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HomeTechniquesTracking Box

Layer Cake Tracking and Other Treats - Part 1

Brandt Morgan and the Pacific Northwest Tracker Association

Reading the ground is a skill that can open up worlds of joy and understanding. But, as Tom often says, there is no easy way to learn. That's why our Tracker Association members are always on the lookout for things that will make tracking more fun. At Buck Creek in November, Tom passed on some new tracking methods that are both fun and fascinating - things you can do in your own back yard, basement, or even breakfast nook.. We're eager to pass them on to you. We hope you'll try them out, enjoy them, and learn from them as much as we are.

The Extended Tracking Box

Dig, fluff up, and smooth out a 4x20-foot area (smaller or larger as space permits). Or construct a box in your basement and fill it one foot deep with wet sand. Then take turns with friends making track patterns and trying to read them. One person might simply walk. Another might limp or kneel to tie a shoe. A third might turn to look back as he walks, or stumble and fall. When Tom first demonstrated this for us, the simplest actions seemed to create impossibly complex patterns. But deciphering them was downright exciting.

The most effective method, Tom says, is to give each person a chance to interpret what he sees while the others stand back and weigh the evidence. Try to stay quiet. Allow the message of the tracks to sink in slowly without a barrage of sounds. Get a feeling of uniqueness about each track. Ask yourself why it is like no other. Don't guess, and don't go on to the second track until you've thoroughly studied the first one. (To avoid the almost irresistible temptation to jump ahead, we've found it useful to cover all but one track with a piece of opaque material.) Get down and scrutinize the track. Look at it from six different angles, describing the disturbances and pressure releases. Look through a magnifying glass at the caverns, cliffs, and other formations in the footscape. Then, after the mystery of each track has been unveiled, try to tie the pattern together. Finally, have someone re-enact the pattern just as It was originally made.

Tom told us there are about 20 classic track patterns in the woods and that once you are familiar with them it's much easier to read the variations. You might try to see how many of these patterns you can discover on your own. But you needn't limit your study to human track patterns. Have your dog or cat pad across the box. Rent a raccoon, parrot, or goldfish. Entice squirrels and other critters into scratching out their signatures. All your study will add up and be stored in your subconscious for ready reference when you need it.

Coffee Cup Tracking

If you're a frustrated tracker who is stuck at a desk job or cramped in the confines of a hotel room, bus, or plane, try a dose of CCT. Coffee Cup Tracking is living proof that you can practice tracking anywhere, anytime--if you're willing to risk a little ridicule (and most trackers are).

All you need is a coffee cup or other small container and a few handfuls of fine wet sand. Fill the cup to the brim with sand, smooth it over with your fingers, and pretend that your thumb is your foot. Sounds crazy doesn't it? The point is, you can create the same general effects with your thumb as with almost any foot, hand, or hoof. You can walk, turn, jump, stomp, rock, twist, teeter, back up, push off, and generally cause a real tempest in a teacup.

First, make a simple thumbprint in the sand. With coffee cup tracking, you can look at the track from any angle and completely control your lighting conditions by simply turning or lifting the cup. Go through the same procedures you used for the tracking box, but in even more detail. Look at the track, feel it, draw it. Get your eye right next to those individual sand grains. Peer through a magnifying glass and count the boulders knocked out of place. Become so familiar with the track that you can see it in fine detail even when you close your eyes.

Now try another thumbprint--this time turning your thumb a little to the left, before lifting it out, just as you might pivot your foot to look behind you. See how the sand mounds up to the front left and rear right? That's the classic pattern of any animal turning left. If you turn your thumb quickly enough, your movement will even create crevasses around the print. Study these to see which way they're trending and how far out they extend. The more you go into detail here, the more the pattern will imprint itself into your mind. And the more you learn from CCT, the more you'll want to experiment with it. We caution you, however, that CCT can be addicting. You'll know you're hooked when the waitress asks you for your order and you say, "Just a cup of sand, please."

To get you started, here are some classic pressure releases Tom suggested to practice and memorize.

From The Tracker magazine, February 1982, published by the Tracker School.
For more articles from The Tracker magazine, visit the Tracker Trail website