Being sign aware

When it comes to tracking, forget the 'broken twigs' myth of Western novels; using all your senses makes every hike a full-body experience

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2001

Hiking with Brad Nelson turns a walk in the woods into a series of stories. A trapper and hiker with almost 20 years of local experience, Nelson uses all six of his senses - sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch and common - to read the forest news on each trip.

"I'm always looking for animal sign, not necessarily for trapping purposes," he said. "I just like to see what's around the area."

The soft mud of a nameless stream so small that it might not be there next year revealed bear, otter, squirrel, duck and heron tracks. Since last fall, sand had built up along the roots of trees and the base of debris piles all through this river system, altering the course of the waterways. Fresh tracks and scat showed that a black bear, new to the territory last year, had renewed his claim.

According to Nelson, the bear's presence may be the reason that deer, once common in this location, have begun avoiding it.

"Nature changes," he said. "You can count on that."


That is what draws Nelson back year after year to the same places. He is fascinated not just in knowing what animals visit which location; he wants to figure out what is going through the animal's head.

"By watching you see where they're going. You start to see the places they're going to investigate," he said. "You can also learn throughout the year what they like to eat."

Knowing the habits and needs of local animals is the key to finding and understanding their sign, said Nelson. For example, the river's change in course has altered the lives of the beavers that live there.

"Beaver can change the lay of the land," he said, by cutting down trees, rerouting waterways and creating ponds. "Beaver ponds are feature attractions for animals."

Tracking 101

As Nelson saw, there are all sorts of things going on in the wilderness that the casual observer can see or miss, depending on their level of awareness. The average person lacks two decades of intimate knowledge of local habitats, but there are some tips that can make it easier to understand what the land has to say.

Said Warren Eastland, who has a Ph.D. in wildlife biology, "A good place to start, quite frankly, is with people and dog footprints."


Since canine and human footprints are the most common tracks on trails, it is easier to get a feel for what to expect in the local environment, said Eastland. Learning what partial tracks look like and how to age those tracks is a big part of success.

According to Eastland, the rain ensures that Juneau will not be an easy place to find animal tracks, especially complete ones, but it does make it easier to age sign by remembering when the last rain fell. That makes it important to be alert for the whole range of clues that animals, and natural processes in general, leave behind.

"Start using (your) eyes and look for the small things," he advised.

Anyone who has ever read a Western knows that you should be alert for broken branches and tufts of hair along the trail, but Eastland suggests that you don't count on seeing such things.

"A lot of that stuff came out of Louis L'Amour's imagination," he said.

Both Nelson and Eastland advise hikers to learn about the animals living in Southeast. Eastland recommends reading field guides in particular, as they contain so much species-specific information about food needs and habitat preferences.

"It'll give you a good hint about the habits of the animal," he said. "They list the food plants. That's the sort of thing they don't cover on the TV nature shows because it's not exciting. It's extremely interesting, but it's not exciting."

No discussion of animal tracking is complete without a mention of what is delicately referred to as "scat," or animal droppings.

"The little bitty ones that look kind of like M&M's made out of sawdust - that's rabbit," said Eastland. "The ones that look like the new M&M's with almonds - that's deer. Bear is pretty obvious."

Eastland's enthusiasm might surpass the level of the average hiker, as he suggests using a stick to do a forensic doo exam. However, that exam can reveal a great deal about what the animal has been eating, which can, in turn, tell about where the animal has been.

Due to the large quantity deposited at any one time, bear scat can be especially illuminating.

"When you see bear scat, you might see little fish bones," he said. "You see green goo, that's what's left of plants. You'll start seeing berries that have passed all the way through without being digested."

Nelson recommended paying attention to previously processed animal food as a way to determine the age of the sign. He was able to say that a particular bear had been in the area within the last several hours, based on the last time it had rained and the relatively small number of flies.

"If it were older, there would be more flies," he said.

Most animals avoid trails with high levels of human traffic, so the real action is to be found when you get off the beaten path, said Eastland. But don't forget your common sense.

"You are going to be finding animal tracks off the trails. Carry a map with you and a compass because once you get off the trails it's pretty easy to get turned around in there," said Eastland. "It's one thing to go out looking for tracks but especially with bears you want to make sure the track isn't so fresh that the bear's still standing in it."

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