Everything I know about tracking I learned from Rolf In The Woods, by Ernest Thompson Seton, who as well as being a naturalist and writer was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. The book was among the contents of the single bookcase that made up the library in our small country schoolhouse, and I read it several times. Still, my ability to decipher the secrets of wild animals by the tracks they leave behind is limited at best.
Even so, going for walks along the gravel road that leads to my parents’ house, I sometimes notice clues about who has been out and about. Especially, like the other morning, when it has just rained.
That day, I could see that several deer had been out even earlier than I was. Maybe, unlike some people, they hadn’t taken time for a cup of coffee first. Two or three of them had meandered in and out of the ditch, crossing and recrossing the road. A doe and fawn had taken the same route I was walking, leaving parallel sets of tracks for a quarter of a mile. The doe’s dainty hoof prints made a straight line along the edge of the road. The fawn’s delicate little toe marks showed it had walked on one side of mom for a while, then on the other, and sometimes it had wandered off to the middle of the road. I could easily imagine her flicking her ears and looking back to remind it to stay close. I was pretty sure they were whitetails. Not from the tracks, though Ernest probably would have been able to tell, but from the fact that I had seen a whitetail doe along the same stretch of road the day before.
Checking out the machine shed near the house, I could see clear tracks in the soft dirt of the floor. I recognized them immediately as porcupine tracks that were about 24 hours old. You can attribute this to my superior tracking skills if you like. In fact, I really wish you would.
It’s possible, though, that my conclusion may have been based on the coincidental fact that the previous morning, as we sat at the breakfast table, we had seen the actual porcupine. My mother first spotted it as it went into the machine shed, silhouetted against the morning sun that turned its long fur and quills into a spiky halo.
Apparently it didn’t find whatever or whomever it was looking for in the building, as it came out a minute or so later. Supposedly these animals move slowly, but this one headed across the yard at a brisk pace like a porcupine with a purpose. It waddle-marched across the driveway and past the porch, paying no attention to the mere humans when we went to the door to look at it. It made its way around to the back yard and disappeared into the windbreak trees behind the house. We never saw it again, but at least now I know what porcupine tracks look like.
On my way back to the house, moving with purpose myself because it was time for breakfast, I came across some odd marks in the gravel. They almost looked like ripples. One of the things Ernest neglected to mention is that gravel, even wet gravel, doesn’t take tracks very well, so I couldn’t be sure. I wondered briefly whether they might mark a place where a hawk had swooped low after a cottontail or mouse.
Then I saw more of the odd marks and realized they seemed to follow the road. Looking more closely, I figured out what they were. They marked the passage of a bipedal brown-eyed perambulator.
I was looking at my own tracks. Ernest would not have been proud.