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Primitive Living Skills- Beyond the Basics-
More on Tracking From the Desert Explorer

Tracking Page 1- the basics
Tracking Page 2- tracking and observation
Tracking Page 3- tracking media, tracking journal
Tracking Page 4- tracking surprise
Tracking Page 5- wilderness mind, observation, new experiences
Tracking Page 6- recommended reading

Wilderness Mind and Powers of Observation- Helping Kids to See

re-posted from 14 january 2012 blog post

My son Nicolai and I spend a lot of time together outside, and as much time as possible together in southern Utah, my favorite place on the planet. I have been helping him understand ”how to be”  in the bush since he was born. The phrase “how to be” can be taken in so many different ways, and I could write for days on the topic. But for now I will give it a simple definition- when we are in the bush we use our wilderness voice, we use hand and arm signals to communicate, we walk quietly and softly, and our senses- eyes and ears and even our noses, are open to what is happening around us. We are receptive to nature. We can call this being in our “wilderness mind”. I say we do this in the wilderness, but the practice naturally extends itself into daily life, making our everyday experiences all the better. Our experiences and practices in wild nature extend to and help create our experiences, and shape the way we approach, the everyday world. And the more time we spend in the bush, “practicing” what is natural and innate in all of us, the more those practices become part of the everyday.

That is a big part of being in nature for me, for us- that what we learn and experience there becomes part of how we approach life in general. And it is clear that this is working for Nicolai. Let me say that I do not see my son as a super-kid; I am not one of those parents who has or needs a gifted or genius child. But my son does see things that many people- kids and adults- do not see, and these powers of observation allow him a special window into the world. His patience, his ability to listen, and to sit still and enjoy clouds moving across the sky give him the advantage of being able to enjoy whatever situation he finds himself in. I credit much of this to his experiences in nature; I know for a fact that this is true for me, that my time in nature has and does shape who I am. Most important in this practice is the practice itself. Kant’s philosophical axiom ”knowledge cannot transcend experience” summarises my position well enough. In simple terms, if you do not visit nature and practice observation and “being in nature”, there are no lessons, or experiences, to apply to the rest of life.

Nicolai is now attending the Running River School here in our community three days each week. I have been visiting the school and taking walks with his class, the Explorers, once a week for a few hours. My goal with them is to introduce the rest of the kids to these practices. Some days it feels like most of them would be just as happy on the playground. But the fact that we are out, walking down a trail, that we have “tuned-in”, and that they have been introduced to the concept of the wilderness mind is enough for the time being. It is clear that most of the kids understand that this is something different, that we are approaching our time outside in a manner different than we usually would. And whether or not they fully grasp the concepts that I introduce- stalking techniques for example-how to move your feet quietly, stepping over leaves, never stepping on tracks- they have been introduced. The seed has been planted.


Stalking and Tracking- More on Wilderness Mind

re-posted from 02 February 2012 blog post

In my last post I just scratched the surface of the concept of being in the wilderness, of “wilderness mind” as we call it. I discussed the importance of wilderness and wilderness mind for my son and I, and how being in the bush enhances our lives. One of the best methods we have found for approaching and practicing wilderness mind is through the arts of stalking and tracking.

Stalking and tracking are in fact two different parts of the same practice, the very ancient practice of acquiring food. Without the skills of stalking and tracking, ancient hunters and their families went without meat. For us, without the stalk we may catch a glimpse of our quarry far off in the distance if we are lucky. Without the track there is no application for stalking and it is likely we won’t see or hear our quarry at all. With the proper application of both practices we  find ourselves fully aware of everything happening around us-  every movement, noise, and smell. We become aware of subtle changes in temperature and wind direction, changes in terrain, vegetation, and moisture in the soil, and we might eventually find ourselves within easy viewing, if not touching distance, of our quarry. We have achieved wilderness mind.

Stalking is defined in Gilcraft’s Training in Tracking as “the art of approaching an object under cover or by stealth, but is more generally described as the ability to move rapidly…from place to place without being seen or heard…while seeing and observing everything that is going on.” Quite a definition! Later in his narrative Gilcraft adds the word “stealthily” to the definition, and concludes that the word finishes out the definition of stalking. Gilcraft by the way is a pseudonym for an early 20th century author who wrote books on outdoor pursuits. The present title was written with the Scouts (the Boy Scouts) in mind, with an introduction by Robert Baden-Powell, the “Chief Scout” and founder of the movement, and British hero of the Boer War.

The first step for us then, in stalking and following a track, is always the same: “tuning in”. Bob Carss in his SAS Guide to Tracking defines tuning in as “the initial reading of the sign that enables the tracker to think and act as the quarry.” To get tuned in to the environment, we stop, stand for a while, kneel at our start point, and listen to our surroundings. We look over the ground closely, the ground at our feet, a meter or so away, and off into the distance all around us. We really “get a feel” for what is going on at that place at that time. We take in the environment, observe and mentally note anything of interest, and especially anything that could relate to our quarry. Then we visually start our track by following the sign with our eyes. We make more observations, and from all of this we start to create our “tracking picture”, that is, the overall picture of our quarry- how it acts, thinks, what the next move might be.

Based on what we observe initially, we might ask ourselves such questions as: how many were there, were they frightened, moving quickly, hungry, out at dawn, before dawn, carrying a pack, and so on. Countless questions can be asked, and many can be answered just as you are starting out by observing, and by using deduction. As you move along countless other questions arise, are answered, and the tracking picture is refined or amended as the track progresses and more information becomes available. Tracking, and stalking, therefore become not only an exercise in patience, observation, and stealth, but also an investgation- trackers are detectives, following a trail, looking for answers.

Our goals then in stalking and tracking become many: we use and build our powers of observation and deduction, learn to record, mentally and on paper, to use our ingenuity and intuition, and to bring our exercise to a conclusion, whether that be confirming a suspicion about a person who made a footprint, or sitting at a fire eating meat we have successfully hunted. We do this by moving stealthily, by moving quietly, slowly, with caution. Every move is deliberate and intentional. We are in tune with nature and our environment and we are calling up the knowledge and memory of our ancestors, the knowledge of the skills that kept them alive thousands of years ago, knowledge that is still to be found within us if we only take the time to look for it.


Tracking This Week- New Experiences

re-posted from 12 February 2012 blog post

I hiked again this week with my son and four of his classmates from the Running River school, along with their teacher. It was a cold day, about 30 degrees. We were all bundled up under many layers, with gloves or mittens, warm hats, snow pants, and snow boots all around. And there was plenty of snow on the ground, eight or ten inches in most places, as much as a foot or more in drifts. The latest snow had just stopped falling an hour before we went out; about four inches of fresh snow had fallen over what was left of last week’s 16 inches or so. Clouds covered the sky, but it was still bright because of the snow on the ground. The brightness of mid-day made reading the track a bit difficult, but the trackers did well. All the old tracks were well-covered, but still visible under the blanket of new snow. The day presented the perfect opportunity to find fresh sign and follow it, and to examine old tracks under the snow.

As soon as we started down the trail I saw a fresh set of snowshoe tracks going out, and not returning, along with the tracks of two dogs. I stopped the group and lined everyone up on one side of the track and asked if anyone could tell me about it. Nicolai and Max answered simultaneously, “snowshoes!” And?  Everyone replied, “dogs!” So we knew exactly what we were following.

We began building our tracking picture: we had a larger man on snowshoes (the shoes were large and long, the stride long, the straddle wide), two dogs off leash moving along with him, and we had an accurate time bracket- not out more than an hour (remember the snow had recently stopped falling). The trackers were on the fresh track following their key sign- the snowshoe and dog tracks. We made it another few meters and stopped again, when I heard from a few voices, “he went into the bathroom.” There is a bathroom right at the trailhead, and sure enough, his tracks headed straight in. And then, (many voices) “he came out and kept going.” Down the trail we went. A short time later we ran into the man and his dogs, and the tracking picture we had created was confirmed as accurate.

Trackers following sign. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Trackers following sign, and staying well off the track they are following.

It was a good walk and everyone remembered the important points, one in particular (Giovanni, again and again, and Harper and Shane, to all of us) “don’t step on the tracks!” They kept well to the side of the track, making sure not to spoil it. Without any prompting they followed and followed. They found places where the dogs had run off to investigate trees and brush, where they stuck their noses in the snow. We spotted Canada geese in one pond, a few of them up on the bank walking around, leaving us perfect tracks in the snow to examine. And we saw a number of red tail hawks, as usual.

We had the chance to talk about the aging of sign, how tracks change in the snow, and how snow can distort the size and shape of tracks. We talked about direction of movement and how it can be deciphered. We examined old tracks under the snow. We saw old boot prints placed before today’s snow and found ski tracks covered by the fresh snow as well, along with old snowshoe tracks.

The trackers are doing a great job and learning the details of following sign. They understand how to follow a track. And most important they are examining the ground and their surroundings and collecting data, advancing theories, and reaching appropriate conclusions on their own and as a group.

For those in Boulder county, not completely unrelated to our topic are recent problems in the area with aggressive coyotes. Read more about those incidents at the Daily Camera website.



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Primitive Skills- Tracking
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