|Dr. Jim Halfpenny|
“Never forget the trail, look ever for the track in the snow; it is the priceless, unimpeachable record of the creature’s life and thought, in the oldest writing known on the earth.” Ernest Thompson Seton, Mammal Tracks and Sign
Tracking and reading animal signs and the stories they can tell has always been something I've been interested in. Tracks can easily distract me from my other persuasions like skiing, mountain biking or hiking. But keeping an eye on the ground and not taking for granted the signs animals leave behind is really a part of those sports as well. When word reached me that Dr. Jim Halfpenny, professional tracker, carnivore ecologist and author would be teaching a course in Wisconsin, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more.
Dr. Halfpenny describes himself as a “scientist and educator who specializes in carnivores, cold and tracking.” A love of those predators, especially bear and wolverine, and teaching others how to track and find other rare species is central to his life's work. Canada lynx, wolves, fishers and martin are other animals of special interest and ones we studied in our course. These mammals, along with cold, high altitude and arctic study, have taken him to seven continents-to call him an expert in these fields would be a gross understatement.
The class, offered at Treehaven Outdoor education center between Rhinelander and Tomahawk, was an intense, professional, no nonsense and comprehensive course on the subtitles of tracking and trailing. Participants in the seminar varied in background-some, like myself, desired certification for the Wisconsin Volunteer Wolf tracking program, others were there to refresh their skills and some just to learn more about tracking in general. From the get-go, it was conveyed that this was a professional level curriculum, the same as DNR personnel would be taking in the days following our tenure there.
Jim stressed quality in tracking and that trackers can be judged by the “dynamite test”- “that everything trackers do and practice must be TnT!-testable and teachable.” As Seton describes the trail as the oldest writing on earth, Halfpenny also added tracking as the oldest profession on earth, contrary to some common opinions. The second oldest profession needed to be paid by successful hunters who, of course had to be skilled trackers. These trackers Halfpenny describes as “naturalists and scientists,” who had to become skilled at identifying and following tracks. If they formed the correct hypothesis to test (of an animal to eat) then they were well fed. If not, as Jim would comment to us, “then their genes are not sitting in this room.”
“The ideal attitude of the tracker is that of a detective. One of the reasons I love to read Sherlock Holmes is that he thinks like a tracker. He lets nothing go unexamined. He is constantly observing, sifting through facts and evidence, piecing puzzles together, solving mysteries.” Tom Brown Jr., Nature Observation and Tracking
Halfpenny mirrored this idea as well-that good tracking is like the CSI of the animal world. Tracks, sign and gait, all clues, need to be looked at and collected as quality evidence in order to make a hypothesis. “I-E-R” ...what is Important, collect Evidence and Review. That review may change the hypothesis, and one should be careful not to hold on to one theory too tightly, but be accepting of where the evidence leads you. He presented illustrations of how this progression can work and when conclusions need to be changed. An example might go something like this when a slightly old track is found. “Ahh, 4 toes, kinda rounded shape- must be a cougar!” Fresher snow later clarifies the track showing now 5 toes”-large track, five toes front, 4 hind, claws showing, nope, must be a bear!” Still more evidence indicates a chevron shaped interdigital pad. “No, not a bear,.... large, claws, 5 toes front, 4 toes rear, chevron shaped pad-a wolverine!” Jim used a much more detailed example than this, perhaps based on an actual case study.
Although I've tracked for fun for a long time, the subtle nuances of what to look for when trailing, of what the sign can tell us, was simply amazing in this course. Characteristics of tracks like toe number, claws showing or not, the shape of the interdigital pad, foot posture and gait, all can narrow down tracks into animal groups. We learned how small things like toe spacing or anterior lobe shape can differentiate between similar tracks. Halfpenny spent a good deal of time crawling on hands and knees demonstrating how animals move so we could interpret gait patterns in the snow. This knowledge, in turn, can provide clues as to what the animal is doing. A slight change in gait, where the front feet are in line with travel, can indicate where an animal is looking. Tracks indicating a walk, to trot to gallop, could be a clue that prey has been spotted. Fascinating data for the observant tracker.
Testing us, he positioned cards on the floor indicating front and hind feet, placing them in patterns and asking us to identify such things (in the example of a wolf) as the sex of the animal, it's hierarchy in the pack and time of year. In revealing the interpretations of these clues to us, my eyes were opened to some of these very signs I'd seen in the past, but didn't have the “vocabulary” for. It made me eager to get outside and explore and seek out some of the sentences these animals write in the snow.
In the days since returning from the program, I found myself really “seeing” more when outside. The fatbike trail, illuminated by my bike light, defined a “F4 h4C” track formula-one we learned meant that it was most likely in the dog family. It was rectangular and about 2 fingers wide-most likely a fox. Another, barely visible in the hard pack snow, revealed a “1x3x1” toe position, and “f5(4) H5(4)co print with a chevron pad, three fingers wide. Characteristics of a Fisher. It seemed now that I was aware of these clues, I was observing them everywhere while outdoors. My attention was pulled away from my riding and wanting to focus on the sign below the wheels.
The naming and classification of tracking is also crucial according to Halfpenny. Without a consistent vocabulary, it becomes very confusing and difficult to teach or learn. For instance, the above track formula is quite simple if one understands the language. “F” means front foot and capitalization indicates it's larger than “h,” the hind foot. “5” is the number of visible toes, although “(4)” means sometimes just four are. “co” implies claws often show while “C” stands for claws usually show. “1x3x1” labels the toe pattern having a space between toe 1 and 2 and between 4 and 5. A good indicator of an animal in the Mustelid or weasel family.
My notebook quickly filled it's pages with crude sketches of tracks (they were illustrated in his books, but I need to draw to reinforce them I guess), of gait patterns and average size of different animals strides. Scribbled terms like “transverse gallop", as opposed to “Roto-gallop", “ambles” and “pronks” along with “group” and “intergroup” was the jargon tossed about the room and during our field work to help understand trailing. Scat was looked at closely (in photographs) to just give us another visual sign in identification of species. Size, shape and what it contains can be a powerful tool in collecting hard evidence and confirming a hypothesis.
Outdoors, we had a chance to witness tracks and gaits actually being made. A young Labrador retriever was brought in to produce walking, loping, trotting and galloping patterns.Still being a pup at heart, she had some difficulty staying on task for the class, but did manage some top end speed, which was interesting and impressive to measure. With so much winter outdoor experience, Halfpenny revealed a world I hadn't known of in snow (and I love snow as well!). He taught how to spot the subtleties of a track in snow by the phases and anatomy of a track being made. The “ramp, “ floor,” “head wall” and “collar” of a print in snow can indicate direction of travel and it's age. The effects of long wave and short wave radiation (from the sun or surrounding forest) will change and metamorpihize tracks, enlarging or shrinking them in size. Understanding this process and the snow type is crucial in determining age and proper measurements of its size. Crawling under a nearby spruce, he also clued us in on finding “track traps” -places animals want to be and locations where a successful tracker can find prints.
Our field work also included casting tracks in snow-not the easiest process. A nearby creek bottom at Treehaven was a target rich location for tracks. After demonstrating the process of casting-spraying with snow wax, mixing of plaster, pouring and curing the plaster, we were off. Halfpenny charged us with finding different species, making the cast and meeting back for show and tell. A bobcat had searched the mostly frozen creek for prey and soon we had some clear tracks to cast. I found the process would take more practice for my water to powder ratio was off and my cast crumbly. Others returned with hare tracks, fisher, fox, red squirrel and deer.
Dr. Halfpenny had quite a collection of casts from his years of work, from martin to grizzly bear. Casts of a much better quality than ahhh... ours. I'd brought in a large wolf cast from a few years ago to share with him. On inspection he questioned me on the number of tracks in the cast. Confused, I sheepishly replied “one?” Nope, he pointed out an ever so slight change in the toe shapes, indicating a double register, two prints. My extra large wolf track was actually 2, something Jim said is common when inspecting unusually large tracks.
The weekend wrapped up with a presentation by Nate Libal from the Wisconsin DNR, who assists with the large carnivore program. He gave an overview of the Volunteer wolf tracking program and reviewed much of what we'd learned of tracking during the course. I was anxious to sign up and put to practical use some of the skills I'd learned. Trackers are required to take several 30 mile surveys during the winter in specific zones, record data, not only on wolves, but other carnivores as well and submit results to the DNR. Wisconsin has by far the largest and most extensive tracking program in the country collecting data.
“Snow Tracking Rare Species” with Dr. Halfpenny was everything I'd hoped it would be (and more). Finding and following tracks is one thing, but properly identifying them, reading what the animal is doing (or did) and knowing all the clues a tracker can collect to make a correct hypothesis is what I'd desired to learn and did. Now to put it all into practice!
“Trackers first observe tracks and trails as naturalists and classify what they see. From their observations, trackers formulate hypothesis and as scientists, test their hypothesis. Trackers, as practitioners, use their skills and knowledge in the field for their enjoyment and often to fill their stomachs. As teachers, trackers honestly pass on their knowledge to others.” -Dr. Jim Halfpenny