Dogs Do it Better

By | March 16, 2013

A visiting friend from out East asked if I would demonstrate scent tracking, as he had never heard of humans doing it. “You came to the right place,” I replied. “Out here in the bush we don’t mind sniffing around like dogs–we don’t have much pride.”

We had no trouble finding a scent, as the conditions were near ideal: a humid, midwinter afternoon with a very faint and variable breeze and the temperature hovering at around freezing.  The vinegar-musk odor was strong, but no matter in which direction we went, we couldn’t go any more than 20 paces without losing it. We tried zigzagging–a technique I commonly use to get a bearing on the source of a scent–but had no better luck.

“Now what?” my friend asked.

“Well, I’m humbled,” I replied. “And mystified. We could stand here frustrated for a few minutes, and then throw in the towel and go home.”

“I don’t think so,” said my friend, “that doesn’t sound like you. Besides, that scent has to come from somewhere.”

“You’re right,” I responded thoughtfully, “and it smells like opportunity. In fact, I’m excited–we are being gifted another dimension in scent tracking. It never ceases to amaze me that the more I learn, the more I’m shown how little I know–or to put it another way, how much I have to look forward to learning.”

We decided to methodically radiate out in all directions to define the perimeter of the scent trail. However, all we came up with was an ill-defined, shifting oval.

While contemplating under a large White Pine near the center of our oval, I felt a cool draft down the back of my neck. At that instant I experienced what a Deer must feel when she becomes suddenly aware of a Cougar on the branch above her. Well, that may be a bit overstated, yet I knew what I was going to see when I looked up. There, looking down at us from a large limb about five body lengths up was a medium-sized Porcupine. I hope she got as good a laugh out of the “discovery” as we did.

So how can the experience be explained? Let’s not attribute it to lack of awareness–I’d rather turn to physics. The interior of the big Pine funneled a downdraft of cool, shaded air to compensate for the warm air rising off of his sun-drenched outer needles. The downdraft laced itself with the barkeater’s scent, then hit the snow and spread out like an inverted mushroom.

The next time I’m with someone else and come across a mysterious scent, I’m just going to ignore it.


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