Tracking Practice on Our Recent Desert Trip

8 December 2013

When Nicolai and I are in the bush our eyes are always open, constantly searching for signs of the ancient inhabitants, for birds and mammals, and for tracks along our trail. There are tracks to be found everywhere; often they are not human tracks in many of the places we find ourselves, but always tracks of coyote, lizard, beetles, and other desert dwellers. All tracks are interesting, and all tracks tell a story. We often stop to read tracks when we find them- we spend some time looking at them, find out where they came from, where they are headed, and try to deduce what the track maker was doing at the point we found them. It is much like detective work. We look around us collecting all the available information: track size, stride, gait, the path of the track, the details of the immediate vicinity including vegetation, water, and even geology. All of these details added up help us build our tracking picture; that is, the overall disposition of the track maker. They inform us about what happened when this animal passed through this exact location when it did, what the animal was doing, its purpose. Tracks and other sign help the tracker decide whether the animal was hungry, thirsty, frightened, tired, old, young, injured, or healthy.

A typial canyon bottom in southern Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor

Looking down canyon from the canyon rim. Nicolai and I easily followed many sets of tracks up this canyon including lots of deer- tracks in the moist, narrow canyon bottom are some of the easiest tracks ever to follow. We weren’t sure if there was a way out, but based on the deer sign we guessed the deer know something we didn’t. At the canyon head we found an old cattle trail leading up to the rim.

But it is not just a matter of looking at the tracks in the sand, or the grass that is pushed aside, or the bit of fur left in a thick section of brush. All of this is important- these are absolute pieces of data which add to our picture. But just as important is what we perceive on the inside, what we feel about the animal that passed by here and left the clues. When we are following sign, we are not only collecting  clues, but we are doing our best to mentally become the animal we are following. Based on the clues we collect and the tracking picture we build, we put ourselves in the animal’s skin, we make our mind its mind. This is the way, we are told, that the best trackers work. They become their quarry, the develop a relationship with it. And if they are hunting it for food, and they are successful, in the end they mourn for the animal they have tracked and hunted, because the animal became part of them.

These very basic tracking concepts- especially the part about thinking like and becoming the animal- are something that Nicolai and I talk about, something that we have been practicing- or at least doing our best to practice, for years now. I think that many of the books that we have read, and that we have put on our Tracking Bibliography on the Desert Explorer website, discuss these concepts. Some go into it more than others. One book that really dwells on the point is Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking and the Origins of Science. I mentioned this book in a recent post, and noted that it is available for FREE as a PDF download from the author’s website. I have downloaded and had my own copy printed for our library. Liebenberg’s approach to tracking is unlike any other author I have yet read. He begins at the beginning- he starts way back with our hominid ancestors and works forward to modern Homo sapiens, speculating along the way about how tracking came into being and how it developed, and complemented the overall development, of our species. I highly recommend the book to anyone who really wants to get a feel for tracking in the most primal sense.

Another canyon bottom in southeast Utah. Gerald Trainor photo

Another section of canyon bottom. We found deer, coyote, lizard, chipmunk, turkey, human, and of course cow tracks here.

Another book that Nicolai and I have just finished reading is called The Harmless People.  It is about the bushmen of the Kalahari desert, written by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. This book does not cover tracking specifically as much as The Old Way, another book by the same author. Both books are studies of the bushmen lifestyle and the author’s experience there with her family in the 1950’s. This was before the profound changes that occurred which have catapulted the bushmen into the 21st century, causing them to abandon many of the skills that kept them alive for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Both books have a revised afterword that was written in the late 1980’s which addresses the changes. Both books are written more for the laymen rather than the archaeologist, but will be enjoyable and important to both, if they have an interest in the hunter gatherer societies and how they lived.

Read more about our desert adventures at the Desert Explorer website, and more about us specifically on our biographies page.

Tracking Reading List, Highway Cameras, Spring Break Planning, Zion Fugitive

19 February 2012

More About Our Tracking Practices- 
When Nicolai and I are out in the bush, we make it a point to observe any tracks we come across, even our own. We make careful examinations of our own tracks whether they be footprints in a canyon bottom, the sign left behind after a lunch break under some juniper trees, or all the tracks and sign left by us as we leave a campsite in the morning. We practice Leave No Trace principles on all our adventures, but as trackers, there is always plenty to see at a campsite no matter how careful and clean we are. It is especially interesting to examine the campsites and break areas, not to mention the tracks and sign, of others. Building a tracking picture of a group of hikers might include the number of people, their gender, if they used tents or slept on the ground, what kind of food they ate, and how conscientious they were of cleaning up and leaving absolutely nothing other than tracks. If you haven’t tried this before, and are interested in tracking, give it a try the next time you are out. It can be a fun exercise.

I have been meaning for some time now to add a bibliography of tracking books to the website. Following is a list of books we have read, or are in the process of reading, and a few that are on the list to buy. Many of the titles that are specifically about tracking cover a lot of the same material- the technical aspects of tracking and how to go about learning the process. But each one has something to add. I follow each title with a brief description of the book (or books). We will post this list in the Tracking Pages at the Desert Explorer website, and update it periodically.

  • The SAS Guide to Tracking– Bob Carss- our favorite, great all-around guide on learning to track
  • Training in Tracking– Gilcraft- A book written for the Scouts (the Boy Scouts) early in the 2oth century
  • Tactical Tracking Operations- David Scott-Donelan- great guide, great stories, military or police applications
  • Tracking- Signs of Man, Signs of Hope– David Diaz- another introduction to tracking
  • Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking- the book I started with
  • The Tracker– Tom Brown- great stories about hsi tracking adventures
  • Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee detective novels- real tracking information embedded in most of the stories
  • Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories- Holmes teaches us about observation and tracking
  • The Dobe Kung (The Dobe Ju/’hoansi)- Richard Lee- the Kalahari bushmen are considered some of the best trackers in the world
  • The Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers– Richard Lee and Irvin Devore
  • The Old Way– Elizabeth Marshall-Thomas- about the Kung/San/Ju Huanse
  • Kim– Rudyard Kipling- where “Kim’s game” comes from, a memory game used to build observation skills
  • The Rhodesian War– from the Stackpole Military History Series- about a brutal conflict; trackers were vital
  • Footwear Impression Evidence– William Bodziak- a very technical manual written by an FBI footwear scientist for investigators
  • Shadows In The Sand– Sisingi Kamongo- accounts of trackers and soldiers during the late 80’s Angolan/ South West African bush war

    coyote tracks in mud along the Escalante River, photo by G. Trainor

    Coyote tracks in mud along the Escalante River


Highway Cameras for Trip Planning
For those interested in nearly up to the minute data on climate conditions in southeast Utah, the Utah Department of Transportation maintains a number of cameras along the roadways around the state, including a few in canyon country. One of my favorites is the camera on Highway 95 right at Salvation Knoll, on the north side of Cedar Mesa. Click here to visit the website, drag and resize the map so that you can click on the cameras in the southeast corner of the state. There is also one down near Monument Valley, a few on Highway 191 between Blanding and Moab, and a number of them in the Capital Reef area. The cameras are a great way to add to pre-trip data collection.

First Trip of the Season
This is about the time of year that Nicolai and I start preparing for our first trip of the season. We will head to Utah at that end of March, as we do each year. This year we will spend another week in Poison Spring Canyon, near Hanksville. We have plans to explore some of the side canyons, work on our primitive bows and arrows and associated skills, search out rock art, and just enjoy the quiet of the canyon in the spring. We’ll make a stop at North Wash for a little canyoneering on our way to Cedar Mesa where we also plan to spend a few days. We will post a trip report once we return, and try to make a post or two from the road.

In The News
Southern Utah is in the news once again with yet another “fugitive”. Robert sent me the following link this morning. It concerns a “mountain man” who has been using and abusing vacation homes in the Zion National Park area for as long as the past five years- the story says “he’s roamed across 1000 square miles” (not a radius of 1000 miles, as I first wrote). There is no mention of any kind of reward in the present story; no one has been harmed yet. But it does mention him being armed (see photo), and dangerous. Lets hope we don’t have a repeat of the recent Moab ranger shooting, or the mess we had in 1998. I will research the story further and post more info in my next blog. Click here to see the full article at MSNBC. Larger photos can be seen at the Iron County Sheriff’s Office website.

For more on our adventures, tracking, and trip planning, visit the Desert Explorer website.

Tracking This Week- New Experiences

12 February 2012

I hiked again this week with my son and four of his classmates from the Running River school, along with their teacher. It was a cold day, about 30 degrees. We were all bundled up under many layers, with gloves or mittens, warm hats, snow pants, and snow boots all around. And there was plenty of snow on the ground, eight or ten inches in most places, as much as a foot or more in drifts. The latest snow had just stopped falling an hour before we went out; about four inches of fresh snow had fallen over what was left of last week’s 16 inches or so. Clouds covered the sky, but it was still bright because of the snow on the ground. The brightness of mid-day made reading the track a bit difficult, but the trackers did well. All the old tracks were well-covered, but still visible under the blanket of new snow. The day presented the perfect opportunity to find fresh sign and follow it, and to examine old tracks under the snow.

As soon as we started down the trail I saw a fresh set of snowshoe tracks going out, and not returning, along with the tracks of two dogs. I stopped the group and lined everyone up on one side of the track and asked if anyone could tell me about it. Nicolai and Max answered simultaneously, “snowshoes!” And?  Everyone replied, “dogs!” So we knew exactly what we were following.

We began building our tracking picture: we had a larger man on snowshoes (the shoes were large and long, the stride long, the straddle wide), two dogs off leash moving along with him, and we had an accurate time bracket- not out more than an hour (remember the snow had recently stopped falling). The trackers were on the fresh track following their key sign- the snowshoe and dog tracks. We made it another few meters and stopped again, when I heard from a few voices, “he went into the bathroom.” There is a bathroom right at the trailhead, and sure enough, his tracks headed straight in. And then, (many voices) “he came out and kept going.” Down the trail we went. A short time later we ran into the man and his dogs, and the tracking picture we had created was confirmed as accurate.

Trackers following sign, and staying carefully off the track they are following.

It was a good walk and everyone remembered the important points, one in particular (Giovanni, again and again, and Harper and Shane, to all of us) “don’t step on the tracks!” They kept well to the side of the track, making sure not to spoil it. Without any prompting they followed and followed. They found places where the dogs had run off to investigate trees and brush, where they stuck their noses in the snow. We spotted Canada geese in one pond, a few of them up on the bank walking around, leaving us perfect tracks in the snow to examine. And we saw a number of red tail hawks, as usual.

We had the chance to talk about the aging of sign, how tracks change in the snow, and how snow can distort the size and shape of tracks. We talked about direction of movement and how it can be deciphered. We examined old tracks under the snow. We saw old boot prints placed before today’s snow and found ski tracks covered by the fresh snow as well, along with old snowshoe tracks.

The trackers are doing a great job and learning the details of following sign. They understand how to follow a track. And most important they are examining the ground and their surroundings and collecting data, advancing theories, and reaching appropriate conclusions on their own and as a group.

You can ready more about our adventures and find direct links to recent tracking blogs at the Desert Explorer website.

For those in Boulder county, not completely unrelated to our topic are recent problems in the area with aggressive coyotes. Read more about those incidents at the Daily Camera website.

Stalking and Tracking- More on Wilderness Mind

2 February 2012

In my last post I just scratched the surface of the concept of being in the wilderness, of “wilderness mind” as we call it. I discussed the importance of wilderness and wilderness mind for my son and I, and how being in the bush enhances our lives. One of the best methods we have found for approaching and practicing wilderness mind is through the arts of stalking and tracking.

Stalking and tracking are in fact two different parts of the same practice, the very ancient practice of acquiring food. Without the skills of stalking and tracking, ancient hunters and their families went without meat. For us, without the stalk we may catch a glimpse of our quarry far off in the distance if we are lucky. Without the track there is no application for stalking and it is likely we won’t see or hear our quarry at all. With the proper application of both practices we  find ourselves fully aware of everything happening around us-  every movement, noise, and smell. We become aware of subtle changes in temperature and wind direction, changes in terrain, vegetation, and moisture in the soil, and we might eventually find ourselves within easy viewing, if not touching distance, of our quarry. We have achieved wilderness mind.

Stalking is defined in Gilcraft’s Training in Tracking as “the art of approaching an object under cover or by stealth, but is more generally described as the ability to move rapidly…from place to place without being seen or heard…while seeing and observing everything that is going on.” Quite a definition! Later in his narrative Gilcraft adds the word “stealthily” to the definition, and concludes that the word finishes out the definition of stalking. Gilcraft by the way is a pseudonym for an early 20th century author who wrote books on outdoor pursuits. The present title was written with the Scouts (the Boy Scouts) in mind, with an introduction by Robert Baden-Powell, the “Chief Scout” and founder of the movement, and British hero of the Boer War.

The first step for us then, in stalking and following a track, is always the same: “tuning in”. Bob Carss in his SAS Guide to Tracking defines tuning in as “the initial reading of the sign that enables the tracker to think and act as the quarry.” To get tuned in to the environment, we stop, stand for a while, kneel at our start point, and listen to our surroundings. We look over the ground closely, the ground at our feet, a meter or so away, and off into the distance all around us. We really “get a feel” for what is going on at that place at that time. We take in the environment, observe and mentally note anything of interest, and especially anything that could relate to our quarry. Then we visually start our track by following the sign with our eyes. We make more observations, and from all of this we start to create our “tracking picture”, that is, the overall picture of our quarry- how it acts, thinks, what the next move might be.

Based on what we observe initially, we might ask ourselves such questions as: how many were there, were they frightened, moving quickly, hungry, out at dawn, before dawn, carrying a pack, and so on. Countless questions can be asked, and many can be answered just as you are starting out by observing, and by using deduction. As you move along countless other questions arise, are answered, and the tracking picture is refined or amended as the track progresses and more information becomes available. Tracking, and stalking, therefore become not only an exercise in patience, observation, and stealth, but also an investgation- trackers are detectives, following a trail, looking for answers.

Our goals then in stalking and tracking become many: we use and build our powers of observation and deduction, learn to record, mentally and on paper, to use our ingenuity and intuition, and to bring our exercise to a conclusion, whether that be confirming a suspicion about a person who made a footprint, or sitting at a fire eating meat we have successfully hunted. We do this by moving stealthily, by moving quietly, slowly, with caution. Every move is deliberate and intentional. We are in tune with nature and our environment and we are calling up the knowledge and memory of our ancestors, the knowledge of the skills that kept them alive thousands of years ago, knowledge that is still to be found within us if we only take the time to look for it.

For more information on stalking, tracking, our desert adventures, and our learning philosophy, visit the Desert Explorer website.

Wilderness Mind and Powers of Observation- Helping Kids to See

14 January 2012

My son Nicolai and I spend a lot of time together outside, and as much time as possible together in southern Utah, my favorite place on the planet. I have been helping him understand “how to be”  in the bush since he was born. The phrase “how to be” can be taken in so many different ways, and I could write for days on the topic. But for now I will give it a simple definition- when we are in the bush we use our wilderness voice, we use hand and arm signals to communicate, we walk quietly and softly, and our senses- eyes and ears and even our noses, are open to what is happening around us. We are receptive to nature. We can call this being in our “wilderness mind”. I say we do this in the wilderness, but the practice naturally extends itself into daily life, making our everyday experiences all the better. Our experiences and practices in wild nature extend to and help create our experiences, and shape the way we approach, the everyday world. And the more time we spend in the bush, “practicing” what is natural and innate in all of us, the more those practices become part of the everyday.

That is a big part of being in nature for me, for us- that what we learn and experience there becomes part of how we approach life in general. And it is clear that this is working for Nicolai. Let me say that I do not see my son as a super-kid; I am not one of those parents who has or needs a gifted or genius child. But my son does see things that many people- kids and adults- do not see, and these powers of observation allow him a special window into the world. His patience, his ability to listen, and to sit still and enjoy clouds moving across the sky give him the advantage of being able to enjoy whatever situation he finds himself in. I credit much of this to his experiences in nature; I know for a fact that this is true for me, that my time in nature has and does shape who I am. Most important in this practice is the practice itself. Kant’s philosophical axiom “knowledge cannot transcend experience” summarises my position well enough. In simple terms, if you do not visit nature and practice observation and “being in nature”, there are no lessons, or experiences, to apply to the rest of life.

Nicolai is now attending the Running River School here in our community three days each week. I have been visiting the school and taking walks with his class, the Explorers, once a week for a few hours. My goal with them is to introduce the rest of the kids to these practices. Some days it feels like most of them would be just as happy on the playground. But the fact that we are out, walking down a trail, that we have “tuned-in”, and that they have been introduced to the concept of the wilderness mind is enough for the time being. It is clear that most of the kids understand that this is something different, that we are approaching our time outside in a manner different than we usually would. And whether or not they fully grasp the concepts that I introduce- stalking techniques for example-how to move your feet quietly, stepping over leaves, never stepping on tracks- they have been introduced. The seed has been planted.

To learn more about our philosophy, our adventures, and what we are learning, visit the Desert Explorer website.


Wilderness Kids- Thoughts on Teaching, Learning and Unschooling

6 May 2009

I typically use my blog and website to discuss my interaction with the wilderness, to explain and share where I have been, what I have learned, and my personal experiences. I try to stick to topics related to backpacking, floating, biking and hiking. Since I have a four year old and I am passing on my skills to him, I include my thoughts on teaching and some of our experiences in my posts. I have been asked again and again about how my plans for my son’s education are going to work, why I have decided against sending him to school, and what is unschooling. This post addresses those questions and expands on my previous posts, covering my thoughts on teaching and learning in general.

My “Teaching Philosophy”

In other posts I have talked about the things my son and I do together, how we go about being in nature together.  I have briefly touched on my “teaching philosophy” on the Wilderness Kids pages of my website.  The basic concept behind my philosophy is unschooling, that is, letting Nicolai learn what he wants to learn when and how he chooses. This differs form homeschooling in that we have no set schedules or curriculum. That does not mean I sit idly by. I have a very active part in the process. When he expresses an interest in a topic it is my job to help him along on that path of discovery, wherever it might take him.  For example, he is interested in pirates- we might choose to explore such topics as the history of the Spanish and British Empires, colonialism and manifest destiny, the exploration of the new world, the people of the new world, mapping and navigation, early medicine and surgery, the history and use of coinage, gold and silver, underwater archeology, scuba diving, not to mention sailing ships and their history- the list could go on endlessly. One topic can lead to another, and a lifetime of study. This is how the process of unschooling works for us.

A Modern Education

A post on teaching cannot be complete without at least touching on the “modern” educational system. As I am trained as an anthropologist, this gives me some license to critically analyse the creations of humans. I think it is important to remember that the “modern” system of education has only been around a hundred years or so. Our education, our “modern” educational system and the way we are taught, are products of the Industrial Revolution. We are learning based on a system that is about one hundred years old. With that fact in mind, my question is- what about the teaching “systems” of the other 40,000 years of our evolution as modern humans? What about the process of elders and peers telling stories and relating knowledge and experiences to the younger members of the family? What about children watching and helping and learning as they do? How can we ignore this and what are the implications of denying our children the process of learning naturally? I feel this can leave a void in the person, inhibiting their full development for countless reasons, not the least of which is lack of relationship to family.

Common Questions I am Asked- Socialisation

I have been asked endless questions about the impacts of choosing to not send my son to school.  The most common question is: “Aren’t you worried about socialisation, about Nicolai making friends?” The answer to this question is addressed by Neufeld and Mate in their book Hold On To Your Kids. In it they discuss the importance of the parent-child relationship, and how it is being replaced by the peer-child relationship. The conclusion is that healthy peer relationships are developed by the child through the bond, the attachment relationship he has developed with his parents.

The relationship between child and parent is the most important relationship to be made, and the stronger it is, the healthier the child will be in the relationships he chooses to develop with others. Without a strong and healthy parent-child relationship, socialisation, and  healthy relationships with adults and peers, cannot occur.  Sending children off to school and other engagements every day of the week is not building that relationship, it is allowing the parent-child bond to be broken, and for children to raise children.

As regards options for learning and socialisation, our process is not limited to our learning together. A common misconception is that unschooled or homeschooled kids study their lesson and are then secreted away in dark rooms and kept from all outside interaction.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. Nicolai attends music class, soccer, and swimming lessons, and as he gets older we have discussed joining a chess club and attending weekly science and language classes at our local homeschooling center. We attend concerts and lectures and community events.  We have plans to volunteer at  the natural history museum, there are lectures and classes there, and we can sit in on lectures at the university.  The possibilities are endless and only limited by us.

My Son as  a Leader

Another argument for public schooling is that since my son shows such great aptitude for learning, such passion and intelligence, don’t I feel obligated to send him to public school, to pass his passion and knowledge on to other kids? My answer: the best thing I can do for the world is to “raise” my son and “teach” him how to live right- to give him the love and care and understanding he needs so he can develop into a full human being.  For me this means helping him along on his learning journey by being an active part of the process, not by letting  a flawed system that teaches children to pass state exams, compliance to clocks, schedules, and presumed authority take over for me.

I know this may sound a bit harsh at first, but introducing children to a 9 to 5 schedule (in their case 8 to3) has foremost as it’s goal the preparation of children to be “productive” adults- to work their 9 to 5 job and fit in with the rest. Learning does not occur from 8 to 3, for 9 months a year. It is a lifelong, every day process. I absolutely do not accept the concept of 9 to 5 and would never dream of imposing it on my son.  In the end, he may choose to wander the wilderness for the rest of his life (my dream).  Or he may choose to lead the world- but the choice will be his, and he will make it based on his own desires and the knowledge he has chosen to develop.

Doing the Right Thing

I have also been asked, “How do you know what to do, that you are doing the right thing?”  How? This is part of the lesson in it for all of us: we all know what is right, we all have it in our genetic makeup to make the right decisions. Today we make informed decisions, based on collection and interpretation of data.  We too often forget to look inside, to trust our intuition, the knowledge we were born with.  I feel that modern education  stifles that intuition, even crushes it.  I owe it to my son to allow him to experience life to its fullest, to learn to trust himself, and develop the confidence to make decisions and know they are right. When he sees me confidently making decisions and living my life the way I feel is right, he learns to do the same.

What About College?

The final common question I will address regards higher education.  Many have asked me if my son will be able to go on to college, and how unschooling will affect his chances of acceptance into universities.  All that is required for college entrance is a piece of paper stating he has learned for 12 years, and a set of scores for the SAT.  So the simple answer is to take the GED and SAT tests.  It will be easy enough for him to pass the GED, probably around age 12 or 13 at the rate he is going.  And then he will just take the SAT, submit the applications like everyone else, if he chooses to do so.  He will enter college based on his knowledge and his merits, and will have no problems doing so.

Final Thoughts

I understand it is not possible or even desirable for every family to homeschool or unschool their children. If children go to public schools it does not mean they will be ruined for life. Every parent must take and active role in the rearing of their children, and take responsibility for making the parent-child bond.  Parents must be part of their kid’s learning process every day to insure that their children learn and live and grow into healthy adults. All parents must be leaders in their children’s lives, showing the confidence, passion, and courage that their children need to see in their primary role models. Unschooling parents must posses these traits as well as the motivation and resolve to be their child’s guide through learning.

It was my intention with this post to convey my thoughts as inoffensively as possible and without ranting too much.  I hope I have not alienated anyone who finds, or found, my posts informative. I apologise if I have. As regards this topic, my inspiration and background comes from the work of Maria Montessori, John Holt, and Gordon Neufeld.  Find books by them and read them if you have any interest in learning more.  I will post some titles on the Desert Explorer website, on the Recommended Books page soon. For an answer to the question, “what is unschooling?”, see the John Holt website. For background on unschooling, see the article on Unschooling Journal blog. And finally I’ll share a favorite quote,by Mark Twain, that started me thinking about the educational system: “Don’t let the university get in the way of your education.”