My experience tracking animals previous to a Wilderness and Civilization trip with a world-renowned tracker consisted of spending time outside, seeing tracks and signs, and thinking little of them. From what I learned, track and sign has a lot to do with paying attention to what you see and using biological knowledge to interpret this “data”. As a science-minded person, this process of guess-and-check hypothesis development is particularly appealing to me. Tracking animals requires some knowledge of their life histories and biology, but a lot can be learned from simply observing patterns and guessing their significance. For a beginner tracker with good critical thinking skills, this process is appealing to me.
The November morning we went out was cold and foggy, and I thought that I wouldn’t want to be a buck hunkered down in his bed at this time. In my down coat and hard shell, I was still cold in this record warm year. Yet, herds of elk and deer, coyotes, river otters, beavers, and magpies had been about in the last few days, their tracks remembered in the sand and the dirt during the warmer parts of the day. As the sun came out and we emerged onto the sandbar, I warmed up, and we examined the record of these species upon the sand. We were asked a series of questions about different tracks and signs. We were given time to develop hypothesis about each scenario, and then we discussed them as a group.
Often, I was not aware of the biological phenomenon or specific morphological feature of an animal that created the tracks or signs we examined; however, I found that I could more times than not hypothesize the correct cause of each phenomena. In many ways, this process mirrors the scientific method. Scientists create hypothesis that that explain the phenomena they observe without knowing their cause (or, in some cases, even being able to directly measure them). Trackers do the same.
Putting oneself into another’s perspective can be an important exercise. To track an animal, you must think from its perspective to understand how and why it did what it did, to interpret track and sign, and to create a narrative of its movement through the landscape. If we repeated this exercise by putting ourselves in the shoes of other people, considering the “how” and “why” of their movement through the landscape—literal or figurative—we might better understand each other. Increased awareness is always good, whether it cues us in on the actions of another animal or another human.