On a late August Friday afternoon I find myself with two friends on a journey north from the city I live in: driving through a series of highways that become progressively narrower, less busy and more winding; watching tall buildings gradually replaced by huge rocks and tall trees; then finally turning left off Highway 60 on to a secluded gravel road into the Wildlife Research Station (WRS) in Algonquin Park.
It’s a place I’ve been getting to know in the past four years or so, mostly in twice-a-year visits which swing wildly between the extremes of deep Ontario winter and its hot summer. Slipping out of the car among the tall pines and small wooden cabins brings all those memories back.
A half hour after we get out of our car we are sliding two canoes into the water of Lake Sasajewun, which I last crossed on snowshoes, and setting off into the late summer dusk.
We watch for wildlife along the edges, skirt around the deadfalls and rocks, alternate between boisterous laughter and silence. We cautiously navigate through the narrow channel in the lake and spend some time stilling our canoes together in the marshes on the northern end, breathing deeply, taking it all in, swatting the occasional mosquito, keeping our eyes open for the moose that Sue saw here last summer. As we turn back south to get through the rocks before darkness falls, I start to see the first stars appear in the still blue-gray sky. This is not like the city.
We’re here for a tracking weekend with Earth Tracks. Many of us – and others who join us that evening and later in the weekend – have completed an apprenticeship program (or two, or more…) with Alexis Burnett.
I’m here because although I love many things about my life in the city, there is this pull also to be out in the wild, to understand how the bigger pieces of my ecosystem work and how I fit into them, and also how I can help keep them as healthy as possible. And I’m here because tracking is something I have come to love intensely and want to keep cultivating, keep practicing myself and introducing to others.
I stumbled upon tracking in a one-thing-leading-to-another kind of way about four years ago, and I fell in love. I fell in love with many things about it, but mostly with the experience of paying attention. Alexis says a mentor once told him, “Tracking and awareness are the same thing.” There is a vocabulary to learn, but in many ways it’s not much more complicated than giving my attention fully. I used to walk through the woods simply enjoying the feeling of being there, and I often still do, but now I also know how to notice the little things that tell big stories.
There is that saying about not judging a person before walking a mile in their shoes. Walking following the trail of an animal, or even picking up a few of the clues it left behind, is similar. This is daily life that is unfolding before you: eating, sleeping, elimination, reproduction, play, fear. And death. Death is often spelled out very clearly. Giving our attention to all of it hones empathy and connection – with the creatures around us, with each other, and within ourselves – and brings our human lives into context.
The next morning, when we each talk about our intentions for the weekend, keeping eyes and ears open and paying attention to the little things is a common theme. There are also some shared questions about bear tracks and sign, and about learning how to find faint tracks in debris (pine duff, leaf litter). I am feeling drawn to bears this weekend, after having spent other visits here paying more attention to moose, wolves, and some of the mustelids: martens, fishers, otters. At this moment, I want to understand more about the life of black bears: their feeding strategies, their reproductive cycles, the ways they raise their cubs.
As we move out along the grounds of the WRS, Alexis points to broken branches, indentations where bear feet landed, scratches and bites on hydro poles, a few hairs caught in the wood. Some of us take turns acting out the bear turning its back on the pole and biting over its shoulder, each trying to figure out the placement of its teeth and claws. Acting things out is often the only way to really see them with our minds and feel them in our bodies. I’ve examined these particular hydro poles before – bears come back and mark the same spots year after year. But now I am starting to see how the pieces fit together. We talk about what the bears eat at each time of year; the huge number of calories they need per day, especially as they prepare for their winter sleep (not a “true” hibernation, as I’ve learned); how constantly they need to eat to make up those calorie needs. Right now they will be moving between berry season and mast season (acorns, beech nuts). We’re not seeing a lot of recent bear sign here, and we talk about the large range they need to move through to find their food, and where else they might have moved to in the park to find late crops of berries.
In the same area we find moose tracks, and branches pulled down by moose to get closer access to tasty foliage. We have a discussion about the identity of a particular shrub. I know it as hobblebush, but Christina tells me it’s viburnum. Later on we realize that we are both right – score! We look at miniscule incisor marks on an old plywood shed and wonder about what is in the plywood (salt, glue?) that appeals to rodents of various sizes.
We ask a LOT of questions, many of which we may not ever find answers to in books, even though later in the evening we’ll spend some time excitedly reading out loud to each other from field guides Alexis brought.
The afternoon brings another paddle across the lake, where some of our group elects to follow a moose trail for a short while. Our canoes lie overturned amidst sweet gale, leatherleaf, steeplebush, wintergreen, mint, and some stunning indigo-blue gentian flowers. I nibble on a wintergreen leaf as Kaleigh searches through a plant guide to identify the gentian. Moving into the trees, I spot an ideal giant rock to sit on for an after-lunch meditation: watching for birds and being watched by a curious red squirrel, smelling the air around me, listening to mysterious splashes in the lake. An hour later we paddle back – my canoe still smells like mint – and make time for a pre-dinner swim and some research on pressing questions from the day. Dinner is delicious and also rather riotous.
There is a lot of teasing and banter that happens when tracking. Maybe it’s all the time spent looking at animal scats and talking about mating strategies, trying to viscerally understand the ways animals move. People get a bit goofy at times. That evening we read technical terms in a glossary and try to figure out how to incorporate them into our vocabularies, with varying degrees of seriousness. “Crepuscular” seems to win out in its usefulness – not nocturnal, not diurnal, but active at dawn and dusk, a word applying to many creatures we track. Victor repeats it over and over again, planning to introduce the word to the primary school students he will be teaching in the fall.
After dinner, we get further wound up in silliness and debate, until Alexis gracefully shifts our energy to a walk out to the swim spot on the lake to try out some owl and wolf calls. Sending these sounds out onto the darkening lake is a powerful thing, and while we don’t get any responses this time, we can feel the change in the movement and sound of the birds around us, responding to the threat of a potential predator (the barred owl). We sit silently by the lake for a while. I feel a quiet intimacy between us growing in the falling darkness and silence here. When we get up, we can barely see the slope behind us. We challenge ourselves to walk back up the hill and along the paths without artificial light, feeling how easily our other senses kick in when our dominant sense is hampered. As we reach our cabins again, I break into a run, feeling the exhilaration of the dark night around me, celebrating how good I feel at that moment
The next day we compare dog and fox tracks on the road on the way to the lake, we find a fox scat with an entire shed snakeskin within its twists (wow!), we find the remains of a turtle egg, we speculate on the identities of particular plants. Paddling again across the lake we see beaver scent mounds and muskrat latrines. We talk about castoreum, the beaver secretion once used in perfume manufacture. We put our canoes up in a new spot, and make our way along a long trail, stopping to look at trees drilled by pileated woodpeckers, giant bear scratches on conifers dripping with sticky sap, deer antler rubs, and moose tracks. Marten scats appear periodically along the trail. We take our rain jackets on and off as gentle rain alternates with bright sun.
Before we turn around to go back, we do an intuitive tracking exercise, trying to really feel the energy of an animal from a single track and predict with intuition, empathetic understanding, and maybe with experience, where it might have gone next and where we will find more tracks. As we gather up to dip our feet in a cool creek that crosses the trail, we talk about intuition, empathy, imagination, storytelling, vision. About why we care so much about what we are doing. About what it teaches us. We walk more quickly back along the trail to our canoes. I feel satiated and also inspired.
Tracking is like visiting a country where I can speak a different language. It takes practice, and the practice helps me build on what I already know, but in the practice is also the cultivation of relationships. My attention honours that which is around me; it honours both the reality of all the life that tells its own stories separately from mine, but also the connections between my self and all of these stories. It is a form of deep listening with all my senses. It is a form of empathy for all the creatures around me. I can practice this anywhere, but some experiences are more immersive than others. Here, I am on the land of these animals, the land of all of the humans that came here before me; I am this in my own city home as well, but here I aware of this in each moment.
I feel the grace and gratitude of being a visitor, a relation, a friend.
Thanks to Christina Yu, Sue Gulley and Lianna Vargas for photos!