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Outdoors/Adventure

Follow those tracks! How to be a detective during a walk through the snow.

I had some young teens out on a snowshoe trek just before Christmas. We came on some moose tracks.

A bear left prints in the snow on the Anchorage Hillside. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

“What kind of tracks?” I asked.

The speculations ran from rabbits through caribou and finally moose.

“How many”? I queried.

No one knew.

Here were a half-dozen kids living in Alaska having trouble identifying the track of one of our most common animals. Why, when I was a kid, all of the boys and most of the girls could have closed their eyes and answered my questions by touch.

Tracking is a fast-disappearing skill. There are some hunters who can identify types of tracks, but there are far fewer these days who have the ability to decipher more information than that.

Trappers usually have better skills. Their livelihood depends on it. A couple years ago I was looking at a website for a tracking school in the eastern United States. The instructor advertised that he would teach how to tell a male fox track from that of a female. The site invited comments and several of the remarks pooh-poohed that claim.

Honestly, how could someone who couldn’t distinguish between male and female teach tracking? Tracking involves far more than looking at an individual spoor, or scent. In the case of the fox, the easy way would be to follow the track until the animal pees. The sex of the animal gets more plain then.

As for the moose tracks I mentioned earlier, if you looked 50 feet down the trail there was a spot where it was obvious two animals had separated to feed. Also unmistakable was the difference in track size, indicating we were looking at the tracks of a cow and calf.

There are easy physical clues that can give us mechanical characteristics of the animal or person we are following. However, real tracking can be defined another way. A track is a string that is connected to a being that is moving and existing ahead of us. Its movement is still within that track. As we follow a track, our awareness of the animal or person expands and we can feel the influences of the environment.

That is the essence of tracking. Sure, you might say, but how many folks have that kind of woods experience? What you’re telling me seems like a foreign language.

OK. We all know people pretty well. Let me tell a story about deciphering a couple sets of ski tracks the kids and I came across.

One skier was wearing telemark skis and the other nordic. The skiers were together, indicated by the tracks crossing and recrossing each other, or alternating. The tracks were in powder, both settling to almost the same depth. That indicated that the nordic skier was lighter than the telemark guy.

Did I say guy? Yes. The deduction, after a mile of tracking, was that Telemark was a man and Nordic was a woman. She mostly followed, but occasionally came alongside and stopped to talk. Another inference was that this was a girlfriend, not a wife — a wife would insist on having her own set of telemark skis. The tracks were made Dec. 24. That reinforced the girlfriend idea: no kids. A husband and wife are not going to go skiing without the kids on Christmas Eve.

These folks were good skiers, in pretty good shape. They went three miles without any substantial breaks, through decent powder. We called the guy 35 and 180 pounds. The woman we thought to be 28 and 130 pounds. Based on the length of the strides, we placed their heights at 6 feet and 5-foot-8. Telemark was determined to be right-handed and Nordic a lefty. That was based on their lead ski when they skied an incline.

Admittedly, as a group, we took a lot of guesses based on marginal clues. This is the base work of following any real track, the connecting string which lets us into the awareness of the critter we track, be it man or beast. Another hour or two along the tracks might have reinforced some of our surmises, or caused us to discard them. However, luck was on our side. We caught the skiers at the base of a glacier where they were taking photos.

The kids were ecstatic to find that our suppositions were very close. Our weights were off but the differences were close. There was a 35-pound difference in weight instead of 50. We had the age of the woman wrong — she was 24, he was 34. The rest of the stuff we had right.

Lucky? Somewhat. But there was a logical starting point to everything we deduced.

You don’t need to be an expert tracker to have fun tracking in the snow. Follow some tracks. Make your best guesses. Make some mistakes. If you never make a mistake, there is nothing to correct and nothing to learn from.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskans who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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