The winter wilderness holds so much mystery. From that first moment that each unique snowflake drifts down from the sky, there is a certain awakening that happens…an inspiration that we have as we are curious of what’s happening outside of our walls. There is a pull—as one of my mentors, Joseph Campbell, would say: “A call to Adventure!” As we venture out of our comfort and embark on that calling, we leave the house—whether it is to go for a walk or even more daring, heading for the trails in wild nature.
As a family moving through the land, we hear the snow crunching under our feet and we see our own tracks, and we cannot help but think of the wild animals leaving clues of where they have been traveling, hunting, playing and sleeping and ultimately, surviving. So, as we continue on our way, we notice that first break in the pure white glistening expanse of snow and excitedly approach our first set of animal tracks.
As we get closer and see the trail left behind, we wonder what it is. There is a primal spark growing in us, and this connects us to our ancestors who lived close to the earth. This is like being a detective and we have our first clue.
When the children of the indigenous cultures in the far north (like the Sami people who live their lives by the Caribou and take care of the herd) see a set of tracks, the Elders would not tell them what they saw. They would mentor them by helping to foster a relationship with the animals by asking questions and getting them in their senses. “What do you see?” the Elder might ask. The child might say, “Animal tracks.” The Elder would then kneel down and look closer and say, “Hmm.” The child would then copy and also kneel down. Then the Elder would say, “How many toes do you see?” The child might answer, “Four.” The Elder continues, “Are there any claws visible in these tracks?” Child would then reply, “Oh yeah, right there!” (pointing) Elder, “Can you point which direction it is heading?” Child points and says “That way!” Elder, “What direction is that?” Child, “North…?” (questioning)
This is an example of a similar dialogue I often have with my students. This is so they put the “quest” back into “question” and build upon the knowledge they have, not only as trackers but in their lives.
Let’s look closer at this. The Elder does not GIVE answers; they are earned. There is a place for children to have their own unique self expression and for them to think outside of themselves, which creates deeper knowledge. The Elder then may explain the depth of what they saw. “This wolf is traveling alone early this morning, and you see here, where the tracks are slightly melted out, it stood here to gather information, and then headed north in a faster gait of a trot. There is a herd of Caribou that was crossing the open plains up there about a quarter of a mile north.”
The Elder knows the land intimately; his/her survival depends on it in the home of the wilderness. He is bestowing the wisdom to this child so that he, when he grows up, can contribute to the health and well-being of the land, the herd and his family. This also creates self confidence and understanding of how life is around him and their deep nature connection.
So, as we go back to our wilderness adventure, we want to ask important questions to create an “experience.” Experiential education is one of the highest forms of engagement…of learning—not rote memorization of what we think someone might want to hear, but actually reaching down and picking up the snow, looking at the tracks and allowing our imagination to dance with our physical reality.
The best way to do this is to build your own skills to start learning together and be able to take someone from the edge of his/her knowledge further. This is the ultimate goal of a mentor through self empowerment and self awareness; we ALL grow in our experiences and what we can contribute in our lives.
See you on the trail,
Frank and Arianna Grindrod
Let’s look at early humans and how they and their tools changed over time.
We need to see through the eyes of archeologists and anthropologists to learn the specific skills and tools for dating artifacts and linking them to specific time periods.
This means we need to use our tracking skills! Lets get started…
Imagine you are taking a journey back in time to 2.5 million years ago. There was fuzzy creature hunched over with a large extended jaw and human-like form with long arms and a long trunk breaking rocks. This animal is our ancestor hominid (human-like creature). They were a primate that could walk upright but still had trunk and arm adaptations for climbing trees. They also slept in trees for protection from predators. Our distant ancestor stood only about three feet tall.
How do we know this? Clues left behind that have been preserved. Archeology is the scientific study of historic or prehistoric peoples and their cultures by analysis of their artifacts. By studying their bones and tools we come up with ideas about them and their culture; it is like putting together a puzzle.
The bones become stone over time by a process called fossilization. These fossils can last for millions of years. Wow! Archeologists have also found pieces of various stones that have been chipped in a predictable manner with significant controlled force for a similar result. Tools!
Enter the Age of the Tool Maker
Look at the picture of the projectile points pottery and resin on an animal skin that was tanned for use of clothing, bags, etc.
These artifacts – the three on the left with 2 that are broken and all lightly colored are great tracks left behind that I share during our classes where we make stone tools and teach about ancient civilizations. Its one thing to read about it, but to actually MAKE it gives a deep respect for the artist and craftsmen these people were.
From an atl atl, a tool designed to throw spear shafts, the point can be seen on the far left with the upside down v that looks yellowish, is from the archaic period. According to my good friend Charlie Paquin, an Experiential Archeologist, which is someone who does not just study things they find but they also replicate it by making it themselves, this artifact also has a worn point which could be from hitting something hard like bone or a rock when launched from the atl atl, or it could have been used as a drill.
Here is a List of Exciting Finds We Continue to Discover
Africa’s Olduvai site: discovered hominid bone remains dated at 2 million years old.
Shanidar Cave in the Zagaros Mts of Iraq found eight prehistoric people over a 100,000 years old.
Oldest fire remains, evidenced by a ring of rocks, big ash deposits and stone tools, indicate habitation. This 790,000 years old site was discovered along the Jordan River in Israel.
in Beaches Pit in England, Archeologists found fragments of stone around fires dating back 400,000 years ago. These were flakes hit in a precise way with pressure that would break stone in a predictable way to create an edged tool.
Clay-fired vessels from 18,000 years ago were found in China. One of the first containers was a steatite-type soap stone that could be shaped with stone and set directly on the coals of fire.
There is so much to learn from our past that can help us understand our future.
Enjoy the outdoors.
Winter has come and gone, and spring is clearly unfolding: the birdsong, the wildflowers, the bursting of shoots braking through the Earth’s surface in fertile ground, the trees leafing out, the warmer days as frogs sing, and then in the spring, showers are coming as the ice melts off the mountains, bringing it down through the rivers. It’s a powerful time of change.
My daughter and I–with binoculars in hand and our favorite walking stick, backpack filled with food, water and a couple of field guides, map and first aid kit–venture into the forest, as the sun rises, with a goal of seeing wildlife and not being seen. We move quietly through the deep forest, moving like a ghost, invisible as best we can while using the Indian sign language we have been practicing.
We are so blessed to be in the middle of a magical place with such a rich diversity as we are in southern New England…a world where the boreal forest and the northern forest meet, giving us the best place to be immersed in nature. The boreal forest, also known as “the spruce-moose forest,” has mainly evergreen trees and a few select hardwoods like poplar, paper birch, tamarack and others. The northern hardwoods have such a vast amount of trees like yellow birch, sugar maple, American beech, eastern hemlock, white pine, northern red oak, cherry, and those are just a few—there are many more.
As we trek deeper into the forest, we notice the dense canopy not letting in much sunlight as the sun rises out of the east, giving us a sense of direction, but our awareness tunes into a subtle change, and as we enter, there is more light shining down on us than just a minute earlier. This is a track on a large scale that is affecting how much light which helps to make a more rich forest in vegetation and brings with it many animals and birds and the like. With our senses honed, there are signs of the animals all around us. We notice claw marks and bites on trees, stunted growth where it looks like a nursery of Japanese bonsai trees, and when we look down in the leaf litter, there are many footfalls showing worn-in paths on the forest floor, weaving in and out of the cliffs.
Passing through different habitats, we see the many deciduous leaves and all the light that shines creates a dappled look under our feet and in the area between the wetland and the cliffs. There is a lot of feeding sign called browse (little 45-degree angle cuts), taking the end of the branch clean off, almost like clippers.
As we expand our awareness to the area high up on the cliff, we see a good hiding place opposite of the spot we want to watch. Scanning for signs of movement, we hope to get a glance of this very elusive animal who chooses the south-facing, hard-to-access areas in the cliffs. We have already done our research; we know this animal is crepuscular, which means it is active at twilight hours (dawn and dusk). It is diurnal (day) and nocturnal (night).
Its primary food source has left sign with the angled cut that we found earlier, so we know there is a feeding area in close view. One of the traits of this animal is the ability to be motionless for long periods; even in winter, being able to lay in the snow where you can find a sphinx-like “hunting bed” while it waits to ambush its prey. To discover this body print melted out from the heat that is generated while it remains still as a shadow is inspiring! As we get down low, we find sections of hair frozen to the ice; however this time of year, you want to look for “resting beds;” places where you can make out where it has been laying down, usually under a rock overhang on a pile of leaves insulating from the ground.
The forest is so quiet. My daughter and I take turns to scan the cliffs with our glasses. We have been watching, quietly, for almost an hour and a half. We know that patience always pays off. We also know that this animal has a very small heart and it travels a very short range compared to others of its size. By knowing this, we also could watch it hunt as it stalks its prey since it is primarily a carnivore.
While looking near the top where we have been looking all morning, in the best rays of light, we see movement–a very camouflaged tawny color with dark shades and beautiful markings, big eyes and graceful movement as we watch it stretch basking in the suns glow. It has been there all this time…watching us watching for her. So who’s watching whom? While studying us, perhaps, she senses we are not a threat.
It is time to hunt. Her preferred prey, the rabbit, helps to sustain her but also helps raising her kittens. If you haven’t guessed by now, the mystery animal is the bobcat.
As we watch our cat in her natural rhythm, we are excited because we may be able to watch her hunt. Earlier we mentioned how she lies in wait in “hunting beds.” Once the prey is close enough, there is an explosion of energy–a POUNCE! From her ambush spot, bursting forth after the rabbit who has zigzagging motion to avoid capture. There is a very small window of time because she needs to not burn too much energy; if the hunt lasts longer than just minutes, she will stop rest, find another spot and start again and continue that cycle.
This bobcat needs to eat and feed her new kittens, and when she has the rabbit, she will take it to a place close by to hide it and take parts of the animal and “cache” (cover and save for later) the rest, using her front paws very much the same as our house cats. She will travel back and forth to feed her young if she has gotten a good amount of food. She will continue to hunt this area because of the success.
Thanks for joining us on our adventure into the outdoors.
Until next time happy trails…
Many years ago I was awakened to the stories of our wild neighbors. Though we do not always see them, they leave so much information about the stories of their lives. There is adventure, drama, death, play, romance, and mystery. Through the years I learned how to stop, look, listen, smell, and feel these stories and attempt to reveal the mysteries. I do this through the art and science of animal tracking.
To see what our wild neighbors do – through their tracks, and their behavior through the signs they leave behind: claw marks on trees, scrapes, bite marks, digs, rubs, scat – is an initiation into a secret world. Though the world of our wild neighbors may seem one of secrecy to us; to them it is a very obvious. The sign they leave behind are markers to state who they are, what they are doing in the area, and if they are available to mate.
Some mammals are crepuscular; that means most active during twilight, at dawn and dusk such as deer, moose, rabbits, and beaver. Others are nocturnal such as our bat friends and flying squirrels. Then there are those, who like the majority of humans, are diurnal – active during the day – such as gray and red squirrels. Whether or not we have the opportunity to watch our wild neighbors up close and personal, they always leave sign of their presence and as a tracker you get to see those visual cues and smell their scents and be able to have that deeper connection and understanding of what is happening in the environment you are exploring.
Our black bear story takes place on a chilly fall day where the leaves covered the ground and the sound of the crunching under our feet echoed through the forest. My friend Mark and I were tracking through an open deciduous forest full of majestic American Beech elders, Red Oak, White Birch and Hickory. This year was a mast year for Beech and many beechnuts covered the ground. We noticed a large disturbance of leaves and as we looked closer we saw the tracks of turkey feeding signs mice,squirrel and the prints of deer and bear tracks. For a tracker all this sign could be equated to a kid in a candy shop; so much to gaze at and be excited about; so much to choose from. Aha, the treat we had to take a closer look at; the pièce de résistance, were black bear claw marks going up this tree as we looked up we saw many broken branches. They had been broken from all directions being pulled into the center. We knew this was not storm damage for the breakage would have been in all one direction of the path of the storm. We had discovered a “Bear Nest” this is a place where they climb up and sit in the middle of the crotch of a tree and FEED pulling the branches in to them then sitting on them and eating more. When bears are feeding constantly to put on weight they often are resting/ napping often too. Perhaps in the nest? later on that day when we were under the Hemlock trees we found an amazing sight. A set of bear tracks in the shallow snow with great detail. As we followed the mystery of where are they going why this direction we saw something I had never seen before. Right underneath the Hemlock tree at the base was a large clump of branches. These were not short they were rather long some 2 feet and in such a beautiful arrangement in the shape of a rounded bed. This was a Bear bed I had never known they made above ground beds with such detail and weaving of all Hemlock branches for a soft form.
So earlier in the day we found bear tracks at the base of the beech tree’s bear claws leading up the understory to eat beechnuts. Why beechnuts? Beechnuts are high in fat and bears are looking for high-energy foods to fatten themselves up to survive the winter some sources quote Beech nuts having 60% Fat. When we have a mast-year of beechnuts such as we had this year, with so many Beeches producing an abundance of fruit, the bears capitalized on this food source. You may have noticed last year that we had a mast year of acorns, with oaks putting out acorns aplenty. Bears are opportunists so whatever tree species are masting, bears will be there to put the weight on.
Throughout the summer bears are fattening up whatever berries, nuts, invertebrates and other animals they can find and just as we do they have their favorite foods. Don’t worry though, we are not on the menu of the black bear who typically stands about five feet tall with a range of four to seven feet tall. Adult males weigh between 125 and 500 pounds, depending upon age, season, and food while adult females usually weigh between 90 and 300 pounds, again, depending on age, season and food type availability.
According to Paul Rezendes, a renowned tracker in the northeast, that given the choice, Black Bears seem to prefer beechnuts even after the snowfalls. He has witnessed them digging up Beechnut under a foot of snow and putting off their sleep if there’s a good crop. Looks like this year the bears may be up past their bed time. There are years when
the American Beech do not have a “bumper crop” year and so the bears will seek out other tree species that are masting in any given year. Apparently they will even feed on White Ash seeds when the oak, beeches, and hickories are not masting. My wife and I sampled White Ash just to see what they would taste like. Arianna was not impressed
with the idea of having to eat many of these, whereas, upon soaking the beechnuts, she claimed them “quite tasty”.
Though spring to summer was mating season and summer to fall was major caloric intake season, come November a black bear’s focus is finding a denning site. They will try a number of sites before they settle on the one that serves their specific needs. A den may be a hollow tree, a cave, or an excavated den of a smaller mammal or even a small depression above ground; the main criteria is where a bear has determined to be safe and secluded. And this winter, on your visits through the woods, you may snowshoe or ski right by a bear den and not even know it.
A pregnant female will give birth sometime in January or early February and as any human mother will confirm, that under no circumstances, unless you are being heavily sedated, could you possibly sleep through a birthing experience. They are however, very efficient hibernators. In the late fall the Black Bear will start to eat less and become more lethargic, and while they are denned up during the winter they will not eat, drink or defecate during hibernation. And because their fur is so insulative, the bear’s body heat is lost very slowly, “maintaining temperatures above 88 degrees–within 12 degrees of their normal summer temperature.” (Rogers, Lynn, 1981) Still, a female Black Bear is
certainly alert enough to nurse and clean her young.
So as you step outside this winter, work on developing a deeper awareness of the beings around you. This will serve you in whatever you do in life. So go off trail into the forest, fields, swamps, and ridges. Explore the wild world around you and perhaps you too will find black bear marks on a beech tree in the middle of the woods and then say – AHA!
Learn more about Black Bears!
Read and watch Black Bear researchers such as Lynn Rogers and Ben Kilham; they have so much to share! Additionally, since it is challenging to express all the information in an article about black Bears and I want you to get outside, into the outdoors, I’ve provided a video to go along with this article so that you can go out on your own or with your family
and be able to find these things in your own forest. http://earthworkprograms.com/?page_id=800
Please be mindful and respect the Bears in their habitat.
come on a journey of tracking at night,learn some of the mysteries and secrets of NIGHT TRACKING
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!
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.
Frank Grindrod of http://www.earthworkprograms.com/
invites you to go for a guided walk of the mysteries of animal tracking in Alaska.
Learn to see through the eyes of a tracker.
what questions do you ask yourself when out in the forest?
when tracking look for patterns in the natural world.
what are the animals doing throughout the seasons.
There are so many mysteries in outdoor education and so many models.
How did you do on this little tracking quiz?
Filming by my lovely wife Arianna in our trip to Alaska in the Kenai wildlife Refuge.
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