“Tracking without awareness makes a prison of the trail, where nothing exists outside the trail itself.”
–Tom Brown, Jr., Author and wilderness tracker
WHO THE HECK DO WE THINK WE ARE?
We are bushwhacking wanna-be animal trackers. All day we have been scrabbling over rocky ledges, clawing through thickets of laurel, and quickstepping over half thawed brooks. We’ve been scooping snow from the back of our necks, dumping water from our boots, and kicking iced up snowshoes against trees.
New England’s scrappy terrain is difficult for tracking. Snow and a pair of snowshoes, however, make trackers out of everyone, especially the four of us. We are, in a word, eclectic: Diane and Terry, in from the city; Steve, a Florida transplant; me, a native New Englander; and James McNaughton, our teacher.
Twenty years back, James cut his teeth at a tracking workshop led by Paul Rezendes, a renowned tracker. James describes himself at that time as a peak bagger. “I had a destination in mind, whether it was a beautiful vista or waterfall.” As a tracker, his role is changed. “Even if I don’t see the actual animals, I’m able to get involved in the stories happening when I’m not in forest.”
James runs his business, AdventureIn/AdventureOut, from his home in Shutesbury, a small town in western Massachusetts. We meet up here and then head to Shutesbury State Forest, 845 wilderness acres jam-packed with brush, ponds, a small mountain, thick coniferous tree stands, and rocky cliffs – first-rate habitat for a plethora of wildlife.
WHO THE HECK DO WE THINK THEY ARE?
It’s an easy hike to the site of our first tracks of the day. Armed with tape measures and nifty charts, we measure, compare, and evaluate tracks, gait patterns, and strides. If we’re lucky we’ll come across a messy explosion of feathers or a freshly dug hole. After a few misguided guesses, we conclude that the tracks belong to a bobcat. Funny thought: what if my ancestors had been lousy trackers? Had routinely mistaken a rabbit track for that of a cougar’s? Mixed up bear scat with that of a moose? Been the laughing stock of the clan? It would have been a sad and quick goodbye to a second-rate string of genes, and Amy wouldn’t be tracking with the gang.
THE LAUREL THE LAUREL
Laurel is nature’s bratty little brother. It snatches hats, slaps faces, and in general, infuriates. The chaotic tangle of rabbit and wild turkey tracks has the feel of an urban jungle. To get to the other parts of the forest, however we must brave on. Terry emerges on the other side, rubbing a red welt on her cheek. In spite of my small snowshoes, I’ve taken a dive. Getting up again is like fist fighting with jello.
GOURMET SNOW FLEAS ANYONE?
Steve is stabbing his finger at a mound of snow teeming with bouncing black specks. “This is just wrong. Bugs? In winter? Global warming, I’m just sayin”, he hollers, genuinely freaked out. “It’s okay, “says Diane, “they’re snow fleas and they are a little creepy but they’re supposed to be here.” It does gets weird when Diane pops a handful of bouncing snow flea snow into her mouth! “Cool!” she says, “they taste like pepper!” Odd of her, I muse. So…un-American. But gutsy for a city girl.
After lunch, we trek down to a deer yard under a stand of hemlocks. This is the heart of deer life: chewing, digging, and sleeping. A deer bed cradles the outline of the deer’s body: rump, hoof, the leg, a bit of shedded hair. I want to touch all their stuff, and I do, but all the while I feel intrusive, as if I’m checking out a neighbor’s medicine cabinet.
At first glance, the deer and I have little in common: I don’t eat bark, they never eat meat. They hate dogs, dogs are my people. Ah, but we do share a story line. The deer’s family has its back, so does mine. And neither of us can turn down a bag of Fritos.
With an hour left before sunset, we head toward rocky ledges, our final site.
First find is a porcupine den nestled under a rocky overhang. Nearly blocking the entrance to the den is a colossal stack of porcupine scat. “Be easy on them”, says James. Quasi-hibernation mode puts porcupines into a stupor, as if they popped a couple of Ambien. In that condition, just getting the stuff out the door is commendable. The upside? It blocks the wind, keeping the den cozy.
Find number two: Beside the den, James spots a subtle indent in the leaves where a bobcat had made its day bed in the sun.
And last, above and beyond cool: With his fingers, James teases out the faint outline of a weasel-type track. A fisher, perhaps, nursing high hopes for a meal of one zoned out porcupine.
Back at home base, we pat shoulders, give up hugs, and head for home. Before we go though, James offers up one last tidbit for us to ponder: “When you’re tracking alone, you’re always right”.
Actually, I feel dumber than ever. Since the workshop, I’ve confused turkey tracks with fox, coyote with dog, and dog with mountain lion. To my credit, I’ve tracked a pair of coyotes to their den, spotted a delicate thread of fox tracks on crusty snow, discovered tuft of coyote hair snagged on barbed wire, identified fisher tracks, and, with help from my dog, came across some major bear scat.
And, not one to be outdone, I snacked on a handful of snow fleas. Honestly, I didn’t pick up on the pepper. A dash of maple syrup would have been perfect.