Tracking Exercise- Bears in a Utah Canyon

24 February 2018

By Nicolai Trainor

On our most recent trip to Utah we decided to hike a canyon close to one of our camps. We had been wanting to hike this particular canyon for a very long time, and what we found was a big surprise. After hiking for about forty five minutes, we stumbled upon what looked like human foot prints. At first they looked like tracks from someone wearing “barefoot shoes”, but after closer inspection we found that they were actually tracks belonging to a black bear. A little more hunting showed there was a definite bear trail. We decided to follow the tracks as we still had not found a way into the bottom of the canyon and were pretty certain they would lead us to a way in. Farther along the trail we found another set of tracks, these likely from the night before. From then on it was a goldmine of bear sign.

Bear sign in a Utah canyon. Photo by Nicolai Trainor.

Black bear sign in a Utah canyon.

Once in the canyon we found scat, even more fresh tracks, and lots of feeding sign. One of the best things we found was a set of tracks that were from a mother and a cub. They had stepped into part of a little stream and when we found them the tops of the tracks had just started drying. We calculated they could not have been made any more than twenty minutes before we found them. Their tracks went further up the canyon, so we went down! Through out the day we saw many more tracks along with a wide variety of sign, but nothing newer then a few weeks. It appeared that the bears stayed mostly in the upper parts of the canyon and had not ventured very far in quite a while.

Perfect black bear track in canyon bottom mud. Photo by Nicolai Trainor.

A perfect black bear track in quickly drying mud in the canyon bottom.

Identifying Bear Sign

One of the most helpful things for identifying bears are their tracks. Although similarities can be seen for both black and grizzly, both kinds of bears have different characteristics to look for when identifying their tracks. For instance black bear tracks are usually smaller but can be easily mistaken if they slide in mud or if the track is a double register (two tracks, one on top of another). Unlike black bears, grizzly bears are diggers so their claws, if present, can register up to an inch or more away from the toes. The tip of the claw can also be the only thing that registers so look far in front of the track. Another feature is that grizzly claws will show just on the surface whereas black bears are climbers, and their claws which are curved more drastically than grizzly’s will register deeply and relatively close to the toes. One more thing that I should mention that contributed to the identification is that Utah is not within grizzly bear range so when identifying the tracks we could immediately eliminate grizzlies from the list of possibilities. This is not the case for a lot of places though. In much of the northern United States, Canada, and Alaska the range of black and grizzly bears overlap making it potentially more difficult to identify the species.

Black bear tracks on canyon rim. Photo by Nicolai Trainor.

Don’t bust the crust! Good luck explaining that to a black bear. Tracks through crypto-crust heading into the canyon.

Black Bear Feeding Sign

Blacks bears are always eating so it is not uncommon to come across places where a bear has eaten. Feeding sign can be anything from turned over rocks and logs to some berry bits laying on the ground. During our hike there was feeding sign all through the canyon. The area that we found the most sign was about half way down the canyon. We were walking through an area strewn with a mixture of small stones and boulders, and we stumbled upon an entire line of rocks 6 to 18 inches in diameter that had been shifted and turned over. Farther along there was a log that had been rolled over. Both these groups of sign are pretty common to find but also very distinctive of bears feeding. Often you will see a whole line of rocks that have been moved and shifted. The bear sticks its claws under the rocks and flips them over when looking for food.

Bear feeding sign, southern Utah canyon. Photo by Nicolai Trainor.

A rolled log in the canyon bottom, typical bear feeding sign.

DSCF1388

During our hike the freshest bear sign was concentrated mostly in the upper parts of the canyon. This is probably because there was more running water and thus more food. Another contributing factor to so much sign is that the canyon is rarely explored by humans. On the hike we found only one set of human tracks that were at least a couple of months old. All these factors contributed to the canyon being prime bear habitat.

Our hike start to finish ended up being about 10 miles, but it felt longer because of all the ups and downs and the time spent looking at bear sign. We ended up climbing out of the main canyon through a drainage that was actually a marsh. This added more time to our adventure and made it all the more interesting.

For more on our adventures, visit the Desert Explorer website. For more on tracking, see the Desert Explorer Tracking Pages.

Advertisements

Urban Tracking Exercise

23 September 2016

On  a recent morning I took an early walk to our local coffee shop. After getting a cup of coffee, I continued on my walk to another destination a few blocks away. But as I rounded the first corner and was about to cross the street, I noticed a coin at my feet- a dime. I thought”I should pick that up”… and then I noticed another. Next thought, “I’ll pick up both f them.” But then I noticed something else shining out in the middle of the street. Scanning the area, I picked up 4 or 5 more shimmering coins in the early morning sun. I picked them all up and stood pondering some 55 cents in my hand and why the coins were there: there was a parking space nearby- perhaps someone getting out of a car dropped them? But they were scattered, too far from the parking space, out into both directions of traffic. My tracking exercise for the day had begun.

While nearly all of my tracking training takes place in the bush, and most of it in Utah, I will take any challenge I can get. Not only did a few coins on the ground offer me an opportunity to track, but it offered a mystery to ponder: why were coins scattered in the street? It didn’t make sense that they were dropped exiting a car; how did they get distributed as they did? And why did someone not pick them up after dropping them?

After pocketing the coins I walked off towards the west, down the middle of the street (I was still in a small parking lot), scanning carefully, looking for more “sign”. I quickly picked up more dimes, and a few nickles. Standing at an intersection in the parking lot, I had lost sight of sign ahead. West lead to an empty stretch of road for a while, then to another small strip mall. Instead I turned around toward the east and walked in the direction of many blocks of apartment buildings.

Urban tracking exercise- beggining of sign.

Apartment breezeway where sign trail began.

To shorten what could be a long and detailed story, I spent the next hour slowly walking down streets- usually close to the gutter and sidewalk, and with traffic for me, crossing the street a couple of times, down sidewalks, through apartment parking lots, through breezeways, and even through a play area and around an apartment’s pool area. By the time I arrived at the east end nearly an hour later I had two pockets full of change. This end- which was undoubtedly the beginning for the dropper-of-coins, was at a staircase in a breezeway leading to 4 upstairs apartments in one of the complexes. I confirmed the lack of further sign by casting out in all directions from my last definite sign, essentially doing a lost track drill from the base of the stairs, not once but twice. Not a coin was to be found. Next I backtracked, double-checking, finding a couple of missed coins, all the way to my western-most point. I cast out from there and found the trail once again. It only lead me a little further along the road just across from the strip mall, and essentially to the front of a small shop that sold cigarettes.

Urban tracking exercise- coffee money for the week.

The outcome of my exercise- about $20.38- coffee money for the week.

My conclusion about my exercise: a person had left their apartment building possibly in a time of limited light (the reason they may not have seen the dropping coins) and/or because they had ear buds in their ears and couldn’t hear the coins dropping. They either held the coins in a bag (a plastic shopping bag perhaps as they always come with a ready-to-tear seam in the bottom), or more likely in an unzipped pocket, or pocket with a small tear, of a backpack. They likely rode a bicycle (many were found locked at the bottom of the apartment stairs) towards the strip mall end-point. The bicycle theory is based on the winding trail of coins, the fact the more coins were found where the quarry rode off a sidewalk onto the street (the bounce forced more coins to fall), and the path staying on concrete or asphalt, and when in the street, close to the gutter and in the direction of traffic. There were plenty of places where a person walking would have cut across grass, or between parked cars for example, but a bike would go around which it clearly did.

All in all it was a great morning walk, and a welcome and unexpected chance to do some tracking. And in the end, with $20.38 in coins in my pockets, I was set for coffee for the rest of the week! For more on our tacking endeavors visit the Desert Explorer tracking pages and be sure to see our recommended books on tracking.