Reading the Stories in the Snow: tracking evaluation in Algonquin Park

I spent this past weekend at the Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park, standing around in below -20C temperatures, poring over indentations in the snow, snowed-in trails of all sizes, mysterious scrapes and holes in trees, pungent urine marks, and other clues of animal presence. I do this kind of thing for fun as often as I can, but this time I was participating in a Track and Sign Evaluation to test my skills. I’ve been working on tracking skills in a focused way for about two years now, perhaps peripherally for a year or two before that. I’ve written previously about what drew me to this learning, and why I find it so compelling and beautiful and important, both on this blog and at Sense of Story. And so you might know that for the past two years I’ve been involved in an apprenticeship program with Earth Tracks, spending many inspiring weekends hiking around forests, swamps, cliffs and fields in every possible kind of weather, learning about the ecology of this land that I live in and about the creatures who inhabit it with me. I’ve learned to measure, sketch tracks, journal, draw maps, do species research, observe weather patterns, and tease out the stories left behind on the land.

When the evaluation was first scheduled, I hesitated to sign up. I had some nerves and doubt and plenty of ego to untangle when I considered being put on the spot for my skills in this way, skills that seemed so emergent and fragile to me. I didn’t know what it would look like and how it would feel to be required to move from wonder and speculation to firmly committing to an answer, my own answer, to each puzzle pointed out to me. What did I actually know? But specific goals are motivating, and risk is a powerful teacher.

So I found myself on a late January Friday bunking with three other women, fortunately all of them friends, in a tiny cabin in the woods of Algonquin Park. In between sleeping and evaluation time out in the field, our group of ten or so participants gathered together in the Director’s Cabin at the Wildlife Research Centre to warm up, cook our meals, and socialize.

One of my bunkmates, Tamara, had made up study notes for herself, and we lay in our beds on Friday evening as she read tidbits out loud by headlamp, all of us easing our nerves with raucous laughter.

Our humble but cozy accommodations.

Our humble but cozy accommodations.

The next morning, with feet already freezing from the cold cabin floors (note to self: bring slippers next time!), we gathered with snowshoes and notebooks to start the evaluation. George, the evaluator – who had come up from the U. S. – had scouted out some tracks and sign the day before. But nature is always in motion, and recently fallen snow and new tracks meant that many of the questions he ultimately gave us were spontaneously found or had already changed slightly by the time our group reached them. With each new track, trail or sign we might be asked: “Who made this?” “What gait is this?” “Which foot is this?” or the all encompassing “What happened here?” Ecology, habitat, behaviour, as well as our knowledge of track and trail patterns and typical animal sign all informed our answers. We moved from one set of tracks to another, each person taking as long as they needed to decide on an answer, although the bitter cold certainly encouraged closure. Our answers we gave one by one to George or to Alexis – who was assisting – either whispered or written in a notebook (my preference). The evaluator’s job was to hear our answer with a neutral face and record it.

Who made these tracks?

Who made these tracks?

After each group of five or so questions, George took up the answers. Obviously, the evaluator’s tracking skills are put on the spot as well, and there is room for debate and the occasional question thrown out if there is too much disagreement (it is amazing, for example, how much snowed-over moose tracks and human tracks can look alike). After the first group of questions, I knew I would be fine, and I threw myself into the exuberant fun and adrenaline high of it all.

George and Alexis, practicing the poker face. George has an excellent frost beard.

George and Alexis, practicing the poker face. George has an excellent frost beard.

As I knew, my weak point was bird, insect and mammal sign on trees. On the other hand, I had some strokes of luck, pulling an answer out of nowhere – certainly not from conscious memory – a few times and then discovering it was right. I was struck by how often a seemingly random guess can have a solid deductive process going on behind it. I loved what I learned about my instincts and my reasoning process, how good it felt to follow my intuitions on each question, and how often my mistakes came out of not doing so. I also loved dispensing with the need for measurement – measuring tools weren’t allowed – and tuning into my love of patterns and context to summon my answers. I checked off correct and incorrect answers in my notebook, and although the answers are weighted for difficulty, making it difficult to calculate a score ahead of time, I could see as the weekend went on that I was mostly on a roll. I had told myself that what I wanted from the evaluation was a really great workshop – which it was – but I could see quickly that my competitive drive was kicking in.

Who made this trail?

Who made this trail?

Among what we saw in the snow were tracks and trails of pine marten, fisher, mink, river otter, short-tailed weasel, shrew, deer mouse or white-footed mouse, grouse, moose, white-tailed deer, red squirrel, red fox, and eastern wolf. On a range of trees, hydro poles and on one plywood shed were marks from black bear, porcupine, pileated woodpecker, and many other smaller creatures.

What happened here?

What happened here?

Our most intense moment was being led to a fresh moose carcass at the bottom of a slope on the side of the highway. The next few questions set the scene: Whose tracks were leading up to it? What did we see at the top of the hill? Was this all related? If so, how? It was potent and moving to visualize the scene of the hunt, what might have happened here and how. To place it within the statistics on wolf on moose predation in the park; to feel the agony of the moose’s death alongside gratitude for the role the wolves play in the health of their ecosystem. In the woods with senses wide open, you can’t avoid the cycle of life and death, its solid and fleshy reality, and the bigger knowledge that every living being, every possible nutrient, is eventually recycled and reabsorbed into others and into the Earth.

A beautiful otter trail.

A beautiful otter trail.

I was grateful to have been part of this experience and process. Putting myself into a situation where I needed to decipher the clues on my own, to commit to answers and really trust my gut, and the excellent outcome that came out of this for me (Level III Track and Sign) gave me a huge boost of confidence in the skills I’ve built up over the past few years. The testing situation put a higher stake on using the knowledge I had in contrast to the more relaxed energy of tracking as naturalist learning. It connected me in a deeper way to the instincts my ancestors would have used, that I could still use, in a situation where tracking had a stake in survival. Reflecting on the experience in the week afterwards, I thought a lot about how to apply that intuition, that trust in myself, to other situations in my life. Like any experience where head, heart and body are engaged, it gifted me more than the sum of its parts.

Pine marten at the back window of the Wildlife Research Station.

Pine marten at the back window of the Wildlife Research Station. Photo by Lianna Vargas.

A week later, I’m driving up to Algonquin Park again, this time with the apprenticeship program, for a weekend of a different pace, which will be both more relaxed and more physically demanding. We’ll get onto some moose or wolf trails, read the patterns, immerse ourselves in the exhilaration of movement, observation and connection with the more-than-human world. I’m glad not to be tested this time, but I know I’ll bring the energy of last weekend forward into this one. And I suspect that when the evaluation comes around again next year, I will be keen to do it again.

Me, with my usual tracking grin.

Me, with my usual tracking grin.

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