in readiness for the time when you have to negotiate an icy slope. And while we're talking about ice… Use extreme caution every time you set foot on a frozen pond or bay. Farwell's series on crossing iced‑over waterways has good advice for all backcountry travelers:
Finally, if you're really serious about deciphering the texts written on the pages of the winter woods, be sure to keep a journal. Take lots of photos, too, and make sketches whenever the opportunity presents itself. Never assume you can come back later and find things just as you left them. You can't. A case in point: The day after I documented the encounter I've just described, a heavy snow blanketed the region. When I next returned to the scene, the story of the fox and the fisher had been entirely erased from the little hollow in the beech wood. It was just as if they'd never passed that way.
Of course, your notes and photos are useless if you can't interpret them. So while you're at it, get yourself a good book on animal tracks and sign. I can recommend Olaus J. Murie's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, as well as Donald and Lillian Stokes' A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior. Donald Stokes' A Guide to Nature in Winter is also helpful. (There's more about these field guides, and many others as well, in "Nature's an Open Book: The Living World.")
That's it. So what are you waiting for? Come on! The game's afoot!
Winter may put an end to paddling in much of Canoe Country, but it opens new vistas for exploration. There are plenty of dramatic tales being written in the winter woods right now. You'll have to learn how to read what's recorded on the pages first, though. Sound difficult? It's not. Just give it a try. Pick up the thread of a story and follow each twist and turn in the plot as you travel over the snow. But be warned: You have to walk the talk here. That's the only way you'll make sense of the wildcountry palimpsest. The good news? It's a journey well worth taking — and the stories you discover will make great winter reading.
Too busy to go outside today? Want to do some vicarious tracking in preparation for the real thing? Then join Tamia for a walk on the wild side, in "Making Tracks."
Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.