Footsteps of our Forefathers

See your Elder/Staff writer's Bio in the Jan/Feb issue of the North American Frontiersmen's "Smoke Signals".


TRACKING: Using a Skill For Fun

A mark of success at mastering a skill can often be measured by the ability to use it for more than one purpose. Using one skill to accomplish a disparate objective can be a joy. An historic skill that lives today and of which I am particularly fond is that of tracking, and it can be used to facilitate other pursuits than hunting or rescue: it is also handy in and of itself. 

Much fiction literature of interest to buckskinners contain tales of border rangers or mountain men who displayed fantastic abilities in the skill of tracking. They are often portrayed as following sign while at a mile-eating trot or in some cases at a run, even, sometimes, in the dark of night. Both animal and man were dead meat once the hero was on their trail! I suppose something or someone could be tracked in that manner if the trail was short, the terrain flat or constricted, say in a canyon bottom, and the pursued left the only tracks and they went from beginning to end in deep snow or fresh, untrammeled mud or undisturbed sand. Otherwise, I doubt it. A good tracker is a patient soul who is careful of the trail and dedicated to the point of obsession to solving the mystery before him. He will puzzle the sign out, traveling smoothly in some spots, agonizingly slow in others. He never proceeds in a hurry—he cannot and be successful. 

You can learn a lot about tracking by reading about its technology. But no amount of reading, by itself, is going to make you a tracker. Only lots of practice and practical experience is going to do that. There are a plethora of books on the market that provide much information about tracking. Some of them are very good, filled with practical tips and instruction. There are some that are entertaining and filled with mysticism that sounds as though the philosophy, once mastered, will make the reader a skillful tracker. In general, these are not going to do you much good. There are also many books about the tracks and habits of animals, information that is essential to tracking them. Some books have clear and concise drawings or photos of tracks and scat. Some have illustrations that are so poorly printed they are worthless. A handful have entertaining and useful written information to go along with the graphics. In any event, to believe you can become a master tracker by merely reading a book is a fanciful delusion. 

The right books, however, can be an enormous help. They can point the way and provide wonderful insight and guidance. But to learn tracking takes work and, especially, patience. There are no “born” trackers although some trackers will be better than others. There is no “best age” to learn but there are those persons at both ends of the age spectrum who have more time to devote to it, and time is essential to practice. Practice is the operative word. There is no single “correct” way to track, but there are some principles that ought to be understood and followed by those who wish to become proficient. 

Although not a necessity, a qualified mentor can be a blessing. Just be sure the mentor is qualified. Some of the basic things the tracker should know, and the initiate will learn in the course of time, tell the tale. To begin, no mystical prayers or rites are going to do the job or make things easier. A thorough grounding in the habits of the intended quarry, whether animal or man, is almost always a must. Attention to detail and a knowledge of the effects of terrain, geography, soil, plant life, and weather are part of the skillful tracker’s stock in trade. There are dozens of details the tracker must be aware of at all times—even in a blizzard, a driving rain, under a scorching sun, or in the dead of a dark night. 

Once on a track, the dedicated tracker will rarely be stopped for any reason, even adequate food or rest. He will display several attributes of all master trackers: before he starts on the trail he will do more than look at the track. He will try to determine the weather conditions when the track was made. He might stand nearby and make a few tracks of his own for comparison. If there are folks around who may have information about the quarry he will question them about the subject. He will be in possession of and will use a field notebook where he will sketch the track and jot down measurements of length, width and pattern. He will note length of stride, the point at which the foot leaves the ground, and any peculiarities such as a deep heel or toe mark on one side or the other. And he will be patient—never getting in a rush or neglecting basics. He will take great care not to step on the trail or disturb it in any way—he will certainly not use his finger to circle the track or bisect it or to outline it. He will pay attention to plant growth to see if there are bent or crushed grasses or even a leaf that is turned the wrong way. And he will not pluck a suspect blade of grass or broken twig or branch. He will protect the trail. 

By assiduous use of the notebook he will follow the trail, making notes of any peculiarities or other information he deems useful. In this manner he will be better prepared to stay on his target even though the sign might mingle here and there with others. This is a very important aspect of tracking and one that must not be ignored. The tracker will take the time needed. He will look at the total sign, not just the impressions on the ground. Sacrificing thoroughness in the interest of speed is almost never beneficial. 

There are many ways in which to begin to understand tracks. One is to make a couple of good sized “boxes” of varying soils and walk in them yourself to see what your prints will look like in sand, dirt, moraine, grass, mud and so on. Let your dog walk in there. See how his tracks differ from your own. Leave your tracks alone for a period of time, say a couple of weeks. Check them as often as you can—even three or four times a day. This is a very good way to learn how to judge the age of a track. Once you begin to feel comfortable with your test boxes you will notice how the length of your stride remained pretty much the same. This is also important. Check out the stride of your dog. Notice how in some soils the only sign is a faint scuffing. This is learning at its best and is interesting stuff. 

Once you have learned all you believe you can from the test areas, try taking a walk in the woods or in a field or if you don’t have anything close, for instance if you live in a city, go take a walk in the park. After a while go back to your starting point and track yourself. Notice how in grass your footprint has left telltale signs even though it is not plainly impressed. See how a blade of grass bent the wrong way or a leaf turned opposite others are sometimes the only indication of a trail. On hard surfaces you will note that pebbles or sand or dirt is displaced here and there. It might even be just that the pattern of the ground has been slightly altered. Sometimes the only way to see sign is to get your head down on the ground where the sun is ahead of you. Stare obliquely along the pathway. Where someone or thing stepped there will often be a shiny spot. That’s where the foot compressed the soil. Hey, I didn’t say this was easy! 

A tracking stick can be your best friend. The tracking stick is not a magic device for tracking, but for many it is essential. To make one, choose a stick of between two and a half to six feet in length and a diameter of one to two inches. I like to use my self-bow, but it does have shortcomings over a plain tree limb. I won’t carve notches in it as I might with an old stick. You need to find two successive tracks. Remember, they may not be clear, but careful study can provide the specifics you need. Lay your tracking stick on the ground, being careful not to disturb the trail, or hold it right over the tracks. Put the point of the stick at the heel, or rear, of the front track. At the toe of the rear track tie a string, or affix a rubber band or “O” ring, or cut a notch. 

That gives you the stride length. At the heel of the rear track do another. Now you have the length of the track itself. Among other things, this, along with the information in your notebook, will help you, if another trail has crossed the one you follow, to differentiate between it and the track you want—the tracks won’t be exactly the same and your notebook and stick will help you ferret out the one you want. If the tracks you follow disappear, hold the stick over the last track, the track being between the last two markers on the stick, and find the next track. This is done by pivoting the stick slowly in an arc from one side to the other, being careful not to disturb the vegetation or soil: they might contain just that piece of evidence you need to find the trail. Remember, the stride length does not have to always hold exactly true so you must be vigilant in your visual search. But the next track should be there under or near the tip of your pivoting tracking stick. Now you are back on the trail. 

To become proficient you must practice. A lot. There are schools that for a price will take you into a training program that will last from, generally, one to three months (some as long as a year) and will get you well on the road to being a proficient tracker. But even after that you must continue to practice. To get a good grounding of what is involved in tracking, I suggest three sources: the articles written by Certified Senior Scout Tracker Ty Cunningham (no relation) in Primitive Archer magazine, issues summer, fall, and winter of 2002, and spring, summer, fall and winter of 2003. There are more, but those will be enough to begin. Back issues are available. Primitive Archer magazine can be found on-line at:, or at PO Box 79306, Houston, TX 77279-9306, phone (713) 467-8202. A great source of information about tracking, written in a gripping style filled with anecdotal tales that just pull you along is: TRACKER, written by Joel Hardin. Mr. Hardin was for years a Border Patrol agent, and has trained thousands of people—including Special Forces personnel. He has been an influence on Ty Cunningham. You would also benefit from contacting the International Society of Professional Trackers; Del Morris, Executive Director, PO Box 2220, Petaluma, California 94953 (707) 778-7804 or on-line at: It is worth mentioning that Mr. Cunningham can be reached at: Lost Trail Ranch, Scout Tracking School, PO Box 4001, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82003, or on-line at:

The skills you acquire in tracking, besides making you a better hunter, a search and rescue resource, and perhaps even a teacher of the craft, can be handy in other ways as well. Your knowledge of the habits of man and animal will open new vistas and can lead to great adventures. I will mention one that happened to me. 

I like ghost towns. Especially those with a history of gold or lost treasure or of historical significance. On a business trip that took me to one of our western deserts, I ended up with a few days of nothing much to do. A buckskinner can always think of something so accordingly I headed out into the dusty, cactus strewn mountains that bordered the valley. 

About twenty miles from any town I was ambling along a lightly used dirt road bordered by a wet stream (unusual in that country), when I noticed a few pieces of purple glass. The stuff of long-ago days when glass was commonly made with lead! A brief search of the surroundings revealed more shards on the hillside beside the road. I followed them up the grade through rocks, sand and cactus. I soon found myself standing on an unusual knob near the top of the hill. I picked up a stout stick and dug around in the dirt and quickly realized I was standing on a garbage dump—a very old one. The infrequent rain storms had washed the glass down the hill to the road. The dump was perhaps a sign of either a large camp or perhaps even a town. But there was no evidence of a town within sight and my little book listing the ghost towns of the state (Nevada) didn’t list one there.. A little reconnoitering walk around turned up several arrowheads and a nice chair sized rock under a pinyon pine where the ground was covered in obsidian shards. I figured that a Native American sat there knapping arrowheads while the women gathered pine nuts. Probably for several years in a row, long, long ago. 

I thought about what I knew of pioneer folk, of prospectors and miners, and of cattlemen. I determined where I would drive team-hauled wagons, or ride a horse, or walk. I considered the availability of building materials and I examined the surroundings for likely building sites. All of these considerations are enhanced by skills of the tracker and his knowledge of the habits of his potential quarry. Humans often settle in or on already brush-free, flat terrain. There was some just across from where I stood. Here and there in the brush appeared what looked to be vestiges of an old road. Within a short time I located a couple of large foundations of long ago buildings. Along the creek I came across a rusty safe, the back rotted or blown out but the combination lock still intact. Following downstream what appeared to once have been a road or a broad trail now grown over with brush and filled with the rocks left in a flood plain, I found a two cell jail made of flat iron straps riveted together. All of the building’s adobe walls except for a small section in the rear were gone. By climbing the canyon side I was able to make out here and there differences in the distribution of varying kinds of rocks, some that just didn’t belong there, and could see unusual variations in plant and brush growth that seemed to only run for a limited distance. Here and there smoke bushes grew in clusters. — signs that buildings once stood there. Back along the creek I could not see the trail, but I followed the water upstream a ways and suddenly over away from where I was could see more rock that was different from its neighbors. Investigation showed that I had found what I believe to be the major portion of an old town, not large, but big enough to support perhaps 150 to 200 people. At a couple of bends in the creek there were cut stone retaining walls that seemed designed to keep erosion at bay. At the edge of a grown over spot that might once have been a meadow there was a rusted old spring harrow. 

Although I didn’t have the time to spend that I would have liked, I did discover an empty posthole cache that had the top of an old fashioned coffee can in it, a hand forged candle spike (used in mines to hold candles while miners scratched away trying to get rich), and two ancient trails that led off into the barren hills. I would say that the settlement once held a good sized hotel that had a corral large enough to pen over fifty animals. Since there are open, water rich meadows in the area perhaps long ago there was a cattle and freight operation there that was big enough to support a town. A master tracker could undoubtedly learn much more than I did just by reading the sign left so long ago. Later I discovered that the town’s existence was not recorded anywhere in official records of the state and I hope to return one day and learn more about it—with a metal detector to help me. 

My point is that I used my limited knowledge of mankind to locate the town, a few probable farms, its potential reason for existence, and a variety of interesting data and objects. The point here is that tracking skills can be used for many pursuits. Not only are they useful, but even on a short walk they can be enormous fun!


Until the next time, we'll see you on the trail or at the next camp.


stories & adventures pertaining to those than went before us.

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