If you’re out in the woods by yourself, chances are you’re not alone. Those who want to know what else might be sharing space with them in the wilds can learn a few animal-tracking basics.Greg Hodapp, park ranger at Hells Gate State Park, recommends reading Olaus J. Murie’s “Guide to Animal Tracks of North America.” The field guide, which includes detailed sketches and descriptions of tracks and scat, has been a go-to resource since it was published in the 1950s, Hodapp said.
But matching a track with its species isn’t everything, Hodapp said. When you’re learning to identify which animals have been in an area, one of the keys is cultivating awareness.
“It’s going into the woods. You want to go in with eyes that are looking at everything,” Hodapp said.
That means moving slowly, or even not at all. Rather than looking at specific animal signs, he said, notice connections in the space you’re in — game trails, buck scrapes, beaver activity, what plants are around. Make observations that catch your attention and allow those things to grow your curiosity.
“It’s not just about drawing conclusions,” Hodapp said. “It’s about looking at it and wondering about it. Just soak up as much as you can in a certain space.”
Newbies to animal tracking don’t need to worry about how long ago an animal was in that space, where it came from, where it was going, how long it was there — such skills are reserved for those who’ve been at it a long time. Instead, build familiarity and leave a space with questions that focus your research. And where do you go once you’ve exhausted your field guide?
“You’ve just gotta be a bloodhound and sniff that info out,” Hodapp said.
The internet has a lot of information, Hodapp said, but there is much about the natural world that is tucked away in books. Crowdsourcing — asking on social media, for example — can also provide information.
Upcoming Hells Gate Junior Ranger programs
All programs take place at 1:30 p.m. and begin at the Discovery Center unless otherwise noted. The programs are free; admission to the park is $5/vehicle.
Track Casting, Saturday – Learn basics of track identification, observe tracks at a couple locations within the park and get a chance to cast tracks using plastic molds that mimic what might be found in the wild. Also: learn the “Scat Song.”
Experience the Missoula Floods, July 2 – Learn about the cataclysmic forces that helped shape the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. Bring clothes that can get dirty and wet.
Hunting the FBI (Fungus Bacteria and Invertebrates), July 23 – Find out how fungus, bacteria and invertebrate decompose organic material into soil. Bring clothes that can get dirty and meet at the north end of the day-use parking lot next to the volleyball court.
The Music of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Aug. 13 – Learn about the musicians of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, their music, and the different things music and songs were used for during that time period.