If you come across a pile of fishscales on a riverbank, you have found the scat of a river otter.
The tracks of dogs — coyotes, foxes, and domestic dogs — are symmetrical, but cat tracks have a longer toe on one side.
As an intermediate tracker who spent a couple of winters obsessed with animal tracks in the snow, I expected Greg Perantoni’s presentation on the Art of Tracking at the Comeau Property in Woodstock to be ho-hum kid stuff. Instead, I learned a number of fascinating details, like those above, and was inspired by Perantoni’s passion for his subject.
The tracking expedition was one of a series of free classes offered by the Woodstock Land Conservancy on the first Saturday of each month, all of them held on parcels of land protected by the conservancy. About 20 people showed up on February 2, despite temperatures in the 20s. Although there was little snow on the ground, Perantoni found plenty of signs in the sand along the Sawkill Creek.
We started by examining the most plentiful tracks, which consisted of human and dog prints, since the Comeau is a favorite dog-walking spot. “Let’s talk about humans,” said Perantoni. “The first tracking book I ever read was by the border patrol in the Southwest.” Seeking illegal immigrants had given the authors deep insights into tracking, including knowledge that is also useful for finding people lost in the mountains.
“If you’re searching for someone, and you have a boot print, draw the pattern to get it in your mind,” advised Perantoni, as we looked at the assortment of boot tracks in the sand. “Then you will recognize it later on.”
Tracks tell stories, he said, pointing out the small boot print of a child. Nearby was the “X” of ice-gripping cleats that someone had attached to their shoes. “Either this is a very cautious person, or it was icy on the trails that day,” he observed.
An important criterion in tracking is the length of the subject’s stride. Human strides are measured from the heel of one track to the heel of the next. “People no longer walk on the balls of their feet, which helped native people sense what was underfoot,” Perantoni explained. “We set our heels down hardest, so we measure people from heel to heel. But we measure animals from toe to toe.”
If the tracks are incomplete, the length of stride and the width of trail give clues to the animal’s identity. Tracking books list average stride lengths and widths of different species, so a modern tracker’s most useful tool is a tape measure.
Perantoni got down on his hands and knees to demonstrate the concept of track patterns. “Raccoons move both legs on one side of the body at the same time,” he said, shifting his right hand and knee forward. “That makes the front foot of the second stride land next to the back foot of the first stride.” He planted left hand and knee to show the relationship of the tracks. “So you get a pattern of alternating back-and-front tracks, side by side.”
He explained the difference between the track patterns of domestic dogs and their wild relatives. “When you’re tracking a fox or coyote, there’s a feeling of purpose. They’re out to find food, not play. They will go for miles at a consistent trot, which is their normal gait. You can see, these guys mean business.” A domestic dog, on the other hand, runs from place to place, investigating various smells, rarely following a straight line.
“It teaches you something about the animal when you follow a fox or coyote a long way, and they don’t find anything to eat,” commented Perantoni. “I’ll follow a trail for an hour, I’m getting tired, and this guy hasn’t eaten yet.”
The class fanned out along the sandy flat alongside the creek to look for other tracks. We found a few scratchy little squirrel prints, a few deer tracks. Perantoni again got down on the sand to show how deer walk, with the rear foot falling precisely into the track of the front foot on the same side. Because deer have larger feet in front than behind, supporting a large chest cavity, the double outline is sometimes Perantoni described a tracking expedition some years ago when a friend’s daughter had asked him to find her some feathers to make earrings. They didn’t expect to find feathers in the dead of winter, but one tracker noticed the tip of a feather sticking out of the snow. They dug into the snow and found a wild turkey that had been buried by a fox as a cache for future meals. The father took a handful of feathers for his daughter, and they re-buried the turkey.
Perhaps the most useful information Perantoni provided was his observation that tracking isn’t just about footprints. “We’re so dependent on our sense of sight, but when you’re out in nature, you’ll get a lot more out it if you use your sense of hearing and smell. It’s also good to learn to use your wide-angle vision. I try to do this all the time. Be aware, not just of what’s right in front of you, but what’s in your peripheral vision, on the sides, above and below. You will notice so much more.”