'The best way to learn tracking is to go out and find tracks in snow and soft earth.'

I will never forget the first animal tracks that I found in Wells, Maine. There was a damp spot on the trail and there were tracks from two different deer — a doe and fawn. I knew that these two deer had stood on this same spot earlier that day. This find was very exciting for me.

I continued going into the woods about five times per week. Every time I went out, my friends in the forest had come and left fresh tracks. I would read the tracks and learn what I could about these animals and their habitat. I did these daily hikes for almost five years.

As events in my life unfolded, I left Maine and moved back to Massachusetts for two years and then back to my homeland in western Oregon. In Oregon, I continued my work as a conservationist, hiking and reading animal tracks on a daily basis.

During the westward movement of the mid-19th century, many families trekked to the Oregon territory to file for homesteads and farm the land there. An ancestor of mine filed for a homestead in 1864 and that land has remained in the family to this day. The "farm," as we call it, got a new house in the mid-1980s and my parents now reside there.

I am in luck in that I have access to the farm's property. The farm has 150 acres with other forest lands bordering it. There is a creek, a pond, open fields and forest. It's the perfect setting for a conservationist to practice conservationism.

Western Oregon has a temperate climate. The warm waters of the South Pacific Ocean are brought via the Japanese current to the coast of western Oregon, creating this temperate climate. The winters are mild and moist.

The moist climate of western Oregon lends itself to excellent tracking conditions. In western Oregon, I do miss tracking in snow because there isn't much — fresh snow is a trackers paradise. The lack of snow is made up for by the abundance of moist soil that is found there.

The soil personality of western Oregon is predominantly clay, as opposed to the sandy soils of the Northeast. Both soils are good for reading animal tracks. Moist soil is best.

In western Oregon, wintertime hardship on wildlife is not as great as in the northeast. In Maine's harsh winter a few years ago, we lost 19 percent of our deer population. Such a thing could never happen in western Oregon due to the temperate climate.

In western Oregon, we have the Roosevelt elk. Elk are herd animals, one of the few herd animals in North America. They come from the forest into the field across the road from the farm house. We have counted 60 or more at one time. Seeing a herd of 60 elk is quite a sight to behold.

Another notable animal to track is the cougar. While cougar are virtually extinct in the Northeast, they can be found in western Oregon. The cougar is an animal that is exciting to track, along with the black bear. It is a prize to find a track from either of these creatures, much less see one out in the wilds.

Tracking is both an art and science. I have two tracking cards and have memorized the images of the tracks of the animals I am pursuing. It has been said the Apache Indian trackers could identify 4,000 different features in a single track. It would take a lifetime of learning to match that feat.

The best way to learn tracking is to go out and find tracks in snow and soft earth. After a while, the tracker begins to notice the nuances in the tracks he or she is reading. The tracker comes to know the animal they are tracking by spending time in their habitat and reading their tracks.

Bill Stride lives in the Dixie Mountain area near North Plains in Washington County. He is a writer, outdoorsman and mental health counselor.

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