Advanced Tracking Week Part II

By Katie Buttermore & Steve Cossin

This old oak could be the host to a fisher den!
This old oak could be the host to a fisher den!

Katie’s perspective: The Advanced Tracking week that we (the graduated caretakers & Joe) experienced really opened my eyes to new possibilities. Right off the bat, the first curve ball that we received was a cedar that had its bark stripped off from the top down it seemed. Sam described the debris at the bottoms as “a fluffy cambium donut.” What I didn’t know was what kinds of animals remove bark in this way. We narrowed it down to porcupine or fisher… Whoa. Well… yeah, that makes sense, I had just never thought of it before. Inspecting this sign got my gears turning for the week; I became more open to new possibility without expectation that everything must be answered with certainty. It’s okay if you don’t know stuff! What’s important is letting your curiosity be your guide, and learning what you can with what you have….(Continue Reading with link below)

Who leaves this kind of chew mark?
Who leaves this kind of chew mark?

A really fun element of the week is that we were always picking sign up and passing it around, checking it out. Like chews from deer, squirrels, other rodents and more. Like acorns that had partial chew marks and stopping to inspect old pocket gopher tunnels. A lot of learning took place in the patches of snow — looking at old animal foot compressions in snow that had gone through the freeze-melt cycle many times under the rule of the sun.  It seemed that anything and everything was naturally considered, without necessarily planning to stop and scrutinize.

One of my favorite imagination exercises is to think of the landscape as one giant track. When we were doing a sit spot up on Mt. Ashland, we had a clear view of the Marble Mountains and farther off to the South, we could see Mt. Shasta and Shastina. I visualized myself in the “floor” or even the “wall” of the track, imagining what movements and pressure must have caused these ridges and valleys to form, and how I would feel that from the ground beneath me. I often feel like a tiny insect when I do this exercise!

To sum it up, this week made me realize that I have come quite a long way. Less than 2 years ago I really had no idea of the width and depth that “tracking” entailed. Then, I took Deer Trail, and everything changed by Thursday of that week. I love that anyone of any age from any continent or culture can be a Tracker – it totally just depends on the determination of the individual.

Tracking has broadened my Way of thinking, helped me to slow my mind down so I can enjoy the littlest things, and has really stirred my passion and kindled my curiosity.

Joe teaching us about the "wolf" trees that grow in an upward spiral.
Joe teaching us about the “wolf” trees that grow in an upward spiral.

Steve’s perspective: I see myself as a student of life. I try to gain as many lessons from every day as possible, because there are countless lessons all around us all the time. Tracking to me is really a very broad subject, ranging from tracking your own internal thoughts, to the weather, even to the routines of those around you. The ultimate in tracking for me right now would be in tracking Animals. The idea of being able to see an individual track and from that understand what creature left it is cool. The shear skill involved given the landscape conditions and other factors can easily boggle the mind, and to be honest it has for a long time seemed nearly unattainable. I have been actively practicing tracking for about two years now, slowly but steadily getting better. The Advanced Tracking week was in itself the answer to so many accumulated questions, most of which I did not even know that I had. But as so often happens at the end of the week I walked away with a whole new list of questions, and gained more new questions than I had answered. That though is the spice of this profession. Those unanswered questions that fuel your curiosity on and on to the next, until one day you look back and see the answers.

Can you see the trail leading up to us on the right?
Can you see the trail leading up to us on the right?

The Advanced Tracking week really stretched my mind and body in all the right ways. I began the second day unable to wear my contacts due to the shear intensity of the first days tracking. My eyes were just too sore to comfortably accept the lenses. So I dawned my old backup pair of glasses and kept on going. So much about the week was just pure learning and absorbing of the nuances necessary in tracking. I could ramble on about every little detail of the week but I almost feel that would be doing a disservice to my experience. Somehow the big lessons, the things you take home to chew on for days are what really stick out, and this trip gave me a lot to think about.

We had the pleasure of spending the better part of two full days practicing and experiencing the flow that is known as Trailing. The second day of the week we spent in the Siskiyou mountains trailing Black Tail Deer, and boy it was everything that I wanted. It is so different than the focus lock on an individual track that I have been training in thus far. It has always been such a thrill to me, the idea of walking in the footsteps of an animal and at the end of this trail somewhere up ahead is the animal itself. This day and the next we spent trailing and it was the most frustratingly rewarding experience I have had to date in tracking. While on the trail Joe would ask probing questions, and help keep us on the trail when we lost it.

Trailing black-tail deer, Joe confirming the trail as we go.
Trailing black-tail deer, Joe confirming the trail as we go.

After a while the nearly invisible tracks started to pop up out of the thick duff and pine needles of the forest floor. To get in the habit of constantly looking 15-30 feet up ahead of you to find the next tracks and not focusing on them as you pass but only to quickly confirm its identity was definitely new to me. Looking to the thick pine needle covered, debris loaded, and boulder strewn forest floor to see a scant few needles out of place in and amongst the harmonious chaos would normally seem like a tall order to most people.

The rest of the week was more of the same. Not to imply by any means that it became anything less than thrilling, but simply more discoveries, more looking beyond the obvious, more learning. We literally held tracks in our hands. We dug some Bobcat tracks out of the snow and learned to melt the excess snow away to reveal the actual track compression. Have you ever tossed and caught an actual Bobcat track? We have! So many things revealed themselves to us during this week, from the very fresh trail of an enormous Black Bear, to an actual herd of 30-40 Elk. Not to mention the four circling Bald Eagles who decided to show off for us on the final day. This week was a powerful learning experience and will keep me in search of the questions it raised for a long time to come.

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