05 Jul It was the Cows
It was the cows what nearly did me in.
I stood there staring intently at the imprint of a large fat hoof in the dirt. Definitely too big for a deer. Not quite right for an elk.
But what else could it be? It didn’t look good for moose. Way too rounded. But who knew? Perhaps down here in Washington state they had really obese moose. Or moose with really fat feet.
I scribbled down moose and then, to my chagrin, was asked to identify another track, almost exactly the same, but considerably smaller. By now I was thoroughly flummoxed. Could they have really fat baby moose too?
I thought about the people I had seen since our arrival in town the day before. Really fat baby humans, that they certainly had. So why not really fat baby moose? But it still didn’t feel right. So I went for deer.
I’m sure you can already guess who the mystery tracks actually belonged to. Cows. Moo-cows. Bovids. And the little one? A baby cow.
I should have known, of course. The whole place was surrounded by copious amounts of cow dung in various states of moistness.
Furthermore, as if in a Christmas pantomime or a ham-fisted rendition of a Chekhov play, one of the examiners had even stepped into a particularly large, greenish cow pie, offering a hugely helpful hint to all but the most dim-witted examinees.
I think I was the only one to get that question wrong.
And it meant that in two days of identifying everything from the tender avian toes of a killdeer – a north American shorebird – to the tiny remains of a chipmunk’s vegetarian lunch I had to get almost everything else right to get the Level Three award I coveted.
For those of you who are loyal readers of my blog you may remember that this was not my first tracking exam. My inaugural attempt was this time last year.
That time I arrived in Winthrop, a small tourist town in Washington state in the foothills of the North Cascade mountain range, having utterly failed to read the instructions or even the description of the programme I had signed up for.
I did know the theme was to be tracking animals but had figured that two days of drinking coffee and telling tall stories about interesting encounters in the bush with bears would get me through.
A typical north American outdoor training of this type is often far from academically rigorous. I have been on a few and the staples are usually lashings of quinoa, dollops of self-empowerment, dirty socks, and a smorgasbord of sharing.
Instead, when I arrived, I found myself plunged into an earnest and mostly silent two-day field exam where I was expected to sort out different kinds of weasel excreta and deduce what a snowshoe hare was thinking by studying a dusting of its imprints in light sand.
I scraped through the course with the lowest possible pass mark, and left feeling properly humiliated.
And I determined to go back for more.
This time round I took Sage and Graham, our two talented wilderness guides, who share a love of all things wild and animal. And this time we prepared. Way back in the winter we splashed out on some serious tracking field guides, some of them the size of a small telephone directory.
I must admit that in the beginning learning the lore of the wilderness floor seemed like a thankless and impossible task. There was just so much of it to figure out. But as time went by, encouraged by each other’s probing and teasing, we all began to improve.
When it came to the exam each of us prepared in our own way. Graham carefully traced out bird tracks and beetle markings in a waterproof yellow notebook.
Sage, the most precocious and academic of the three of us, pronounced on the differences between marten and ground squirrel turds, vole and gopher eskers (tunnels), and all manner of other mammalian minutia.
When she was wrong – which I must admit was not often – she fought her corner like a pissed-off wolverine.
And I press-ganged my addled brain – there’s nothing like studying something the size of mouse shit in the company of smart twenty-something-year-olds to make you feel your age – to try and remember whether shrews have five toes on their front feet or four. (They have five.)
In the last two days before the exam I even cut out little photocopied renderings of everything from packrat scat to different kinds of bird nests and beasted myself into trying to memorise them. I polished my reading glasses, ready for duty in the field.
In the event the exam was as hard as I had remembered. The tracking system we follow was born in southern Africa as a way of evaluating professional local safari trackers and requires no reading or writing. But it does demand fairly encyclopedic knowledge of your local animals and their spoor.
Much of what we were asked to decipher I had never seen before. There was a hole dug into a sandy bank by a skunk digging for honeycomb. There were black bear hairs scraped onto a rub tree and, confusingly, bleached white by the sun. There were the remains of a subnivean vole nest.
There was more familiar fare too. Turds that ranged from showshoe hare, through wolf, bobcat and coyote and down to a flycatcher, an insectivorous bird. There were the holes of pileated woodpeckers, the chisellings of sap-suckers, and the rotting remains of a great blue heron.
And to top it all there were huge fresh wolf tracks (an easy one, that), along with lots of questions about the gaits the various animals were using (straddle trot, direct register walk, full gallop, lope, and so on.)
And I’m happy to say that, despite the blunder with the bovines, I rang up a series of correct answers and just topped the 90 percent required to gain my Level Three.
In fact, for Grizzly Bear Ranch as a whole, it was a time to blow our trumpet, even if we did so (I hope) in a modest Canadian way. Sage, Graham and I took the top three places in the assessment despite being off our home turf.
So, dear friends and guests, if you like the small as well as the big, if bear-viewing for you is more than just watching a semi-tame animal from a stand, and if you want to really get under the skin (bark?) of the world’s only Inland Temperate Rainforest, you know where to come.
Get away from the unending Brexit saga, the opening salvos of US election season, or just the dust and asphalt of the city, and come and spend a few days with us deep in the Canadian bush as the leaves turn yellow and red and the grizzly bears gorge before hibernation.
We’ve been having a great season – possibly our best end of June for bears ever with 27 sightings in three days – and we still have a fair bit of availability for this September and October.
And I can promise you something else: the places where we go to see wild animals there won’t be any bloody cows.