I always start any post about tracking by stating that I do not consider myself an expert; it is just something that I enjoy doing. After a recent weekend in Wyoming with Joel Hardin and his team of instructors, and 26 other students of all tracking abilities, I can now safely classify myself as a novice tracker. My abilities have been put in perspective. But as I heard Joel say again and again, actual tracking never goes beyond the basic level. This means, in essence, that if you can see the sign, you can follow it. Joel’s entire philosophy is built on this- it’s all about “learning to see sign.”
The tracking weekend started Friday morning at 8 am. Friday ended for us at about 10 pm after a long, cool, wet day. And part of the night. After a morning classroom session, we tracked all afternoon, ate dinner in the field, then continued tracking in the dark. I have looked at tracks in the dark before, lying flat and examining them in oblique moonlight, or using my flashlight on them, and have clearly seen them better by moving myself or my light around at different angles and heights. But the exercise, and the entire weekend, took it far beyond any tracks that my son and I have “followed” before. In Joel’s courses you follow your sign, and you find every track. Not nearly every track, not most tracks, but every one. Joel and his team are proficient experts, and professionals. They train trackers to act the same way, to represent all trackers by being accountable professionals. Part of being a proficient, accountable tracker is found in “continuity of sign.” It means that if you are asked, in court say, to prove that you connected someone from Point A to Point B, you can do so. It means finding every track. In training, especially in the beginning, the idea is that you may be on your stomach, or moving around the sign line on your knees, taking as much time as necessary to positively identify each track. Eventually you are hunched over a bit doing the same thing. Then, some day, you are walking upright and following the track at a faster pace, one that allows you to close the gap between you and the person you are searching for. This is the ultimate goal.
Saturday found us in the field again, hunched over, on our knees, staring into the grass, and at times straining our eyes to find that one blade of grass that connected one track to another. There can be as many as 1800 “clues” per mile, that is, 1800 footprints or other pieces of sign connecting Point A to Point B. In Joel’s courses you are out there finding every one of them. A little excessive maybe? At the end of the day, or really at the beginning of the next day’s tracking when the mind and body and especially the eyes are fresh, it really begins to make sense. Even in the course of three days of tracking like this, my ability to see sign, at least on the surface we were operating in, increased greatly. One thing I did notice however, was that when our team transitioned from one tracking media, aka ground surface, to another, our tracking slowed considerably. It was like starting over again. To clarify, we were tracking across fairly level terrain, with fine-grained sandy soil covered by short grasses, bunch grasses, a bit of lupine and pasture sage. After a number of hours we started downhill and came to a wash lined with pine trees. The ground surface immediately changed to a deep bed of decomposing pine cones and pine needles. This was our first problem point, and where we had to “start over” learning about what to look for. My point here is that tracks and sign change with the terrain, ground surface, and slope of the ground. It is necessary to learn to see sign in all possible situations to be able to follow it.
By Sunday we were more confident in what we were seeing, whether it be in grasses, pine needles, or climbing up a slope. And on Sunday we were viewing sign that was now three days old and really seeing the difference from one and two days before. This was something that Joel and the other instructors really stressed to us- to watch the sign as it aged. They stressed “aging of sign” to us, and made it clear that sign ages visibly every 4 to 6 hours. Yet another factor that the mind has to process! By Sunday it really made sense though, and it was much easier to see that the tracks were 3 days old. Even a single blade of grass shows signs of aging- perhaps a small bruise where the edge of a boot has bent it. There may be a darkening, healing bend in the stalk of a pasture sag. And even with all the moisture, the very small, drying blades of grass that had been pulled up in the treads of the boot on Thursday afternoon were clearly visible. It is all there to be seen; you just have to look for it!
If you are interested in Joel’s classes, you can visit his website and learn more about tracking step by step. For those in the Boulder area interested in tracking, take a look at the Rocky Mountain Trackers, an organisation dedicated to keeping tracking alive. And as always, you can read more about us at the Desert Explorer website, including our own tracking thoughts and endeavors.