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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.

Read More

Gifts of Winter

Gifts of Winter

By Frank Grindrod

Winter is here, and there is so much to celebrate and so much to learn! The word “winter” conjures up many thoughts, feelings and powerful images. Some people think of winter as cold and dark–a good time to get close to the wood stove or crank up the thermostat; while others see the first snowflakes and think, “I am going to the mountains to ski, snowboard and snowshoe.” You may hear an excited shout “no school!” and “I am going out to build a snowman or snow fort!”  Of course, there is always, “I’m going sledding!”

Animals in Winter

As a tracker, there is a long-awaited unveiling to seeing the many trails of animals and bird species. A blank canvas is placed on the earth, the snow is a medium, and the animals are the artists creating a masterpiece about the story of their lives.

When going for a walk in winter, it is like attending an amazing theatrical performance. There is action, drama, adventure, suspense, mystery and love.

As we witness these works of art, like tracks criss-crossing across a field or the wing prints of an owl swooping down in silent flight for a vole (small mouse-like creature), we get a glimpse of the playful courtship chases and successful hunts. We can also observe the hardships that face our wild neighbors, such as the deer being heavy enough that their hooves break through the ice whereas the coyotes are light enough to travel on top of the ice-crusted snow. Many animals, who are well camouflaged in other seasons, stand out in winter–their black, red, dark brown fur contrasting the white landscape. But there are masters of camouflage in all seasons; the ones that seem invisible. These critters are the ones that molt and actually change color. They turn white! Who am I talking about? Any guesses? I will give you a hint. One is in the weasel family, and the other is a lagomorph? A what? A lagomorph is a fancy way of saying rabbit or hare; it’s Latin. You were right if you guessed snowshoe hare, Ermine (short-tailed weasel), and long tail weasel.

Winter Living and Ice Safety

There have been several weeks this winter where the temperatures have dropped below freezing; an Arctic blast moving through the region. When cold temperatures are sustained, bodies of water freeze. This creates a new environment for both humans and wildlife to adapt to. Travel is made easier, though precarious, on ice-covered lakes. Games are created, and the ice becomes a playground for ice-hockey and ice-skating. People still need to eat, and fish is still readily available, as long as you can create a hole in the ice for ice-fishing. Be safe–the ice can be unpredictable if you don’t know how to read it. So safety first: check out our blog for research and videos (the best I have seen). (These videos may not be suitable for very young children…parents may want to view videos first.)

The Sami people of the Arctic follow the reindeer herds. They are nomadic hunter gatherers, continuing the ancient ways, heating their homes with fire. First there was the campfire, but a campfire is far too inefficient when temperatures range between 40° to 50° below zero. In these conditions you would go through a lot of wood! So these traditional people adopted a small portable wood stove that transformed their winter lifestyle. Today, the Sami still live traditionally, working, playing, creating amazing crafts of beauty, making their own clothes and shoes, harvesting their food, and raising their families; traveling across the snows with their portable fires. The Sami are many miles from any kind of town, so when a journalist who was studying their way of life asked the elders “what happens when someone gets sick?”, there was a long pause before someone stated “we don’t get sick.”

Night Sky Navigation

In the Northeast alone there are so many celebrations of winter, especially the Winter Solstice. This is a very powerful event because this is the longest night (or shortest day) of the year. The next day, the light returns and the days begin to grow longer again. Winter is a great time to learn about the night sky. As winter begins you may look to the sky for some constellations you know such as the Big Dipper (Canis Major). However, upon gazing skyward, you realize you cannot find it so easily. This is because the Big Dipper or the Great Bear, as it is otherwise known, is not as prominent in the winter sky early in the evening. Looking for the North Star to help guide your way? Are you thinking it is the biggest and brightest? The North Star, otherwise known as Polaris, is not big or bright. This is a common myth. Some people have gotten lost, because in the far reaches of their mind, they remember something about star navigation, so they follow the brightest star, which is actually Sirius. However, as all stars move across the heavens, except the North Star (which is stationary), following the brightest will not lead you north. In the winter night sky look to the constellation Orion, the Great Hunter; he is your guide this time of year.

So you are outside on this beautiful, clear night. As you gaze at the stars there is a part of you that would like to stay outside all night, breathing in the crisp air. Brrr! However, if you are not prepared for winter camping, it can be a challenge. Learning how to camp in the wintertime is very empowering and rewarding. Imagine you have all your layers on and just finished cooking by a warm fire. You enjoy sipping your hot tea or cacao outside, surrounded by forest. You look up and see the stars and the Milky Way. Wow! There are no ringing phones, no TV or computer screens, or even the humming of a furnace or refrigerator. The snow creates a blanket of silence. You watch the moon begin to rise and see millions of sparkles glistening, reflecting off the snow. It is all magical! Everywhere the moon’s luminescence touches the snow…it is glowing. A whole new sense of quiet and peace washes over you, and you are cleansed with a form of renewal that only being in nature can bring. We are all searching to slow down, rest and recharge. Experiences like these can be life changing; creating many years of memories and a strong connection with all things.

Embrace the gift of winter!

Winter Shelter Building (Quinzee)

This is an article we wrote in the past but is so pertinent right now!

Maya and the Great Outdoors
A Daddy-and-Daughter’s Quest for Adventure, Knowledge and Fun in NATURE.

Winter is a magical time full of wonder! Animal tracks abound; coyotes and owls call, interrupting a profound silence; and the moon glistens off the snow. This is a time of slowing down and going deep into ourselves.

“I am Maya Grindrod and I’m nine years old. When my dad and I were out snowshoeing one day I asked, how do the animals live out here when it’s so cold? How did people live out here with all this snow? What if they got lost, what would they do?”

“Well Maya, remember those little tunnels we saw in the snow?” I asked.

“Yeah, I saw some earlier and the entrance was surrounded by ice.” replied Maya.

“That’s right! You have a keen eye; ice was only around the entrance not the tunnels itself. When we get back from our hike, let’s that’s look it up.”

We discovered that snow is one of the best insulators and that the ice at the entrance was formed from the body heat and breath of the animal inside the den.

There are regions in North America where the snow pack is not deep enough to consider igloos, a more permanent shelter, and so the natives of the region developed a snow shelter that could be thrown up quickly as a temporary shelter. While on tracking and hunting expeditions, instead of bringing heavy gear like tents and lots of hides in order to make shelter, they created quinzees from snow which they could just leave when they were done with it. An experienced person can make quinzee in less than an hour or two.

So one day after getting some fresh powdered snow of about half a foot, Maya and I (her dad) went into the forest to build a quinzee. It was still snowing, and Maya agreed that building a quinzee would be more fun than shoveling the deck. Below are the steps we did to create our quinzee. We also video-taped our experience, which includes many important tips, more information that would not fit here. Visit www.earthworkprograms.com to view the video.

Step 1: With any shelter, it’s important to have the materials you need, so one of the most important steps is what, Maya? “Location, location, location.” We brought shovels and found in a shady spot. A sunny spot can work too, but the snow shelter will melt quicker. If we didn’t have shovels we could have used our snowshoes. When we found a location, we had to look for hazards, such as broken trees limbs and dead trees that could fall where we would be building.

Step 2: We created the size of our shelter by standing in the center of the area and drawing a circle with a walking stick.

Step 3: We threw up snow into a pile about a foot high and then packed it, and kept throwing and packing until we reached the height and dome shape we wanted. (We also ended up throwing snow at each other during the process; a fun way to keep your child shoveling.)

Step 4: We turned our quinzee into an animal. “This is the porcupine phase,” stated Maya. “It’s a local mammal covered in quills. We covered our snow dome in sticks.” Find straight pencil diameter sticks between 12 to 18 inches long and place them all over the shelter about one to two feet apart.

Step 5: Take a break and have some hot chocolate. It’s not an actual step but you do need to wait for about 30 minutes or more (depending on the snow conditions) for the snow to settle, a process called “sintering” where ice crystals begin to bond to each other. If you wait too long, ice will form and the quinzee will be more difficult to carve out.

Step 6: Next we carved out the inside of our quinzee! “So what are all the sticks for Daddy,” asked Maya referring to step 4. “Well Maya, as we are removing snow from the inside, how do we know how to judge the thickness of the walls of the quinzee?” Maya carves and hits the tip of stick. “Oh, I see the tip of the stick. and another one.” “As you’re moving snow and see the tip of a stick, don’t dig in any further; this guarantees that your walls will be as thick as the length of your sticks.”

Important tools for carving – you can use your gloves, a pot and even a grain scoop. The best thing to use is a compact shovel with a short handle. When Maya was inside she was using her whole body; her feet, her hands, and even her head. She was covered in snow!

Caution: When carving out a quinzee, keep in mind that this is a snow dome not a tunnel. Make sure to carve out the sides and top evenly. You don’t want a heavy top that might collapse in on you. And it’s always a good idea to have a buddy to pull you out if you need it.

Step 7: When we finished carving, we stepped back and admired our hard work. “Wow, we did it!” exclaimed Maya. “Can we bring a candle and a sleeping bag out here?” Maya and I went back to the house and came back out when the moon was up. We walked quietly through the woods to our quinzee. Maya got down on all fours and scrambled in. “Okay, give me the sleeping bag and the candle.” Maya made a little nest and we lit the candle, laying in the darkness. “Did you hear that? Daddy, that was an owl,” whispered Maya loudly.
My heart brimmed with pride and joy. Here we were having some quality daddy-daughter time; hanging out together in a quinzee we built and listening to the sounds around us. Life can be this good!

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. His daughter Maya is an adventurous nine year old who is the creator and star of the series, “Maya and the Great Outdoors”. Visit Frank and Maya and Earthwork Programs at www.earthworkprograms.com Immersed in Nature, we reconnect you with the earth.

Amherst Bulletin | Weekend hiking accident shows rescue challenges

We’ve been doing Emergency Preparedness Talks as well as hands-on Emergency Survival and Self-Sufficiency Skills Workshops for several years now. This story is a great example of why it’s important to prepare! Frank recently held the hands-on Workshop in Vermont, and here’s a quote from one of the attendees: “The biggest thing I brought away from the class was the importance of having a complete car survival/readiness kit.”
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Weekend hiking accident shows rescue challenges

By Scott Merzbach

Staff Writer

Published on January 14, 2011

A weekend rescue of a woman who broke her ankle while walking with her family on the Robert Frost Trail in the Notch area highlights the importance of being prepared, emergency responders say.

Carrying a cell phone and maps, dressing for the weather and letting friends and family know about the hiking itinerary are some of the ways to make a rescue more successful should something bad happen, Fire Chief Tim Nelson said.

“Those are all simple things that will go a long way to effect a good outcome,” he said.

The call to emergency dispatch about the injured woman came Saturday at 3 p.m. when her husband, who was accompanying her and their two children, walked about a mile to get to the Notch Visitors Center parking lot. There, he borrowed a cell phone and made the call.

While the man identified the location where his wife had fallen, based on markers along the trail, he left the parking area to return to her. This made the rescue more challenging, Nelson said, because firefighters were uncertain what equipment should be brought in, the medical supplies the victim might need and how long it would take to reach her.

“We’ll find you eventually, but we need to find you as quick as possible,” Nelson said.

When firefighters finally reached the woman, who had apparently slipped on ice and snow, they placed a splint on her foot and bundled her up. Then they loaded her onto an all-terrain vehicle and used chain saws to clear obstructions from the path. Eventually they abandoned use of the all-terrain vehicle, carrying the woman a distance before placing her in a pickup truck and finally getting her to the waiting ambulance. Firefighters cleared the scene around 6:30 p.m.

The woman was taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton for treatment, Nelson said.

Nelson said even though the woman and her family were experienced hikers, they should have planned better.

“These folks were familiar with the trails, but they didn’t have a map, they didn’t have a cell phone,” Nelson said. “If you’re going out on these trails this time of year, you need a way to get hold of us.”

Nelson praised the six permanent firefighters and the members of the student and call forces who responded.

He singled out Steve Chandler, a firefighter and paramedic, for excelling in the first time he has been acting officer on the scene of a response.

via Amherst Bulletin | Weekend hiking accident shows rescue challenges.

Fun Outdoor Activities for Kids While Creating ADVENTURES in the Winter Wilderness!

tracking familyThe winter is such a fun time—sledding, skiing, building snow forts and taking wanders in the woods.

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.

mentoring tracking snowWhen 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

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

F&M Great Swamp FallAs we walk into the forest, we see all the different types trees, and we know, somehow, that they all have a purpose in life, just like we do. We notice many have lost their leaves this time of year, and the forest looks completely different—kind of empty because you can see so far, and it is very open. However, that is just the surface; let’s look closer.

The conifers take center stage with their deep green and contrast to the snow; while they do shed their needles, they are primarily green all year, which is why they are called “evergreens.”

Using touch—reach out and feel the needles

hemlock branchWhen we reach out and feel the needles, and when we rubbed them in our hands and smell, there is that amazing pine scent reminiscent of a Christmas tree—that strong aroma that can remind us of the holidays.

Visual things to watch for

As we look even closer, we notice really short needles (less than an inch) that are flat and on the underside, there are distinct white lines like racing stripes; this is an excellent identification characteristic. It also has the tiniest little stem you can barely see. In botanical terms, when you look it up in your field guide, this is called a “petiole.”

Feel the texture of the bark

These trees have really smooth bark when very young, and as they get older, it becomes stiff and deeply furrowed (creating indented grooves). Look at many different trees—young and old—and compare the feeling of the bark, and how the young ones are really tender and the older ones are like a rock.

hemlock 2Natural history viewing our past

In the 1800s, Eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadenses) was used heavily; these trees would be anywhere from 250 to 800 years old. They were harvested in great numbers and were sought after for a special quality they possess: great amounts of tannic acid—up to 12%—used for tanning hides and preserving leather; the outer bark was used and soaked. Some of the hides were kept in vats (barrels of soaking tannins) for up to six months in order for them to turn the dark tea color and create a preserve and coloring for the produced leather. Hemlock tanneries were all over the Northeast, and they shipped the hides from here all over the world.

What I have personally seen, and you can too!

hemlock 1In the picture, you can see the needles and the bark. You can see underneath the very outer light brown bark, there is a dark purple color; this is a great characteristic for being able to identify Eastern hemlock.

What use are these trees now? They are a tremendous resource for wildlife: the needles create shade to give animals and birds cover. So they are used for nesting, denning and protection from the elements.

I often find many deer and moose in these areas…tracks, signs and tons of “browse” (feeding sign). This is where deer “yard up” (all stay in same area communally); this helps create safety in numbers and helps avoid being surprised by coyotes. It also makes it easier for them to move, because they pack down the snow to conserve their energy during these hard winter months.

I’ve also found coyotes’ beds, which look like circles; the heat from the coyote’s body melts out the impression of its nose where he/she is melting snow with the breath.

Outdoor challenge and scavenger hunt you can do with your children

See if you can find the interior bark that is purple. Hint: When you look around at the base of the tree, you can see the flakey bark chips; look under there.

Tracks and sign: if you look on the very tops of the branches, close to the trunk, you will often see squirrel territorial teeth marking sign, or going up a mature tree, you can see the claw marks and sometime bite marks of our black bears climbing since they use Eastern hemlock as babysitter trees (mama sends her cubs up them in times of danger or when she is away for long periods).

And at the bottom of the hemlocks, underneath the dense needles protecting from the wind and elements, you can find deer, fox, moose and bear beds. Let’s not forget the calling cards of raccoon and porcupine too—scat!

If you find little holes and black powder on the ground and through the roots, it’s possible you have found Truffles (fungus).

Can you find the little Hemlock cones that look like little tiny pine cones—about ½ inch. Can you find the racing stripes on the underside of the needles?

Winter Living and Ice Safety

Are you ready for New England weather?

When cold temperatures are sustained, bodies of water freeze. This creates a new environment for both humans and wildlife to adapt to. Travel is made easier, though precarious, on ice-covered lakes. Games are created, and the ice becomes a playground for ice-hockey and ice-skating. People still need to eat, and fish is still readily available, as long as you can create a hole in the ice for ice-fishing. Be safe–the ice can be unpredictable if you don’t know how to read it. So safety first: check out our blog for research and videos (the best I have seen).

(These videos may not be suitable for very young children…parents may want to view videos first.)

Winter Shelter Workshop (WS 1)

Workshop 1 of WINTER OUTDOOR SKILLS ADVENTURE WEEKEND

Winter Shelter Building

The art of staying safe & warm in the cold

 

Building a winter shelter is both a needed survival skill and a great way to enjoy the outdoors this season.

In this family- and adult-oriented class, you will learn the basics of making three kinds of winter shelters:

  • The Quinzee
  • Tarp Craft
  • Thermal Mass Shelter

We will also concentrate on how to stay warm in the winter without shelter and techniques to prevent hypothermia, frostbite and other cold related injuries.Come away from this class with practical tools for staying safe and enjoying all of what winter has to offer!

For Adults, Teens & Famlies
$45/adult, $25/child with adult prepaid (add $10 if pay day of)

REGISTER ONLINE

WINTER OUTDOOR SKILLS ADVENTURE WEEKEND–2nd Annual–SCHEDULE

Saturday, 2/27 & Sunday, 2/28

Sat, 9-12: Winter Shelter
Sat, 1-4: WinterFire

* Maybe stay overnight in a tent or shelter you built…$5/person; rustic cabin…$8/person (very limited space)

Sun, 9-12: Ice Safety
Sun, 1-4: Winter Tracking

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