Sunday, January 26, 2020

We can all agree, it’s important for kids to get outside. And we need to do more than simply go hiking or paddle a river: kids need connection!

Another word for connection is empathy. Children track and trail animals naturally. They have an innate curiosity to finds squirrels, rabbits, coyotes and more. Trees and plants are wonderful, and I know many budding botanists, but animals most directly remind kids of themselves. Animals walk, forage, and need shelter. Our forest friends see and sense the world as we do.

Tracking also serves as an inspiration for a child’s imagination. What would it be like to forage and live in the wilderness like the elk? How would it feel to hunt like the cougar? Or to have the close friendships of the wolf pack?

Animal tracking means constantly asking those questions. You see a subtle clue that becomes an empty space to place one moment in time. It is a story of an animal very much like ourselves, but also fantastically different. It harkens to a kid’s desire to live free and in the wild.

At Trackers, whether we are weaving a story of wizards and elves or embarking on a rock climbing adventure, we try to bring the empathy of animal tracking into every moment. In our camps, outdoor skills are simply vehicles that get us further into the wilderness, while it is tracking that helps a Trackers Kid truly see and connect with the wider and wilder world around them.

Keep On Tracking,

Tony Deis
Trackers Earth
Founder & Dad

Animal tracking is a great activity to get the family outside and in nature. Through tracking, you and your kids can solve wildlife mysteries together. You learn the stories of animals secretly hidden beyond human eyes. From backyards and playgrounds to public parks and forests, animal tracks are all around us. Use this guide to begin learning about the comings and goings of our animal neighbors.

A quick note on staying found. If you’re searching for and following animal tracks, chances are you’re headed off the beaten path. So the first thing to remember is how to stay found.

  1. Tell somebody where you’re going. Tell them when to expect to hear from you.
  2. Bring a compass and a topographical map of the area
  3. Memorize landmarks, especially ones just behind you.

Ok I’ve found a track. Now what?

There are five questions We ask that help us investigate tracks. We call them the Five Fingers of Tracking.

The Five Fingers of Tracking

Thumb of Tracking – Who is this animal?

So you found a track! The first step is to identify which animal it belongs to. Start with the size of the track—for example, a house cat will be smaller than a cougar. Next, observe its overall shape and detailed features. Match the following observations with the examples in one of the animal tracking field guides listed below!

  1. Count the number of toes. But be careful! Not all toes register (show up) consistently. Look at other tracks to confirm your observations.
  2. See if there are claw marks. Dogs show claws, cats do not. Porcupine show long claws.
  3. Look at the shape and size of the heel pad.
Index Finger of Tracking – What is this animal doing?

Each animal has its own unique way of moving. Finding a line of tracks helps you understand the gait (how an animal moves). This line of tracks forms its own pattern, depending on the animal’s speed. Your field guide is a great resource to sort out the front from the back feet, the first step (pardon the pun). After sorting fore from rear, try and move like the animal, recreating the gait with your own tracks. Gaits can be complicated, so play with it at first. Later, those same field guides can help you go more in-depth with this topic.

Long Finger of Tracking – When was it here?

“When” the animal passed by can be a challenging but fun question to master. There are a few tricks that can help us “age” a track. Pay attention to the weather. Has it rained recently? Was there frost that morning? What other elements can wear away that track? MISSION: Press your finger into the ground near the track. If your fingerprint looks similar to the track, the animal may have passed by recently.

Ring Finger of Tracking – Why was the animal here?

“Why” an animal visits and area is often directly tied to something they need for survival. In order to understand this, we need to look at an animal’s habitat—where it lives. What food is in the surrounding area that the animal may eat? Is there shelter from inclement weather or even a way to hide? Is it breeding season? Even the wind direction, which carries scent, affects why an animal moves through an area. Read about each animal’s survival needs and connect that knowledge to the water, trails, plants and trees you find right around you. MISSION: Find a place in your backyard or nearby park that you visit every day. Sit in this place anywhere from 10 minutes to 1 hour, and map the plants and trails around you. At first, it might look like a wall of green, but very soon you begin to notice the busy town of mice, raccoons, and birds who share your neighborhood.

Pinky of Tracking – Where is it going, and where did it come from?

Following and finding the animal—this is known as trailing. Start with how many tracks you can find in a row. But trailing goes beyond the tracks, too. Bits of fur stuck on a branch are great clues. Use all your senses to find the animal. Smell for urine posts. Listen to the birds. The alarm calls of robins and other feathered friends call tell you if a bobcat or coyote is passing by. With practice and knowledge of the landscape, you can learn to predict where you might find an animal based on its needs. If it’s really dry, they might seek water. If the weather is challenging, they might hunker down in sheltered areas. MISSION: A fun game to learn trailing starts by dragging a stick through the forest. Start with an obvious line and slowly make it harder to find. Go back to the start and follow your kids, friends, or family as they try to follow your trail and find the prize at the end.

This sounds like so much fun! But where should I go?

Head to floodplains and areas near rivers. The softer surfaces like mud, silt, and sand, are great for capturing tracks. Here are some of the places we love to go:

Oxbow Regional Park

Dabney State Park

Sauvie Island – Warrior Rock

Mary S. Young Park

And what about those field guides? We recommend:

Mammal Tracks and Signs by Mark Elbroch

Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracking by Olaus Johan Murie

Mammals of the Pacific Northwest by Chis Maser

At Trackers, we teach animal tracking for both kids and adults in our camps and classes. Check out TrackersPDX.com for upcoming options for all ages!

 

If your kid is a Tracker, there is code. It describes what it means to be a Tracker and gives guidance as we all connect to community, nature, and many generations beyond us.

Code of a Tracker

Pay Attention Most people go through life with tunnel vision. Trackers Kids learn to see the entire picture, to always look for details both small and great. We teach this through wide-angle vision, animal tracking, and sensory awareness. Students learn nothing is ever what we assume on the surface. Through tracking they learn to travel subtle trails few choose to follow.

Be Truly Helpful For the Tracker, this starts by Paying Attention. We are only TRULY helpful when we listen and empathize with others. A Tracker never assumes what they are doing is right, instead they act thoughtfully to meet to the needs of the village and nature.

Appreciation Awe is often missing from our modern day experience. A Trackers Kid seeks out a great new adventure everyday, feats of respect originating from the beauty of community and the wilder world around us.

Adapt A Trackers Kid always seeks out new answers and layers to the puzzle, to which there is never a finish. Trackers are always learning, growing, and adapting. They improve not only for themselves, but to help support others from friends and family to wildlife, from elders who come before and many generations into the future.

These lessons are shared by all of us as we care for community and adventure with nature. They are the heart of our programs, helping every kid learn what it means to be a “Tracker.”

Keep Growing,

Tony Deis
Trackers Earth
Founder & Dad

Trackers Earth summer camps are like nothing else in the known universe. Explore all our 2019 summer camp themes: Wilderness Survival, Farming, Fishing, Archery, Wizards, Ninjas, Secret Agents, Blacksmithing, Rock Climbing, Biking & more!

Animal tracking is an incredible way to explore Nature with kids. While glimpsing a coyote or deer might be rare, their tracks are not. You just have to learn how and where to look.

When you find a track with your kids, have everyone take care not to step on any other prints that might be in line with it. Encourage kids to get down close by getting on your own knees to examine it.

Bring your faces close to the print. Tracks have a couple of key features that help you identify “who” the animal is.

Track Features:

striped-skunk_4Count the toes The number of toes in a track helps you narrow it down. For example, deer or elk hooves show two toes, while weasels like mink and marten show five toes.

Check for claws Look for the presence or absence of claws. People often overlook tiny claw marks, so look carefully. For example, dog tracks show claws and cat tracks don’t (they keep them sheathed).

Look at pad shape Pad shape also helps you key the track out. For example, cats have a distinct m-shaped pad that is all one piece, while squirrels have a pad that is made up of many parts.

Compare size Once you figure out it’s some kind of cat, the size of the track will help you identify if it’s Fluffy the house cat or the local cougar that ate Fluffy (hey, cougars gotta eat).

There are other track features you can learn about, such as symmetry, webbing, hair on the foot, gait, and negative space, which will give you more clues to identify the animal.

Tools & Teachers

Bring a notebook for drawing and writing details down, along with a small pocket tape measure. Many excellent field guides offer average measurements for tracks. We recommend Mammal Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch. You can also find many great resources online.

Where to Track

When you first start tracking, it’s best to begin with clear prints. Look for ground (substrate) where the foot can leave behind as much detail as possible. Good ground to search for tracks are sandy or silty floodplains, beaches near forests, or snow-covered ground in winter.

5 Fingers of Tracking

Identification is just the start. At Trackers we teach the 5 Fingers of Tracking. These are series of questions kids ask to learn more about the animal they are tracking.

Thumb Who is this animal?
Index How was this animal moving?
Middle When was this track made?
Ring Why was this animal here (food, shelter, etc.)?
Pinky Where is this animal now?

Stay tuned for more blogs how to share animal tracking with kids. Plus, our new upcoming kids book, Animal Tracking.

 

Many people think tracking is simply following footprints. They believe its usefulness is limited to hunters and naturalists. Tracking can be seen as arcane and irrelevant in the face of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and other conventional educational benchmarks.

Yet I suggest that the ancient art of tracking is the most valuable way of seeing, perceiving and learning that you can ever teach a child (or an adult).

While You Were Tracking

While tracking you wait in silence. While tracking you create detailed and progressively more accurate maps in your mind: maps within maps within maps. While tracking you train yourself to see what’s hidden. While tracking you hunt down the information at the edges of your awareness.

The bird tells me where the fox lays. The fox tells me about the movements of coyotes. The absence of coyotes leads me to cougars. The cougar trails the elk as I track it. The elk reveal how spring will unfold this year.

Beyond Nature

Tracking goes beyond nature. It helped me create a teaching organization (Trackers) that many insisted would be impossible. While starting Trackers, prominent outdoor educators told me:

“That’s not possible.”
“Get a real job… with an established organization.”
“Your challenges are insurmountable.”

In spite of that, Trackers has grown from 40 campers our first summer to nearly 15,000 students per year. Tracking teaches us that “impossible” is often an irrelevant concept. At Trackers, we go beyond obvious puzzles and obstacles to discover hidden opportunities.

When people say, “Look at this problem!” we respond with, “Yes, and now let’s uncover all the unseen possibilities.”

At Trackers, opportunity and creativity are never obvious: They are elusive trails we must hunt down. Anything else would be boring. Tracking does more than teach this awareness, it hardwires mindfulness into our senses, both in body and spirit.

Back to Nature

While some people are able to gain these skills outside of nature, I believe something is still missing. In the long-term, learning to understand only the human world is easy. No matter how complex the jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces are ultimately familiar when the challenge is limited to a human-centric scope.

Nature forces us to empathize in more radical ways. The behavior of a song sparrow proves as subtle as epistemology or metaphysics.

Through tracking in nature we step out of a world designed for humans only; we become ambassadors for a culture that needs to exist. One that respects diversity, mindfulness and creativity.

Tracking How-To

“Alright,” you’re thinking, “If tracking is so useful, how do I learn to do it or teach my child the basics?” Here’s a good place to start:

1. Find wilderness wherever you find yourself and visit it consistently (morning and evening at a minimum). Wilderness can be a sparrow in your backyard hedges or wildflowers in the city park. Wild is the more than human world.
2. When visiting wilderness, don’t bring your human trappings. Leave behind the field guides, gear, your phone… although you may need pants. Of course, bring the survival gear you need, and train to need it less.
3. Pay attention to what is actually happening around you, not what you think is happening. Silence, stillness and wide-angle vision (we call this Whiskers) prove truly helpful for developing this.
4. Always look at footprints within the context of how that animal is connected to the larger ecosystem. Clear tracks and other overt sign are only single words in a larger narrative.
5. Pay attention to birds and see how they react to you. Then figure out how they react to other animals. Then see how the animals react to birds reacting to you. Finally, get the birds to not react to you. Now you’re invisible.
6. Always be excited to prove yourself wrong. Really excited. Even more important, recognize everything changes. All the time.
7. Follow each trail, thread and connection until you’re exhausted. Then follow them some more. When you’re about to quit, follow them further.
8. Never think anything is impossible. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you have magical superpowers that can accomplish the impossible.
9. Through one thing, know many things.

Of course there are many more techniques we could add to your toolkit: sensory development, mapping routines, and mindfulness training. But these 9 principles could prove a useful start.

Prove Me Wrong

Is tracking really the most important skill? Like any good tracker, I’m eager for you to test it out and prove me wrong. But it’ll be hard. For that to happen, I’d have to see the song sparrow agree with you.

Note to parents: If you let kids develop the above skills of questioning and thoughtfulness and you may asking for trouble. Good trouble 😉

Tracking is the art and science of Paying Attention to the details, both large and small, and using this awareness to find hidden aspects of the world most people miss. Good Trackers can find a set of prints, human or animal, and follow them over any ground. Great Trackers can tell you what this means to health of their woodland, forest friends, and village.