It is a blistering hot summer day. A group of students and I walk behind our teacher. Apparently, this is a good time to study tracks. With the sun overhead?
Still, it is not my place to question the expert. He is going to teach me how to track. Then I will be able to track wolf, coyote, fox, and deer. The heat will be worth it. Finally, the teacher stops up ahead. We can rest. We sit around him waiting for him to talk. He talks of deer, fox, and coyote. We are going to be tracking coyote.
"Get into your groups and find an area off to the side and we will start to track," he says.
What tracks? I don't see any tracks! This is all rocks and gravel. No mud, or sand, or even debris. Just stone. I sit down with my group, who are equally baffled. No animals come out in the mid day sun. If there are any tracks, they all are going to be at least six hours old.
"You are going to track a mouse across gravel. I want to know everything about the animal. When it stopped. What it did next," the teacher instructs.
Is he crazy? A mouse across stone? Gravel? What happened to tracking coyote or fox? A mouse? My group looks at the ground. We see nothing by rocks.
"Make sure it is the same mouse. Don't pick up others. Every track has its own personality. Look for patterns," the teacher continues.
Great! I want my money back. No way is this possible. My group looks depressed. Our teacher comes to help us. We give him one of our popsicle sticks.
"Place these behind the tracks. I'll make it easy for you guys. "
Thank you! Thank you!
"Here is the rear foot. Find the next front foot. Be careful. Don't get them muddled with the older tracks. These are relatively new. Probably early morning."
I just stare at him. He's got to be making this up.
"Put your cheeks to the ground and keep the track between you and the source of light."
My group, dutifully, put their faces to the ground.
"If the light is overhead, it create shadows."
"I see nothing. My group sees nothing. Pour people can't be all wrong. He stands there looking smug. Minutes go by. The sun is very hot.
"I'll give you a hint," he says.We all look up in eager anticipation."You're all looking and thinking in tunnel vision. Splatter it. Go into wide angle vision."
We make our eyes go into wide angle vision. All we see are stones. No tracks.
"Come on, guys. We'll be here all day and we've got a long walk home."
I'm starting to feel angry. I can't see anything but stones. This is not possible. Some in the group are giving up; getting up and walking around.
"Your focus is bad. Concentrate. You're giving up too easily."
We go back to looking at the stones. Nothing.
"Look for the flatness of the dust. The particles."
I'm not enjoying this experience. In fact, I want to go home. Take something for my headache. I try again. Nothing. I take in a deep breath of frustration and slowly release it. The anger is still there. My eyes are still on the popsicle stick and stones.
"Splatter the mind. Allow it to shift."I take another deep breath and release it. Nothing. I give up. My mind goes blank. I don't care anymore. Splatter my vision. Splatter my mind. Yeah, Right!! I give up. I release my shoulders and sit up. I take another deep breath and remain in wide angel vision for fun.
Then it happens. Like someone switched on the light. I see it. One of the digits of the rear foot. The digit! I can't believe it.
Then I see the whole foot.
By now my colleagues are experiencing the same thing. Over groups are experiencing it as well. People are now screaming and shouting with joy. If there were any animals having an afternoon nap they are now all awake. The whole area is vibrating with noise.
The teacher is right. It is obvious, so obvious. Why couldn't we see it before?
We now find the front foot. We can even see the pressure releases, that tell you what is happening to the animal. Our mouse did stop and change direction. Amazing! Truly amazing!
I'm starting to see the pattern, the personality of this mouse. I am overjoyed. I thought this was impossible. My mind said it was and I believed it.
Our teacher comes over to check the placing of our popsicle sticks behind the tracks.
"Two of them are wrong. They belong to different mouse. Check the patterns. Otherwise, very good."
We check the patterns. I can't tell the difference yet, but I know with more practice it will become obvious. Anyway, I'm too ecstatic to care.
Tracking a wolf will be a piece of cake compared to tracking a mouse across gravel. It will be like, to quote my teacher, "tracking a dinosaur in peanut butter."
Amanda Hillwood is a Wolf Song of Alaska member and volunteer. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Matt Frewer, a Wolf Song of Alaska Celebrity Spokesperson.
The teacher is Tom Brown, Jr., Author of "The Tracker" and over a dozen dooks and field guides. If you wish to have a tracking experence with him, visit "The Tracker School".