Water Stalking

By | June 2, 2013

The headwater wetlands of northern Wisconsin’s Eagle River, especially above the chain of lakes, are teeming with life. Wolves and Bears scout the shorelines, while Beaver, Muskrat and Otter, along with a host of birds, fill the waters. Expanses of marshgrass, wild rice, and cattails blanket the shallows, while yellow and white water lilies dapple the surface of the deeper waters. This morning I am taking my time as I stalk the bayous by canoe, with no intent other than to be one of the residents of my favorite habitat. About two canoe lengths ahead of me, a nose and a pair of eyes skim the surface of the water, with several sedge leaves in tow. In its wake, the assemblage leaves a perfect V to spread across the mirror-smooth water. Back and forth, the nose-and-eyes go, ferrying leaves into a den under the roots of a shoreline birch tree that had fallen into the water. My first urge is to paddle-stalk up to the tree trunk and perch right above the den entrance, where I would become a part of the tree and surreptitiously watch the Muskrat’s comings and goings. Once I felt in sync with her rhythm, I would have my hand dangling over her like a fallen branch, so that one finger would barely brush the fur on her back when she swam by. However, this time I wanted something more intimate. I drifted silently up to the den entrance, positioning my craft so that when she came out, she would be swimming right beside me.

My timing is perfect: just as I position myself, she emerges and swims toward me. I am leaning over the side of the boat, so that I can look directly into her eyes as she approaches. And sure enough, right at the point where I could have shot my hand out and touched her, she glances up. Our eyes meet, and she dives faster than I could ever imagine moving.

Around the next bend, I approach a head mounted atop a long neck arching out of the water, with eyes obviously intent on me. I would make more of a disturbance diverting my course than just allowing myself to drift toward him, so I slowly close the distance between us. I only got a quarter of the way—there was still  three canoe lengths between us—and his jittery movements show it is getting uncomfortable for him. He slips silently under water, and I wait to see where he might reappear.

About a half minute later, he breaks the surface across the river, seven or eight canoe lengths downstream. Seeing that I am still there, he dives again, with his back arching sinuously out of the water, as do Dolphins and Whales.

Knowing Otters as I do, I figure his natural curiosity will not allow him to go very far. And knowing the river as I do, I wonder how the upcoming bend might figure in to our unfolding relationship. I become Otter and envision the scenario: the large floating form drifting slowly downriver toward me feels intimidating. Yet it is not threatening, as it is employing no diversionary or stalking tactics. Still, I need to exercise caution—that thing is much bigger than me. At the same time, I am curious…what is it? Hugging the shoreline, I swim underwater around the bend and come up for air. I’ll wait a little bit to see what is going to happen, and if I don’t pick up any warning signs, I’ll swim back upstream and take another look.

I return to myself and stick my hand down into the tannin-stained water. It disappears from sight right after my elbow goes in. That means I don’t have to worry about casting an alarming underwater shadow. I paddle discreetly, without breaking the water surface, creating ripples, or hitting the side of the boat, and drift slowly up to where I imagine she is going to come up for a breath and orient herself before rounding the bend.

Shortly after I lean over the side of the boat, she surfaces and we look into each other’s eyes. Startling each other, we both jerk back and my boat sends shock waves across the water. The otter executes his classic arched-back dive, but in fast motion.

As I considered with the Muskrat, I could have attempted to count coup when the Otter surfaced.  However again, that was not my intent. I didn’t have it in me to cause him such fright just to prove I could touch him. And pinpointing the exact spot of her emergence would have been a long shot—I would have had to be spot-on in order to touch her in the brief instant her head would be above water. This time, I knew that looking into her eyes would be more fulfilling for me than getting the best of her. It was about relationship: about connecting directly with an animal I had become and reaching into his soul, and he reaching into mine. It is the point of knowing what each other thought and felt that I was after, and he wanted the same. In that instant of eye contact, we achieved it.

From there I paddle about two-thirds of a mile up a clearwater side stream. Coming upon a small, shallow bay, I let myself drift into it, keeping my paddle blade in the water so that I don’t have to break the surface to maneuver. Water animals are very sensitive to underwater vibration and sound, which can be caused by any sudden movement. I have found that I can sometimes get away with quite a lot of disturbance, as long as it fits within the animals’ realm of experience, such as if I sound like a splashing Swan or a Deer wading into the water.

On the other side of the bay opposite me, perhaps three canoe lengths away, floats a medium-sized Beaver. Judging by the floating plants that were obviously just dug up from the sandy bottom, I’d say she is feasting on roots and tubers. When I drift in enough to be directly across from her, she notices me. With a furious slap of her tail, she is underwater and gone. Becoming the Beaver, I realize right away how much I enjoy munching the succulent new growth. I am not ready to leave, so I duck into the cattails behind me and wait until the strange intruder leaves.

Returning to myself, I realize that I only have to stay right where I am and she will probably come back. If she detects no further disturbance—which she will be able to feel rather than needing to see it—she is likely to appear sooner than later.

I get distracted watching first a pair of Great Blue Herons, and then a pair of American Bitterns, landing in the marsh across the stream, all to the serenading ker-cheeee of Red-winged Blackbirds. I grew up with their call, and every time I hear it, I drift back to the wetlands and alfalfa fields of my youth. Again I’m catching butterflies and trying to figure out how to protect Blackbird nests from the farmer’s haymower.

American Bitterns have long been favorites of mine because of the male’s call, which is not remotely similar to that of any other bird I know. My neighbor Ken calls Bitterns plunja birds, because of their ker-plunk sounding call. Imagine a deep, resonant gulp, amplified loud enough to reverberate over an entire 80-acre marsh, and you’ve got the call of a plunja bird. Ker-splash! – I jump with a start and I’m brought back instantly to the now. This time the animal’s shockwaves overpower mine. As with the Otter, I may have been able to count coup on the Beaver had I been present and saw her coming. Yet my hunch is that I would again have chosen not to. This time, even without interacting, my yearning for relationship is fulfilled. I didn’t have to see or touch her to feel the kinship that comes from knowing the same curiosity and hunger. Or from having the same clarity and confidence to make decisions and act upon them. Or from having the same ability to react spontaneously, along with learning from experience and hopefully acting a little more wisely the next time.

As I paddle on, I reflect on what my sharing with Muskrat, Otter, and Beaver means to me. Why am I no longer so intent on literally counting coup? And why was I so drawn to counting coup in the first place? I think it was because I derived the same sort of pleasure from it as outsmarting someone by pulling a prank, a surprise party, and other such shenanigans. These things give me the same sense of satisfaction as outwitting an animal when I am hunting.

I suspect there is something here that is intrinsic to my psyche. After all, for 97% of the time our species has existed, we were hunter-gatherers; and we undoubtedly needed to derive emotional satisfaction from engaging in the hunt, or we would have found it difficult to continue doing so. Imprinted in our DNA, the exhilaration of the stalk now manifests in everything from a good mystery to a practical joke. And in my case, in the chicaneries of counting coup.

After a few more paddle strokes, I sense that there is something more to the feelings of elation and fulfillment that I am riding on. Clearly, any day that I get to share in what it’s like to be another animal is a day I cherish. But why? Perhaps it is because we modern humans look at ourselves as some kind of oddity—we just don’t fit with nature. So whenever I gain empathy with a wildling, I take another step toward breaking down that boundary.

And then there is the knowledge and skills I have gained from the best naturalists in the business, which goes beyond invaluable. All told, I can only say one thing with absolute conviction—it is a good day to be alive.

Tracker Training in the City

By | May 27, 2013

Recently two people took a group on a tour of New York City—using a map of Copenhagen. Another group toured the city by walking an algorithm: take the second left, the next right, and the next left, and then repeat. A woman hung poster paper and magic markers in public places around the city for people to answer questions, such as “Where were you the last time you cried?” and “What smell reminds you of home?” Another person reverse shoplifted by subtly redesigning products and placing them on store shelves.

These people were trackers in training.  In the city we usually proceed from A to B and miss nearly everything in between. We ignore smells and sounds and the memories attached to them. We pass by curiosities and what they might lead to.  We note the weather only if it poses some inconvenience, and we have no idea in what direction we are traveling. However, the people above were doing just what I do in tracking classes: helping people step aside from their accustomed paths and predictable behaviors and open to a fuller awareness of their surroundings.

In the woods it’s called tracker training; in the city it’s called psychogeography.  But whatever you care to call it, the important point here is that we don’t have to wait until we can get out to some natural area to work on awakening our innate tracking ability. We can be anywhere in the city, we can be on the job, or we can be out for the evening.

Google parapsychology for more ideas on what you can do. Here are some guiding points: Be neither goal oriented nor aimlessly wandering—have an abstract structure that is sure to lead to surprises. Notice the patterns—or lack of pattern—in the people, buildings, and landscape. Keep attuned to weather, location, and direction of travel (get tips fromwww.naturalnavigator.com). Immerse yourself in whatever feelings, memories, and sensations come up. And above all, have fun!

How to Read a Distorted or Indistinct Track

By | May 20, 2013

An animal’s track will often distort when an animal accelerates or changes direction on a slippery surface such as mud or wet sand. With acceleration, the track will elongate; and with turning, it will broaden. The same is true with animals traversing an upgrade or downgrade. I’ve watched people who are otherwise fair at track identification get thrown off and misidentify a track they would otherwise know.

To see what an elongated track might normally look like, sketch it on paper and hold it vertically, directly in front of you, with the toes pointing either up or down. Now tilt the top of your sketch away from you until the track appears to take on normal proportions. For tracks that are broadened, tilt your sketch to the right or left.

Another technique—often not as accurate, but quicker—is to view the actual track at an angle. With elongated tracks, look from the front or rear; and with widened tracks, look from the side.

When an animal’s track is hard to discern because it is either indistinct or only partially visible, draw the outline of what you can see, on the ground right beside the track. The outline will accentuate the size and shape of the track, and may also reveal the track’s symbol (see pp 249-71 of Entering the Mind of the Tracker). With a distinct outline of what is there, the missing part of the track will often come to light. This technique can also be executed on paper.

The Problem with Seeing Too Much

By | May 13, 2013

While hunting, a Serval (a midsized African wildcat) may pause for up to 15 minutes at a time, close her eyes, and listen for rodents. Why would she close her eyes to listen? We can gain a clue from blind people, many of whom can actually hear a solid object in front of them. They are also able to develop an acute sense of touch, to the point where they can read with their fingers. We see the same trait in other animals, who have a weak sense and a correspondingly stronger sense. Most birds do not have a well-developed sense of smell, yet they may have acute hearing or eyesight.

I used this information to help a beginning tracker. “I’m a highly visual person,” he told me.  “I’m constantly distracted—my eyes are darting all over the place. I can’t seem to keep focused on the trail.”

“Your affliction is your gift.” I replied. “You have been given this great visual ability for a reason.  Much sign is missed when people stay focused on the trail. Your only problem is that you happen to live in a visually oriented society—up to 85% of our sensory input is visual.  That only encourages you to be more visually oriented than you already are.”   To help him engage and exercise his other senses, I suggested these two exercises:

1.   Blindfold Walk

On a trail that you are familiar with blindfold yourself and walk slowly and deliberately, allowing your sight-oriented energy to flow into your other senses. Your feet will become sensitized and you’ll start to see with them, and your memory will give you images of the trail ahead.

2.   Spot Search

Choose a piece of ground about the diameter of your foot and mark it off with sticks or pebbles.  Now get down close to it and allow your senses to expand into it, noting every essence, movement, and particle.  How many Ants can you find and what are they up to?  Notice how looking under the grass is like peering into a forest.  What do you smell and what does it remind you of?  Do you see signs of death as well as life?

At first the exercises might seem restricting.  If you practice them every day—a must in order to break your visual dependency—you will find that they open a window to a vast world within a world that you did not previously know existed.


Trapper vs. Hunter Tracking Styles

By | April 26, 2013

I remember one day about 30 years ago when I was out scouting a trapline with my friend Bob. We skirted an open field, followed the edge of a pine plantation, then wrapped around a granite outcrop before crossing a small stream and dipping down into a Cedar bog.

“We’re crossing quite a few runs,” I commented after we had walked a ways. “Don’t we want to pick up on one of them and trail an animal?”

“I’d starve if I did that,” he replied. “Following a Deer around or finding where a Raccoon is denned up for the day isn’t going to give me the pelts I need to pay the bills.”

I understood. We wanted to intersect as many trails in as short a run as possible, so that Bob could quickly and efficiently prepare and regularly check a number of sets. And intersect trails we did: we crossed a Deer trail leading into the open field and saw sign of Fox on the edge of the plantation, and then we found a Coyote scat-scent marking area on the outcrop and Mink tracks along the stream. However if we were hunting, we would do the opposite—we would have taken the deer trail to find an advantageous spot to either set a snare or sit-in-wait.

The trapper wants to find as many trails as possible, while the hunter wants to follow one trail to the source. Following a trail, a hunter will generally cut across a stream valley, where it trapper will walk up the valley to intersect trails. On a beach, a hunter will pick up a trail and follow it inland, while a trapper sticks to the beach to pick up on as many trails coming down to the water as possible.

The best conservation wardens know these two tracking styles and take advantage of them to apprehend poachers. I knew a poacher who used the knowledge to raid traplines. Some of the best hunters and trappers I know rely on their respective tracking styles to apprehend their quarry. I sometimes use the knowledge to avoid hunters and trappers, and occasionally on a search-and-rescue, but most often I use it for the same reason I imagine most of you would—to immerse myself in the world that calls to my heart.

Dog or Cat?

By | April 22, 2013

I get obsessed with details. If we are out somewhere and come across a feather, such as the hairy woodpecker wing secondary feather I found yesterday, you might as well find a comfortable place to sit, because I’m going to stop and read its story. I’ll study the quill to determine whether it was molted or torn out, I’ll scan the rachis (central shaft) and barbs for the stress marks that tell the bird’s feeding pattern and condition, and I’ll assess the vein for sheen, coloration, and wear, to determine the bird’s age, activity level, and place of origin.

I can do the same with a track: how many lobes do the palm pad’s leading and trailing edges have? Are the toe pads teardrop shaped, oval, or elongated? Does the toenail imprint show acceleration, deceleration, or side motion? But not when I’m tracking the animal.

The reason is simple: tracking evolved not as an academic exercise, but to bring home the meat. When I’m on the trail, my goal is to read sign at a glance, so that I can keep moving and find my quarry as quickly as possible. For me, this approach is the ultimate test in tracking. Every animal who hunts by tracking does the same. Senses are keened, adrenaline is pumping, and I’m high on the thrill of the chase. Poring over details can be richly rewarding, yet it doesn’t give me the high of being hot on the trail— I was obviously born to hunt.

Yet when I come across a track that could be either canine or feline, I’m tempted to stop and micro analyze. It’s probably a carryover from my school days, and it’s intellectually satisfying. Yet at the same time there is something deeper, more primal, that urges me on. That’s when my super-processing abilities kick in—I need to know what’s going on, and I need it now. Forget the canine one-two and feline two-three formula for number of palm pad lobes. Forget the shape of the toe pads and whether or not claws are registering (dogs-yes, cats-no). And don’t even mention stride and straddle measurements.

Here’s what I look for:

  • Canine tracks tend to be longer than they are wide, and feline tracks are usually wider than long.
  • Canines walk more up on their toes than felines, who like to be down on their palm pads. You can often feel the difference in the energy a track projects.
  • Canines have small palm pads and large toes, and felines have the reverse.
  • Canine tracks are usually longer than wide, while feline tracks are wider than long.
  • Canines’ toes are typically bunched together, with the short outer toes tucked partially behind the dominant middle ones. Felines’ are spread in a semi-circle that wraps about 40% of the way around the palm pad.
  • Canine’s two center toes are the same length, where with felines, one center toe (the inner one) will project forward.

All of the above clues can be picked up at a glance, and they can be as definitive as a detailed analysis, especially with low-resolution tracks.

One final suggestion: read the front paw print rather than the rear. In both families, the front paws are larger, more articulate, and show more personality, than the rears.

And now for a quiz. Assuming that everything in the natural realm has evolved for a reason, why do felines have palm pad-dominant paws and canines have toe-dominant paws?

My Tracking Family

By | April 18, 2013

Years ago I heard about a team of American Indian trackers who worked to intercept smugglers packing drugs across the US-Mexican border. The stories of their adventures on the trail had a surreal quality that bordered on the mystical. On top of that, they called themselves the Shadow Wolves.

Sure, the adventures of these fabled trackers fueled my imagination. And the fact that some of them were so good that the cartel lords put quarter-million dollar prices on their heads only added to the intrigue. But what really grabbed me was that their stories were starkly real to me. When they were picking up intuitive impressions from the lay of the land and the calls of the birds, I was there with them. And when I sensed an animal trail or kill site up ahead, they were there with me.

I had never met a Shadow Wolf, yet I knew I would ask one of them for an endorsement when I finished my tracking book. What I didn’t know was how hard it would be to find a Shadow Wolf. It took both stealth and savvy to come up with the address of the address of someone we thought might be a nephew of one of the trackers. It’s as close as we could get. Of course, the Wolves had good cause to be as phantom-like off the job as on, so I was ecstatic that we came up with anything.

Right away I sent the maybe-nephew a manuscript, asking if he would get it to his uncle.

“I received a mysterious package,” replied Shadow Wolf Bryan Nez a week or so later. “In it there was a manuscript titled In the Shadow of Wolf [the book’s original title].* I was a bit interested, so I opened it up. I then couldn’t put it down. It brought me back to the way I learned tracking from my father and grandfather, who taught it the Old Way.”

His words choked me up—not because I was surprised by this response (I already knew we spoke the same language), but because it felt like I was reuniting with a long-lost brother. The same feeling overcame me when I met Paul Rezendes, and it’s the same feeling I get when I come into resonance with the animal I am tracking.

Bryan, now retired from the Shadow Wolves, trains tactical tracking units around the world. I got an e-mail from him yesterday stating, “I am currently in Nairobi, Kenya. I’ve been here for six months, and before that I was in Algeria.” I wonder if when he, a Navajo, and a Native tracker from somewhere on the other side of the planet, meet, they too feel the kinship.

With just as much effort as it took to find Bryan—along with what must have been the right planetary alignment—my editor located another Shadow Wolf: former Agent in Charge René Andreu. Echoing Bryan, he said that he was “immensely pleased and encouraged” that my book was “preserving and sharing the ancient tracking knowledge for future generations.”

Once again, I was not surprised but deeply touched. This time there was an overriding reason—René’s concern for the future generations. In his own words: ” During my early days [the 1970s], I developed friendships and close working relationships with the older Shadow Wolves, learning by tracking alongside them. A decade later when I came back, I saw their numbers diminished, and a once-proud Native American patrol division was a shadow of its former self.

“Having developed a great respect and appreciation for my old friends’ skills and knowledge, and now fearing its loss, I took it as a personal challenge to save and rebuild the program. I recruited new blood from all over the country: Navajo, Hopi, Yaqui, Chickasaw, Missouri Otto, Lakota, and Tohono O’odham, to name a few. Having sold my superiors in Washington on the necessity of preserving this unit, we managed to save much of the elders’ knowledge before they retired by having them pass it on to the new young Shadow Wolves. Since then I have seen the last few of the elders retire and/or pass on.”

From a note I received yesterday from René: “I recently attended a service for the passing of another Shadow Wolf, Henry Tenario of the Tohono O’Odham Nation [where the Shadow Wolves operate], and I have been attending these services much too often over the last few years. Your book will do much in helping to preserve what is slowly passing away.”

And so will René’s continued involvement. “I keep in touch with some of the newer Shadow Wolves,” he said, and in this way he transmits the ways of the elder trackers who have gone on. In the continuum of birth to death and birth again, you and I will come and go, but the skills will live on, along with the traditions to guide their practice.


*I learned tracking literally in the shadow of Wolves, when I was in my mid 20s and lived with a pack.

Ever Tracking

By | April 15, 2013

The topics of discussion on the Zen forum I participate in are typically consciousness related. It so happens that there are several trackers on the forum, and we sometimes use tracking metaphors. At first I thought we might befuddle the non-trackers; however, they not only hang with this but know just what we are talking about.

I realized why a few days ago when a forum member, who is an M.D., described the medical professionals’ workshop he was organizing. He wanted to show how doctors could improve their diagnostic skills by becoming better trackers. Participants would go out in the field and learn not how to read tracks per se, but how to pick up on the whole story—the song of the track—which is a metaphor for the symptom vs. whole-person approach. He said attuning to the song of the track is the same skill a doctor uses when he is “seeing patients and trying to hear [their] songs.”

In essence, the holistic healthcare practitioner and the intuitive tracker are doing the same thing: getting themselves—especially their analytical minds—out of the picture, being fully present, and listening.

However, the popular conception of tracking is that you go out and follow an animal trail. That’s like saying I am playing soccer when I go out and kick the ball from one end of a field to the other.

If I were limited to only one word to define tracking, it would be listening. In some way or form, I am always listening—always tracking. Right now I am tracking my thoughts with words across this page, and my thoughts are tracking my dreams and memories.

With you and I busy tracking all the time, and with us being at it since conception, it follows that we should be quite the accomplished trackers (or healers, or Zen practitioners) by now. So why then do some of us have trouble tracking, or reading our patients, or dwelling in an awakened state? When we don’t know that we have the innate ability, and that we have been practicing it all our lives, how can we believe that we are capable? How can we allow ourselves to tap into that ability when a mystery lays before us?

Good Relationships Make Good Trackers

By | April 5, 2013

Recently I noticed that higher-than-average number of the best trackers I know happen to be involved in healthy interpersonal relationships. I suspect it’s because when we come at our relationships sideways by enabling and speaking indirectly, or by manipulating and feeling victimized, we do the same with the animals we track.

Even though we might struggle in our human relationships to be trusting enough to know and accept others for who they are, why can’t we do it with animals? Being creatures of habit and pattern, we can hardly help but treat all relationships the same, whether they be human or animal.

Then how can we have an honest, straightforward relationship with an animal? Here I can speak from personal experience: the better I developed my human relationships skills, the more successful I am at tracking. I’ve noticed it consistently over the years–when I make a relationship breakthrough, it shows right away in the field.

Yes, we can improve our tracking skills through practice and study, but I think we can only go so far–as far as our relationship skills allow us. Yet I think that’s good news, because rather than sinking into despair because we have hit a wall, we know that the more we heal through our dysfunctional relationship patterns and establish healthy ones, the better the tracker we become. After all, tracking is just like the rest of life–it’s all about relationship.

Think of the efficiency here–we get two benefits for the price of one. It’s the same with so many other tracking-related skills: the better I become at hacky sack, the better I become at stalking; and the more embedded knots I’m able to sense in a block I’m splitting, the more sign I’m going to pick up on the trail of an animal. I wonder if the ability to eat more ice cream would help my tracking…

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.