Red Earth Tracking

This is the land of my birth, a place sacred to many people, a land that became the end place for so many who had their own land taken from them. Oklahoma means “red people”, a term created by some of the first tribes to be relocated here on forced death marches by U.S. Government “treaties” promising new land and no white settlers. The red sandstone was made famous by a human induced ecological collapse in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Indian reservations were eventually subdivided and given away in an 1889 Land Rush. Through all this abusive human history, the soil remains red and sacred, holding many secrets and lessons for those who stop, look, listen, and feel. This landscape of scrub oak, juniper invasion, cottonwood whispers, and rugged cacti strewn hills has always been a place of great exploring for me. As a child I would find and follow great tracks of what I thought were wolves- but really domestic dogs chasing after deer or other wildlife like the rabbit- tracks pictured below.

The fine red sand catches track patterns with amazing clarity, and our sunny days cast perfect shadows in the prints for human eyes to see. With such perfect substrate, anything moving across the landscape leaves a strong mark on the ground to follow. You’ll see details in a track not often found, which makes identifying the species mush easier- most of the time. Road tracking is always helpful when you’re learning. You can look at a trail for a long way and learn more about an animal’s gait. There’s also an art to how you walk around while you look for and study tracks. Beginners often end up walking over a trail several times, wiping out much of the sign with new, human-made tracks. The road lets you see a trail from a distance and helps you stay off the trail while you track. Walking in the tire treads is the best way to follow a trail.

On a November morning in Western Oklahoma, I visited a very special box canyon I’ve been exploring since about five years old. My Dad used to spend a lot of time at pup-jacks, which were usually located in rural landscapes, firing like continuous Harley Motorcycle backfires, which the machines get their name from, were not welcome near any neighborhood. At this drilling location, where the box canyon coiled quietly like the waiting snakes within, the echoes of machine chaos were dampened by towering bur oak, sugar maple, cottonwood, and black walnut canopy- to name a few species of trees in this off the hook ecosystem. It speaks strongly to the original Caddo people living here and tending the area. They formed a deep relationship with this land and still continue traditional spiritual and cultural rights in the area. Their ancestors cultivated good larders of abundant nuts trees and medical herbs. They hunted animals like deer, bear, and elk for meat, clothing, medicine, and other useful materials like larger bones and antlers for tools.

Meleagris gallopavo, and maybe- Centruroides vittatus (left)

All of these animals still wander Western Oklahoma, but some, like elk have been hunted by colonial descendants, into near extinction. Some how, this amazing canyon avoided major colonial disruption. The trees are ancient, remaining a cathedral of towering majesty and ancient girth. You really don’t see trees like this in Oklahoma, outside an arboretum or centennial neighborhoods in established towns where a few token oaks might stand. Often times, it is the violent wind storms, not people, that fell old trees. In these canyons, the forest remains sheltered by high sandstone walls. Tornadoes cannot form or enter these crevices in the earth, allowing these wonderful trees a chance at old growth. Throughout much of the rest of this state, the ground is scoured continuously by the winds, and most of the shrubby vegetation leans north westward in a permanent bend against seasonal gales.

open hill country with juniper, oak, and tall grasses

Out on the exposed plain, there is still an active landscape with many tracks to follow. Smaller animals are just as fun to track as larger mammals, even more of a challenge in some cases. Insects are very mysterious, but there are some great tracking guides to help to unscramble the cryptic shapes on the ground. There’s also a simple method of narrowing the list of potential species using the tracking funnel. Start with your location and what lives there, then focus on the specific ecology of the place, you would not find a water species in a wind swept desert plain, then look at the tracks themselves and think of size. These mouse tracks below are so small, we know a larger mammal did not make them. These are some of the steps to helping you discover who came through.

The other question to ask yourself is why. What has drawn the animal through the area? Wild creatures are moving towards or away from something, never on a flippant wander for the heck of it. They might be heading for cover, trying to reach a mate, fleeing a predator threat, or most likely seeking food or water. The best way to answer these questions it to follow it out- as in, follow the tracks as far as you can to seek where they went and find out why. This is where the art of tracking really kicks in. You may think following the tracks is easy, you can see them now, but as the substrate changes, the tracks change too. What if you follow them into a rocky escarpment without any sand or mud to see the prints in? What if you loose them in a mess of other tracks? Circle around the obstruction and look for a trail leaving the area, you might be able to pick up the trail further along. If all this trailing seems daunting, take a deep breath and remember that tracking is very personal. You only have to follow it out as far as you wish. Keep it light and fun!

Our eyes cannot always know what to see. The brain works from a catalogue of vocabulary and shape, forming the code before us in visual light and color, texture and form. This action of interpretation takes a lot of brain power, especially when it’s working with less familiar or completely foreign materials. The process of tracking takes a lot of pattern recognition. Even when the shapes and terrain are familiar, the movements are always different in some way, like the individuals who make them, and you’ll find as you track, you become exhausted after a few hours and want to take a nap. With practice, the mind becomes more supple to the practice, and eventually, an afternoon of tracking and trailing will be possible, but start slow- short stints, a walk down a dirt road for a half hour or trailing one animal through easy to read substrate keep most beginners engaged. If tracking becomes a chore, you’ll not enjoy it, and quickly shut down.

Let’s take a moment to practice our sight skills by studying the picture below. Here’s what I’m thinking through as I study the picture- The picture was taken in Caddo County, Western Oklahoma. This is an old oil rig road with trucked in gravel which has almost all been covered with red sandstone and clay substrate. The road is on an east facing, wind swept hillside with surrounding tall grass, sporadic juniper and oak, with a few cotton woods- telling me the area does have water. In fact, there are two catchment ponds within a quarter mile. This area also hosts a network of small canyons filled with good leaf litter from oaks, protected form the wind. They do sometimes flood with storm water during heavy rain events, which are rare in November, the time this picture was taken.

Now, how many different tracks are in the picture? Let’s start with the two most obvious to me. Quick story: I was out on a walk with my partner when I took this photo. He’s new to tracking, but very perceptive, and he was the one who called my attention too these tracks. I had passed over them, as I thought I only saw the coyote print, and blew off the other shapes in the sand as wind blown grasses, a common texture you’ll see around the base of longer grasses in a wind prone area. However, if you take a moment to really study this frame, you’ll see that there is little to no long grass in the picture- we’re on an established road, compaction from long term use, and gravel have made it hard for the sod to return. I think the light and shadow also hindered my tracking sight, the dappled light comes from a cotton wood tree above. So who made the swishing, swooshing, slithering shape across thee road? A snake! My partner had picked out the snake track and I walked right passed it.

Every set of eyes in tracking count, never underestimate a beginner, the sight, the ability to see shapes of animals moving across the landscape resides deeply within all people. I watched my friend’s 1 1/2 year old son toddling along pointing out horse and dog tracks in the mud along a well used trail yesterday. No one had pointed them out to him, or even suggested he look for them at all. It was in his DNA to see the trail and shapes, then follow them. Amazing instinct, we’re meant to see this way and move through the landscape following, it’s part of why we walk on two legs. Tracking is deep folks, worth your time. So back to this picture- we have a coyote- or is it a domestic dog? Or a cat? A bobcat? Cougar? Size matters, this track is too small to be a cougar, but is it a cat? I said Coyote right off the bat, and I knew that because of the oval shape of the paw, it’s tight formation, and a lack of registering claw marks. There are probably claw mark there if I look hard, but they will be small pin holes on the ground, much like a cat, but nothing like the huge honkin nails of a dog.

Dog tracks are also all over the place, as pets are fed a good predictable diet, lending them a lot of energy to romp around and play. Wild dogs are hustling all the time to survive. They store energy by moving in direct lines with little wandering. This profile of coyote has grown in my memory over time, and this animal is common across North America, so I see the tracks often. Domestic dog is even more common, so I have that shape dialed in too. Cat is a little more tricky, and I have been known to see cat tracks in canine tracks more than once. But there’s something rather clear in feline and canine tracks which sets them apart; symmetry. The dog and coyote tracks are mirror images when you draw a line through the center of the paw. Domestic and wild felines are asymmetrical, meaning the toes are more offset, leaving no mirror image when you try to draw a line through them.

There is a lot more going on in the picture above, but in the end much of it is speculation, because in tracking, unless you see the animal as its making the marks in the ground, you are only guessing at what happened and who was involved- granted, it’s an educated guess, but there are a lot of assumptions made in tracking, so recognize you are writing a troy about what you think might have happened, and purposing a situation based on experience. That’s why it’s great to track with others. As a group, you have more perspective, more conjecture, and more critical thinking, as well as multiple sets of eyes. Traditionally, people hunt in groups to increase success. Tracking today does not have ot be about hunting, but it will come in handy when you are on a landscape and exploring. Tracking goes well beyond the animals, you also see plants, terrain, resources, weather, habitat, ecological indicators, and become more intimate with the land as you traverse it. No matter how deeply you choose to engage, the magic of tracks and sign continues to inspire all who take the time to look a little bit closer at the world around them.

Didelphis virginiana -to name one in this collage of activity

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