Down and Dirty

26 Jul Down and Dirty

I’d been looking forward to a weekend away for a while.

I love my home in British Columbia and our valley is a place of overwhelming beauty, but the prospect of a couple of days in a small, hip mountain town in the US with a few like-minded individuals sounded like just the relaxation I needed.

Officially we were gathering to study the tracks of some of the animals of Washington State with a renowned tracking expert, but I figured that, in reality, there would be as much coffee-drinking and story-telling as anything else.

After a long hot drive from Canada, I rolled into a car park in the small town of Winthrop at the appointed hour.

“So here are the rules,” the instructor said after some business-like introductions. “No conferring, no taking measurements, and no second chances.”

My brow furrowed. I had, of course, received the small print about the course I had signed up for months before but, busy with this and that, hadn’t taken the time to read it.

“You might find some of this difficult,” he continued, “but research shows that we remember things better when we are under stress. And by the way, the pass mark is 70 per cent.”

Stress? Pass marks? I stared blankly. This wasn’t what I had had in mind. Oh well, I consoled myself, I know a bit about bears and cougars and wolves. I should be fine.

The first track we were shown was less than an inch long and barely visible in the light sand.

Seriously?

“A bird?” I ventured to one of the answer-takers. I could just about make out the fine tell-tale lines of avian foot marks.

“You’re going to have to be more specific than that,” he said.

The next track was that of a beetle. A beetle!

Then there was a tiny curling poo on a bridge. “Short-tailed weasel or long-tailed weasel?” the examiner asked.

By now my head was spinning. Here I was, a veteran of the Canadian wilderness or so I reckoned, and already seriously out of my depth.

I looked around at my fellow examinees. There was a wildlife biologist, busily scribbling down answers, and a border patrol agent who had made tracking his speciality.

In the car park my fellows had looked like a collection of ordinary folk, out for a little traipse in the woods.

Now I eyed them suspiciously as they glued their noses to the ground – every one of them a venerable Hercule Poirot.

The pressure didn’t let up. When we were shown the fourth or fifth track I felt a sigh of relief.

I knew it was probably a snowshoe hare, an animal we have in spades in our neck of the woods.

I quickly scribbled down the answer.

“Yes, but what it was doing?” the examiner asked.

What was it doing? I had no idea what the bloody rabbit was doing.

They run away from wolves and coyotes and just about everything else in the bush. I knew that. But how on earth could I tell from the tracks what it was doing.

It turned out that it was sniffing the air.

Not every question was a nightmare. One or two I reckoned I had firmly in the bag. There were bear claw marks on a tree – no trouble there – and some pretty obvious beaver sign.

But there was a sting in the tale. You only got one mark for getting an easy question right, and you were deducted three marks for getting it wrong!

Ach Mein Gott, I thought to myself.

Somehow the hours passed and finally the first day was over. I retreated to my $25-dollar-a-night hostel – I am wont to stay in fairly ghetto places when travelling alone – got out my tracking manual, and studied until my eyes began to hurt.

Around me the youth of the Pacific North West drank, partied and hollered.

Understep walks, overstep walks, straddle trots, side trots. I wasn’t just expected to know which animal track I was looking at but also what gait they were using.

And then of course there was the myriad scat. Each with a tell-tale degree of compactness that could only be assessed after years of meticulous turd-poking.

By the end of Day Two I was beginning to wilt – and not just because of the heat.

I had confused a centipede with a caterpillar, moist deer droppings with those of a sheep, and misidentified nibbled twigs as elk browse. It was actually moose browse.

And then came the final question. A tiny little dropping sitting by the side of a track, all grey-brown with a bit of white in the middle.

“Who made this?” I was asked.

Little did I know that I was hovering right around the pass mark for the course and my answer would prove decisive.

And finally Lady Luck smiled on me.

As I had sat in the hostel the night before poring over the track and sign book I had remarked on a most unusual stool. And here it was again.

“Mourning dove,” I wrote down triumphantly.

And, as it turned out, I was right. And that was the answer that got me my certificate.

Only Level One, mind you. For Level Two you, needed 80 per cent. For Level Three, 90 per cent, for Level Four a whopping 100 per cent right out of 65 questions.”

Nobody on the course got 100 per cent but there were a couple in the nineties and most of the class outscored me handily.

But you know how it is. There’s nothing like a bit of humiliation to spur you on to greater things.

I’m already nagging the organisers to tell me when the next assessment is that I can come too. (They think it will be sometime next spring.)

And in the meantime I’m boning up on my tracks, turds and all the various scrapes, nibbles and sign that animals leave in the bush.

Wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears, I’m fairly good at. But now it’s time to buy myself a new pair of reading glasses and get down and dirty among the insects and rodents.