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.

Creating habits of awareness: or why I’m spending so much time on tracking journals

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I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working on tracking journals. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been involved in a tracking apprenticeship program through Earth Tracks Outdoor School. The year before – having  developed a deep curiosity about plants, especially their edible and medicinal uses – I’d signed up for a wild plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. I signed up impulsively, but with an instinct I trusted. I had taken a couple of workshops with Alexis and had a really good feeling about his teaching style. I knew I wanted more grounded knowledge of ecology and nature. After many years of education, I was suddenly stunned by my own ignorance about the natural world. I wanted to zoom in on things, see the details, really know what was around me. I wanted to be outside all day, learning cool stuff.

The monthly commitment felt daring and kind of improbable – my younger child was only three, and we had rarely been apart. But sometimes I set my mind to something, and I can’t turn back.

From the first weekend, the time and space and all-day immersion in nature tapped into to something that I had been longing for. As the eight-month plant apprenticeship wound down, I wanted to continue learning in exactly this way. I found out that Alexis was offering a ten-month tracking program, which would start just a week after the plant course finished. As we drove back and forth together the last months of the course, my new friend Lee and I gradually talked each other into it. It was a leap of faith, because at that time I knew little about tracking, but it also felt right, because I knew how much the weekends had nourished me the previous year. I knew also that in nature nothing is separate. Tracking was connected to a huge web of naturalist learning that I wanted to dig into. And I also felt, in a way, that a wave was carrying me that I couldn’t really stop. And didn’t want to.

Now, I am in the second year of tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. Along with a couple of others, I’m participating in a pilot second year program in a work/trade role. I’ve also practiced tracking in other contexts over the same period, in the midst of homeschooling my kids and other responsibilities: a week-long immersion course in Algonquin Park run by Earth Tracks and White Pine Programs; helping run a monthly drop-in tracking program for the PINE Project; and time on my own when possible. And now, I’m also working my way through lots and lots of tracking journals. The ones we use for the apprenticeship are based on the Shikari template, with two pages of more reflective questions added by Alexis. Each journal is six pages long in total, and completing one involves mapping, sketching, measurement, weather observations, ecological observations, species research, observations on one’s own patterns and gaps, and reflection on the more intuitive and personal aspects of tracking. Another set of journal pages, also part of the homework, are focused on species research and field observation. With these, I was initially a bit fixated on making them “complete” and now I’d like to work on making them shorter and more concise instead.

On top of all that are ecological mapping exercises, seasonal nature observations, and tracking exercises of various kinds. Whew! It’s going to take me a while to get through it all. But as with so many things, I’m finding that as I make a habit of it, I’m drawn further in. I’m learning to love my tracking journals, picking away at the homework bit by bit each day. And doing this kind of recording, questioning and puzzle-solving is reinforcing the experiential naturalist learning I’ve been doing the past couple of years. This is field research, but it’s not detached. It’s detailed, but it’s also personal and reflective and connecting. In the past, most of the academic work I did involved writing and more writing: long essays about patterns and theories. I liked making leaps of intuition; I avoided methodical work. This uses a different part of my brain, one which needs to be present to the details. Slowly I can see that paying close attention and recording observations is training me to see better. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I’ve realized that this kind of learning is a life-long commitment.

Here are some more (non-matching) example of individual journal pages. Some of these are finished, some are not quite. They are teaching me the importance of just showing up and doing the work, of slowly bringing small pieces together into something substantial, of creating methodical habits that over time create big changes of perspective.roe deer journal page

allan park map journal pagesnowshoe hare journal pageracoon species journal

muskrat personal reflections journal page

tracking binder on kitchen table

Moose and wolves and bears, oh my! Summer tracking in Algonquin Park.

I spent last weekend in Algonquin Park, staying at the Wildlife Research Station by Lake Sasajewun. I was there as part of a 10-month, one-weekend-per month, tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks that I’m doing for the second year in a row, this time as part of a pilot second-year program in a work-trade supporting role. The past few months I’ve been helping to write up detailed stories of our days for the Earth Tracks blog. This month my two fellow second-year apprentices took on that task for the entire weekend. So I’ll take share a few of my highlights here, without feeling any need to be comprehensive, and without giving away anything like all of the weekend’s stories.  And I’ll share some photos, to balance out all of the writing – the inner tracking – I’ve been sharing recently.

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Blueberries are in season. Even if we hadn’t seen any bushes, we would know, because everything is eating them. And mostly they don’t get chewed or digested very well. We came across blueberry scats of all shapes and sizes. Also, sarsaparilla berries in scat – a good mystery that took us most of the day to identify. The clue was their D-shaped seeds. Yes, we do spend a lot of time poking apart animal poop with sticks. But it’s such a wealth of information. Coins, while not much use in the woods, are always useful for scale.

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My hand inside a black bear track. There’s something very powerful about putting your hands inside the track of a huge animal like a bear. This track was hard to photograph on its own. A vague shape in the moss caught our eyes, but it was putting my fingers inside it that gave me the jolt of identification. My fingers fit so neatly into the impressions of the bear’s toes. The moss was soft on my hand and I could imagine the spring of it under the bear’s feet. Tracking by feel is surprisingly effective in debris like leaf litter and pine needles, especially with a heavy animal like a bear or moose, or one with sharp-edged tracks, like a moose or deer. Also, it’s exhilarating to take in information through non-dominant senses.

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Blissfully cool and beautiful water on a blazing, hot August day. Algonquin Park reminds me of why we gave our older son his name, Lachlan: “from the land of lakes”.

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We found huge old moose bones half-buried in the ground, just starting to decompose back into the earth. This is the pelvis. I find the pelvic bone strangely beautiful. I can imagine long ago – or not even so long – in a time and place where everything had a use, these bones being used as masks or fulfilling another ceremonial function. They are gracefully but solidly sculptural, and hold the residual power of reproduction and birth. 

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Saturday after dinner, we went for a sunset paddle on Lake Sasajewun. The lake was still and the sky clear. It was the night of the August full moon, the “super moon”. My camera never does justice to a photograph of the full moon – oh, I try, believe me!  It never looks anything as spectacular and huge as it does in real life.  But here is the sky to the west instead.  Ohhhh….  We paddled to the north end of the lake, watching beavers and herons, peering into the trees for a glimpse of the moose and bear and wolf we had tracked earlier in the day. As the sky darkened fully, we paddled back south and rafted up in the middle of the lake for a glorious wolf howl. The wolves didn’t howl back… not this time. But they sometimes do.

So many more stories and mysteries from the next day. But I’ll leave it at that. Check out the Earth Tracks blog for more.

Grateful for these wild spaces and the creatures who inhabit them. Grateful that I’ve had the space and support in the past few years to take part in these adventures, and to bring these stories back with me.

The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part Two)

The first part of this post is The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part One).

Some time last year or the year before, I dipped in and out of a book called Spiritual Ecology: the Cry of the Earth. It was a collection of essays and interviews, and I found it wildly inspiring. One of the pieces was an interview with someone named Sister Miriam MacGillis. I don’t know much about her. But I love what she said:

Typically the religious meanings we hold are still based on our separation from nature – the pursuit of God is equally separated from nature – and so they do not bring us to truly reverence nature. We don’t go out into our backyard and kneel down before the soil and know that we are in the face of sacred mystery.

She went on to say that Western religions, although they have explored the sacred in other realms, have never fully explored the spirituality of the natural world. And then she went on to say – and this is what has stayed with me and what I keep turning around in my mind – that if you see the Universe “as the process by which God created”, then the Universe becomes “a primary sacred scripture.”

Whether my view of God – which is vague and questioning and uncertain – matches hers, doesn’t matter to me right now (one of my only strong views about spirituality has always been the less certainty, the more openness, the better). What I’m holding on to is the idea of the Earth – in all its earthy beauty and messiness – as the primary sacred text. It captured my imagination. It fit beautifully into what I saw emerging for me in my own life. The sacred is here, not out there. Not a new idea – a very ancient one. One that bears revisiting.

I see that our responsibility, as humans, is to pay attention to the Earth with our whole selves: to read, to witness, to trace the connections between one being and another; to study each tree, plant, track, bird, insect; to connect the web of influences. It’s the closest thing to a spiritual creed that I’ve approached in the more than twenty years that I stopped identifying as Catholic, a part of me that lay fallow for most of those years. I’ve so long been cagey on the subject of belief, it’s like opening that proverbial kettle of fish. It’s where I am right now.

I see that part of reading the Earth is learning facts and information. Those are useful; they can be crucial. They are what accumulate from time spent immersed in the natural world, wherever we live. We need to see the details. We need our relationships to be grounded and specific. We need to know, practically, how we can steward the land. We need to know what animals live around us, what plants, what trees; what was here in the past and could be here again. We need to be in relationship. We can’t care for nature unless we know it intimately. We need to actually know what is here.

But I’m also learning that some reading I need to do with my heart. I read the text, but I want to read behind the text. I find that symbols and metaphors bring me into deeper relationships.

I don’t think looking for symbols is naïve or superstitious. Perhaps it can be, if it’s without context. But it can also offer another, very rich, layer of understanding.

Each animal I form a relationship with, each plant and tree, has a story to tell. When I see how they connect to my own story, my relationship with them deepens. If I repeatedly see deer and start to ask and read about what meaning deer could hold, I learn that one of the qualities people have traditionally connected with deer is gentleness. Not pushing, not forcing things. I find this reminder to have a lot of relevance to my life right now. I also see grace, awareness, finely tuned senses, speed, the ability to suddenly change direction. Can I develop these qualities in myself?

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I sit with the images I uncover; my intuition pulls me towards the symbolism that has meaning for me. Discovering that meaning becomes part of my relationship with the deer, along with factual knowledge about their tracks, feeding patterns, mating behaviour, habitat. Along with what I know about deer in general and about the particular deer I encounter. Each creature is a mentor.

I’m finding that hearing the stories of the Earth means listening carefully for the metaphors. Being able to hear the stories in a personal way creates personal relationships. When we believe that everything around us has the potential to speak to us, to tell us a story and to become part of our story, we are held in a web of relationships and of responsibility. This is not human-centered narcissism; it’s the most ancient way of connecting to the Earth in all of its intricacy, one which all of our ancestors at one point or another shared.

To open myself up to the possibility of dialogue with everything in the world has been transformative for me. It has helped me fit different parts of my life together that previously seemed disconnected. It has helped me see that each of our stories holds a richness of meaning way beyond the human details of our lives. I has helped me know that I am never alone.

I live half way between two rivers. They are real and specific. They have a history; they are part of a watershed; their health or lack of it is an indicator of the health of their ecosystem; their health foretells our health.

And I live between other rivers, less tangible, and equally full of possibilities.

The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part One)

In the middle of learning to use wordpress, I accidentally deleted this post. A friend was able to recover it for me. I was grateful to have the text back, but I also realized I was relieved at the erasure. I needed more time to sort out what I wanted to say here. I wrote this after my sister asked me whether “these rivers” were real or metaphorical, but I’ve been thinking about if for some time. My husband, who is always my “first reader,” was quite sure that this piece naturally breaks into two parts. So here is Part One, which is far shorter than Part Two.

I live half way between two rivers in Toronto, right inside the former shoreline of an ancient glacial lake. If you were to portage a canoe along Davenport Road from the Humber to the Don River – which would take you about four hours, and which is what the original inhabitants of this land might have done on this very route – you could stop at my house for lunch.

I’ve lived in this area for about fifteen years. First just north of the ancient shoreline, now south.

I like to know these stories of the landscape of the place I live in. It makes me feel part of the pattern, part of the stories that the land around me holds.

Years ago, I studied literature. What I was good at was reading texts closely and finding the hidden patterns: following clues to what wasn’t being said; reading between the lines; intuiting the subtext; tracking the story behind the story.

More recently, in the last three years or so, I’ve been learning about animal tracking, about plants, about the language of birds. I’m not as good at tracking as I was at interpreting human texts; not yet; not by a long shot. It’s an uphill battle in so many ways: I live in a big city; this learning is hard and sometimes feels infinite; my daily life holds many other roles and responsibilities; the world is immersed in pressing problems. How do I even make it fit?

And yet, I’m determined to keep working at it. Something about tracking keeps drawing me in. It feels worth struggling for. Because following tracks and signs of animals across a landscape is the oldest and deepest form of reading. Reading in a way that engages all of the senses and body. Reading in a language beyond the human. Reading which, until recently, was at the heart of human survival.

I want to understand the stories of the world around me. I don’t want to talk about ecology, from a distance. I’m tired of theory, of detachment. I want the story behind the story, straight from the source.