Even from 20 feet away, you can clearly see the claw marks. The beech tree’s smooth, silvery bark is scarred with hundreds of weathered lacerations, left by black bears that scrambled high into the upper canopy for food.
Thirteen tracking students gather around the pockmarked tree. Their instructor, Paul Rezendes, pulls out a tape measure from his day pack and locates a fresh set of marks. “This is a feeding tree — bears have been hitting this beech for many, many years,” he says as he measures the marks. “Four and three-quarter inches — that’s a good-size bear.
“But it’s not enough just to put a number and a label on these things,” he continues. “The bark of this beech records the passing of generations of bears, far into the past. Immerse yourself in the details of these claw marks, and you’ll start to understand the life of a bear.”
A magnificently skilled animal tracker, Rezendes, 56, is an internationally published nature photographer and the author of three books — Tracking & The Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign; Wetlands: The Web of Life (coauthored with his wife, Paulette Roy); and The Wild Within: Adventures in Nature and Animal Teachings — all of which are packed with his hard-earned knowledge of the wilderness. From his home base, in Athol, Massachusetts, he’s been taking people into the woods and showing them how to read animal tracks for more than a decade.
Rezendes is not the only tracker turned teacher: Tom Brown Jr., of Asbury, New Jersey, pioneered the modern art of teaching tracking, and continues to lead classes through the vast pine and cedar forests of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. John Stokes, who heads the Tracking Project in Corrales, New Mexico, teaches tracking and survival skills to people from all walks of life, from American Indian schoolchildren to businesspeople. Big-time organizations, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Nature Conservancy, offer workshops on tracking. Click on the Wilderness School’s home page (www.geosmith.com/wilderness/schools.html), and you’ll find a list of tracking clubs in 25 states.
Little noticed and even less understood, animal tracking is catching on among hikers, backpackers, and others who value the outdoors. Rezendes believes that his students, many of whom live in cities, take his workshops because making and maintaining a connection to the natural world is essential to their lives.
“There is no better way to connect with nature and the wild,” says Rezendes, “than learning how to track.”
This past summer, I followed Rezendes as he led a workshop in advanced tracking. His classroom consisted of trail-less hardwood and hemlock forests in northern Massachusetts. His technique was to conduct a kind of roving tutorial. In two short days, we found tracks and signs made by bear, moose, deer, fisher cat, beaver, otter, porcupine, raccoon, mink, red squirrel, chipmunk, owl, and even hawk. By studying their claw marks and their scent posts, their tracks and yes, their scat (a tracker’s term for animal droppings), we began to see into the world of these animals — and to understand their ways. And we even learned a surprising lesson: Tracking an animal’s life may be a very good way to see into our own lives.
“Tracking an animal is an educational process, like learning how to read,” says Rezendes. “In fact, it is learning to read.” Here, then, is a master tracker’s primer on the language of the forest.
First, Learn to See
Day one: The class meets up at Rezendes’s backwoods home, which sits on a bluff overlooking a rapid-choked waterway called Millers River. Surrounded by heavily forested, state-owned land, Rezendes’s camp is the only man-made structure on this six-mile stretch of riverbank.
The group of students is diverse: Fede Carandini, 33, a product developer for ECCO Design Inc., drove up from New York City; Wendi Weinberg, 44, from nearby Pelham, is a therapist specializing in the Jin Shin Do form of acupressure; Jonathan Sargent, 40, a motorcycle mechanic, traveled from Wilton, New Hampshire. Though the group of students ranges in age from their mid-twenties to their mid-fifties, we have one thing in common: We know that Rezendes is a trailblazer in the world of tracking, and we are restless to follow his path.
Rezendes introduces himself. He looks every bit the woodsman: camouflage cap, graying beard, green safari shirt, and jeans tucked into Dunham hiking boots. His clothes smell faintly of earth and campfire. He tells us that we will be spending all of the next two days in the woods. But first he intends to disabuse us of a few stereotypes about tracking.
Unlike Davey Crockett in those old TV shows, we won’t “track down” some big-game animal deep in the woods. With 13 of us tramping through the forest, we’re unlikely to see anything larger than a chipmunk. Besides, Rezendes isn’t interested in simply finding a set of tracks and following them to the animal that made them.
“If you spend your time searching for the next track, you’ll have learned a lot about finding tracks but not much about the animal,” he says. “But if you spend time learning about the animal and its ways, you may be able to find the next track without looking for it.”
But how can we learn about the ways of wildlife if we don’t seek out wildlife? By paying attention. We need to engage our senses fully — in the same way that a deer catches every movement in the forest and picks up the slightest sound. If we are truly alert to our surroundings, we will realize that the forest is speaking to us.
“You’ll never find a square yard in the forest,” says Rezendes, “that doesn’t hold clues about the wildlife within it.”
Track without Tracks
I’m beginning to think that we’re veering into some New Age version of backwoods Zen, which is a notion that I’m somewhat allergic to. But soon after we’ve shouldered our day packs and started our trek into the woods above the river, Rezendes is already backing up his claim: He begins to show us how to read the forest.
Tracking is best done in snow or after a hard rain, when the ground is muddy. It’s unlikely, here in these dry woods of midsummer New England, that we’ll find more than a few solitary tracks. But we don’t need tracks to track an animal, says Rezendes. The forest speaks to us through animals’ signs: incisor marks on the young branches of a hemlock reveal that a porcupine has stopped to browse; crayfish remains in raccoon scat show where the animal found food; matted vegetation near a stream or pond may herald the presence of otters nearby.
Five minutes into our hike, we come across our first sign: a thicket of witch hazel. The tips of the wild shrub’s branches are bitten off — frayed and rough-looking. The witch hazel is shouting something to us, says Rezendes: Deer have browsed here! Deer have incisors on only their bottom jaw, so instead of cutting cleanly through branches they tear at them, leaving the tattered stems that we see before us.
“Deer forage all along here,” he says. “But this witch hazel is regenerating. If it wasn’t coming back — if the deer were hitting these shoots faster than the root system could replace them — then that would tell us something too. A big witch-hazel dieback would mean that the deer population in the area is so large that it has a major impact on their preferred food.
“Sometimes,” Rezendes concludes, “it’s easier to tell what kind of animals are in the area by looking for the kinds of plants that should be flourishing here — but aren’t.”
Look for Graffiti
We scramble down the riverbank to the water’s edge and quickly find signs of beaver: gnawed tree stumps, birches stripped of their bark, and scent mounds — small piles of decaying leaves and twigs. A beaver takes plant material from the riverbank, makes it into a pile, and secretes a yellowish-orange liquid (called castoreum) on the mound.
A scent mound, or post, we learn, is a territorial marker. It, too, tells us something: that beavers are homesteading the area. I scoop up a pile and take a whiff; it smells slightly of horse barn. The mound is old. If the scent post were fresh, Rezendes observes, we’d smell it from 30 feet away. And we wouldn’t need tracks to know that beavers are claiming this stretch of river.
“The world of scent is as rich to animals as the visual world is to us,” says Rezendes. “By building scent posts and defecating in certain areas, animals are declaring their territory — not unlike the way street gangs stake out their territory by tagging bridges and buildings with graffiti. By leaving such marks, animals are saying: ‘I’m beaver! This is my place!’ or, ‘I’m bobcat! I’m here!’ “
Sensing that some of us might be a little skeptical, Rezendes tells us about an experience he had at nearby Quabbin Reservoir. He had spent a long July day sitting on one of the thousands of boulders that dot the shoreline of Quabbin, watching a pair of loons through binoculars. The next day, he returned to the same boulder, and there, in the exact spot where he’d been sitting the day before, he found coyote scat.
“That coyote had gone out of its way to pick my boulder out of all those thousands of boulders, and defecate right where I had placed my butt,” says Rezendes. “Sitting there all day, with my scent oozing from my pores, I had left my mark on that rock: ‘Rezendes was here!’ So that coyote had put a bigger X over my mark, as of to say, ‘Coyote was here!’ “
The lesson, Rezendes concludes, is that even though we rarely see them, animals are constantly signalling their presence — to one another and to us. You just have to look for their graffiti.
To Track an Animal Is to Track Yourself
By now, I’m beginning to wonder: Who is this guy? How did he become a tracker? That answer turns out to be somewhat complicated. Rezendes is one of those rare people who, over the course of his lifetime, has managed to reinvent himself radically — several times over. Tracking, he says, has been a potent tool for learning about himself. Over dinner, he tells me his story.
He first learned about the forest from his mother, who took him into the woods near their home in southeastern Massachusetts to teach him the names of plants and to show him which plants were edible. “She instilled in me a real affinity for nature,” he says. But as he grew older, his life took a decidedly reckless turn: He joined and then led the Fall River, Massachusetts chapter of the Devil’s Disciples, a notorious motorcycle gang.
Rezendes was the alpha biker in the gang: His standard uniform included a black-leather jacket, a kidney belt that bristled with 500 steel studs, and dark glasses that he wore even at night. He became a skilled street fighter and a daredevil biker. He’d often scream down the highway at breakneck speeds, standing upright on the pegs of his Harley — with his arms outstretched and his first wife sitting on his shoulders. He’d take on all comers in eighth-of-a-mile drag races, and wipe out every car. He was fearless, and yet he lived in fear.
“I was tough because I was afraid not to be tough,” he says. “I was living in a predator’s world, and I was too scared not to be a predator myself.”
His biker life ended in one night, when Massachusetts State Police stormed his apartment and arrested him for illegal possession of a .357 Magnum and three shopping bags filled with marijuana. He was sentenced to 5 to 10 years in Walpole State Prison — but the judge suspended his sentence in lieu of probation, and he never served any time.
The bust was a wake-up call. “It forced me to ask myself some tough questions — questions about the nature of machismo and about fear, about being a predator and about being the prey,” Rezendes recalls. “I realized that there had to be more to life than that. I needed to know, ‘What’s the truth? What’s the scoop?’ “
So he threw himself into hatha yoga and became a yoga teacher. He studied intensely the teachings of the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti and eventually started and led an ashram in southeastern Massachusetts. He wanted a nonviolent life, and he went to dietary extremes to achieve it: Vegetarianism wasn’t pure enough; he verged on fruitarianism, living only on raw fruits and grains.
But the ashram proved to be a dead end. “One day it hit me that I really hadn’t changed,” he says. “Before, I was pursuing self-gratification by becoming a macho biker. And then I realized that I was still seeking the same self-gratification, only this time I was trying to create an image of myself as a spiritual person.”
The ashram broke up, and Rezendes took a job as a long-haul trucker — one week on the road, one week off. He spent much of his free time in the woods, which he still considered his sanctuary. He pursued tracking, and began taking his camera into the forest. Without any intention on his part, he created one of the most extensive collections of film on tracks and signs available anywhere.
Tracking was also a way for Rezendes to explore the questions of self-knowledge that had haunted him since his biker days. Ultimately, he says, we must answer such questions for ourselves. But through his classes, he hopes to show people that tracking is a good way to begin the search.
“Tracking opens a door to the web of life,” he says. “It shows how all living things — people, the forest, and the animals within the forest — are interconnected. If you track an animal for a long enough time, you’ll find that its trail is your trail; its fate is your fate. In a sense, we are tracking ourselves.”
Put in Your Dirt Time
Day two: Class commences on a wooded road deep in the Cold River watershed. Today, we will bushwhack into some of the wildest country in Massachusetts: rugged, ridge-backed forest that’s unbroken by roads or even trails. Bear country. We will spend the day reading signs left by bears, and learning about their behavior.
Rezendes takes a compass reading, and we file into the forest. Just like yesterday, we soon find a sign. A bear has attacked a young striped maple, biting it in several places and leaving it broken and mangled. Rezendes calls this a “whammy tree”: A bear climbs into the tree and bites at it, breaking it off at the top and trashing its lower branches.
Pushing north, we head up a steep ridge into mixed woods of beech, maple, and hemlock. Rezendes ambles along, hands in pockets, his deep-brown eyes scanning the trees and the forest floor. He really does appear to be reading the forest, and he quickly puts us onto more signs. Taking his lead, other people in the group scout out signs: an overturned stump where a bear has dug for insect larvae and grubs; clawed-up beech trees that bears have climbed for food; and more whammy trees.
Rezendes calls this kind of ramble, “putting in your dirt time”: honing in on signs left by bears; learning to read their digs, bites, and scat; layering all of that data in our storehouse of bear knowledge. As we advance our skills, we won’t depend on luck to find bear signs. We’ll understand bear behavior, and we’ll know instinctively where to look.
“We aren’t tracking down the bear from one spot to another, but we are tracking the bear,” says Rezendes. “By reading these signs, we’re getting a picture of the bear’s movement and behavior. How it feeds. Where it holes up. How it interacts with other bears. We’re tracking the life of the bear — its whole life process.”
Once You’ve Learned, You Unlearn
We work our way to the top of the ridge and turn east. Several of us head into a grove of towering old-growth hemlock — magnificent trees that are more than 200 years old — and here we hit the mother lode. “If bears have a sacred place,” says Rezendes, “we’re about to enter it.”
The largest of the hemlocks are gouged out with claw marks, where bears have torn off chunks of bark. Some of these marks are quite old, indicating that bears have been returning here for many years.
But what do these markings mean? Do bears claw as high as they can to show their dominance and power? Or are they using the trees as giant scent posts, to attract potential mates or warn off other bears?
Rezendes cautions us against overtheorizing. Trying to think our way to the answers, he warns, will throw us off the track. As we become better skilled at tracking, we must fight the tendency to intellectualize. In a sense, we must unlearn what we’ve learned, and let the answers come to us.
To illustrate his point, Rezendes tells a story. He was leading a tracking class in Cape Cod’s dunes, and the class came across a set of strange markings in the sand — four wispy, arcing lines that described a half circle. The students surmised that the markings were tracks and set about trying to identify the animal that had made them.
They had been tracking fox, and some students theorized that the marks may have been made by a fox’s tail swishing back and forth. Others thought that a hawk had swooped low for prey, and its wing had brushed the sand.
“I told them to leave their intellect out of it — because their intellect will lead them astray,” Rezendes recalls. “So we sat silently, we watched, and we waited. Suddenly, the breeze picked up, and someone noticed that a patch of grass was blowing back and forth across the sand. It was the grass that had made those marks! If you stay alert and stay open to the possibility that you might be wrong, you’ll learn something.”
Point well taken. Not looking for answers, I look hard at one of the chewed-up hemlocks before me. And there, caught in a crease of bark, I find a small clump of bear fur; its long, black strands are tipped with a touch of blonde.
Immerse yourself in the sign of the bear, Rezendes tells us, and in some fundamental way you participate in the life of the bear. As I drive home later that night, the tuft of fur tucked in my shirt pocket, I am sure of one thing: I have connected with that bear.
Bill Breen (email@example.com) is a senior editor at Fast Company. Associate Editor Heath Row (firstname.lastname@example.org) contributed the sidebars. Contact Paul Rezendes by phone (978-249-8810) or on the Web (www.mossbrook.com/rez).
Action Item: Tracking Trackers
You’ll cover more ground when you track with a group of people. A good way to find fellow trackers is to point your browser to the Tracker/Survival Club Listing, a no-frills directory of more than 27 groups that gather to teach and practice animal tracking.
One of the more in-depth and up-to-date directories of tracker clubs online, Tracker Listing includes groups from California to Switzerland. Many of the entries have links to the clubs’ individual Web pages, which provide additional information. But do your due diligence before you join one.
Coordinates: Tracker/Survival Club Listing, http://koransky.com/Trackers/TrackerClubs.html
Sidebar: Prints in Print
A field guide to tracking is a critical tool for identifying tracks and learning about animals. Before you head for the woods, consider getting one of these books for your pack.
Filled with detailed illustrations and evocative color photographs, Paul Rezendes’s book Tracking & the Art of Seeing teaches as much through its images as it does through its words. Rezendes discusses 10 animal families, from rodents to bears. The new second edition adds quick-reference charts on trail patterns and a chapter on birds.
Coordinates: $24.00. Harper Re-source, www.harpercollins.com
James Halfpenny’s A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America takes a similar approach to Rezendes’s Tracking, albeit with less polish and more science. Halfpenny’s shorthand and formula for recording tracks might be a little overwhelming for beginners. But his writing is detailed and informative, making his Guide a good companion volume to the Rezendes book.
Coordinates: $14.95. Johnson Books, www.tracknature.com
Part of the Peterson Field Guides series, Olaus Murie’s Animal Tracks is small enough to carry in your day pack, making it an excellent choice for use on the trail. Check out the book’s “Key to Tracks,” a quick reference to the length and shape of common animal tracks. A small ruler for measuring tracks is printed on the book’s inside back cover.
Coordinates: $18. Houghton Mifflin, www.hmco.com/trade
Sidebar: Get on Track
The fastest way to get up to speed on tracking is to take a workshop. Here are four schools that will put you on an accelerated path.
Tom Brown’s Tracker School, Asbury, New Jersey Brown, a pioneer among modern trackers-turned-teachers, has made the wild Pine Barrens region of south-central New Jersey his classroom; he also holds workshops in California. For a $650 fee, participants learn stalking, camouflage, tracking, and skills in outdoor survival.
Coordinates: 908-479-4681, www.trackerschool.com
The Tracking Project, Corrales, New Mexico Led by master tracker John Stokes, the Tracking Project’s classes draw heavily on American Indian lore. Courses last a week to a week and a half, and most cost approximately $800.
Coordinates: 505-898-6967, email@example.com
A Naturalist’s World, Gardiner, Montana Jim Halfpenny’s and Diann Thompson’s natural-history and ecology programs include tracking. Most of their classes, which range from two days to two weeks, cost between $150 and $450.
Coordinates: 406-848-9458, www.tracknature.com
Paul Rezendes’s Photography and Nature Programs, Athol, Massachusetts Rezendes’s day- and weekend-long courses in tracking run from $40 to $125. Coordinates 978-249-8810, www.mossbrook.com/rez
Always carry a topo map. In addition to the topographical gradations that most maps don’t have, topo maps feature useful landmarks, such as mountain peaks and backcountry cabins. With a scale of 1:24,000, topos are extremely accurate and detailed. You can order maps online from either the U.S. Geological Survey or from MapQuest.
Coordinates: $6.95. U.S. Geological Survey, www.usgs.gov; MapQuest MapStore, www.mapstore.com
To track an animal, you have to get off the trail and into the bush. If you want to find your way home, you’d better pack a compass. Suunto’s MC-2G Global Compass should keep you headed in the right direction. Its “global needle” makes the MC-2G specially balanced for accurate tracking worldwide — whether you’re in Alaska or New Guinea.
Coordinates: $69.95. Suunto U.S.A., www.suuntousa.com
A knife is the most versatile animal-tracking tool of all. Use it to poke through the contents of raccoon scat (you’re not going to use your fingers, are you?), or to cut cord to build a lean-to. The new Big Sky fixed blade from Buck Knives weighs only 2.5 ounces and features a black Obeechee wood handle, a lanyard hole in the handle, and a sturdy black sheath.
Coordinates: $70. Buck Knives, www.buckknives.com