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An Introduction to Tracking: Seeing through the Eyes of the Forest

Welcome Winter!

There are always amazing things happening in the outdoors, and all of them leave stories. This is an amazing way to learn: it puts the QUEST back into question and the SEARCH back into research. It also helps to engage all the senses: touching the tracks, listening to the birds, and letting the listeners know if the animal is still around them.

“Let’s follow an animal. We see some footprints in snow.” We all gather around, making sure not to step on the tracks; this is harder than it sounds with the excitement of everyone. Then we get close and reach out with our eyes like we are mountain climbing and we have shrunk ourselves down to climb in the track. We see that it looks pretty deep.

We start to measure and discover it is about an inch. Then Chris says, “I think it is a wolf!” We ask why? “I picture a wolf walking. We are reading a story about a wolf at home, and I would love to see one…” This is a gift; their imaginations are brimming, the tracks are coming alive, and the excitement builds!

Who’s got their journal? “Oh I do; it’s right here,” say several of the kids. They whip out their backpacks and start to make a sketch right there on the spot. Now the one measuring is working with the ones who are sketching.

There have been no answers given yet. We are in the brainstorming stage of tracking where everybody is sharing their direct observations, thoughts and feelings. There is a real magic at this point; an energy that flows throughout the group.

I ask some questions: “How many toes are there? Any claw marks?” There is a silence while everyone begins to get closer to the tracks. “I think this is a toe and this is another.” We all agree there are two huge toes that are about 3.5 inches long, and the width is 2.5 inches. I ask, “What shape is the overall track? A circle? Square? What do you see?” One of the girls says, “I see a heart.” “Me too!” agrees Maya. “Oh yeah, it is a heart,” confirms another.

I fuel their passion by reflecting back to them–“You are becoming great trackers.” “Now does anyone see the line right down the middle of it?” Someone exclaims “I see it! It is down by the bottom of the heart of the track.” I suggest an idea: “Why doesn’t everybody point which direction the animal is moving…on 3; ready…1…2…3!” Most of the students point where the mystery animal is headed. “Awesome! Way to trust your intuition!” I praise.

“Let’s look deeper. Did anyone bring any tracking guides?” A couple kids bring them out as I do. We all huddle around the guides looking for the tracks. It is now a matching game. “Are these fox tracks?” “No,” the group answers together. “These are way too big.” I ask one of them to make a track right next to our mystery track. He starts, and everybody watches. “Try to make it as deep as that one and feel how much weight–a lot or a little–it takes.” “Whoa! I am putting all my weight down, and it is just barely the same.” I ask, “Is this a light or heavy animal?” A resounding “heavy!!” is the reply.

Sometimes it is more important to have more questions than answers, like assigning a name. A lot of times I have noticed when I just share an answer of what I know, then the curiosity and mystery ends, and sometimes the experience as well as the discovery part of the need to know stops. I hope you can watch for it next time you are sharing or teaching.

Back to woods!

The kids start to guess certain animals and are showing and asking each other “do you think this is it? what about that?” This is a great example of how peers teach peers; they are mentoring each other!

Maya Tracking winter

We researched coyote, fox, otter and deer. There is a reason that I have them go through their guides; this is called coyote teaching–deepening the experience for them so they know what they know and they are learning how to learn when we, as a parent or teacher, are not there.

About the field guides: these guides are respected and revered as modern day elders with extreme knowledge and life experience. They have thousands of field hours in them. Lots of times there are also personal stories in them along with facts of behavior and measurements, etc.

The kids are comparing and bringing the books right up to the tracks. We have a match. “We are tracking deer,” one of them says confidently. We celebrate with “high fives” all around! They are so proud and full of self worth and accomplishment, and I recognize them for that.

We all pause, and I say, “I am so thankful for tracking and learning about our wild neighbors. Anybody else feel thankful?” “Yeah, me too.” concurs one of the tracking students. “I am thankful that I could be outside and see this with my own eyes. I think I have seen deer tracks near my barn I can’t wait to go tracking again.

Tracking can be traced back to the original language; the first language of how to learn also is believed by many to be the origin of science. As we go out into the forest, we learn our ABCs of tracking just like we learn our ABCs when we are young children. We learn letters and how to put different letters together to make words. These words become sentences, and the sentences form paragraphs, and the paragraphs transform into stories.

When you can start to see all the characters–the wild animals as they live their everyday lives, as they hunt, build their homes, stalk their prey, chase, escape, not escape, find a mate–all these things can be interpreted within the tracks and signs they leave behind.

When we go out with our kids, be sure to ask them questions…to help them understand…like we do in our Tracking Club. We have families and their children learning side by side.

Winter tracking is completely different than tracking throughout the year; the snow is an excellent way to be able to see all the little details of tracks and signs (like the number of toes and if there are any claws registering in the track). During the winter we are able to see many of the tracks; we can follow a trail and learn more about stride of the animal, the length and width of the track set. We can learn to tell what gait the animal was in–walking, running, bounding, hopping. By following our wild neighbors, we start to learn where they go and what they’re doing. To gain a deeper perspective and how the animals are interconnected, there are so many questions we can ask ourselves: the who, what, where and when.

Tracking Historically:

Tracking cultures exist all over the world. Imagine waking up and your grandparents tell you it’s time for stories just as the sun is coming up. You wipe your eyes and you all greet the day together. As the sun rises, the shadows are the longest and it helps ALOT with tracking. It makes the tracks jump out of the ground. You want to be mindful not to block the sunlight on it.

The revered elders wake up the young ones in the morning and bring them out onto the land and ask them all these questions about what they’re seeing what they think is happening who is this? What are they doing? Where are they going? to the watering hole? When have they been here? How was the movement when they approach?

They do not tell the children what is happening; they ask. They invite their creativity and imagination; there mind’s eye, can they picture what is happening. Since the beginning of time we have had tracking cultures from all over the world.

Frank Grindrod is founder and owner of Earthwork Programs, a local business since 1999. Earthwork Programs is dedicated to teaching people earth skills such as nature awareness, tracking, wilderness living skills, survival, and earth philosophy.  Earthwork Programs is also recognized as a Nurtured Heart™ School. Visit Frank and Earthwork Programs at www.earthworkprograms.com Immersed in Nature, we reconnect you with the earth.

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