Tracks, Ground, Weather




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By Gillcraft

The Influence of Ground, Time, and Weather

At the risk of a certain amount of repetition, I feel I must reproduce a few suggestions which appear under the tracking test for the Seventh Degree of the Lone Scouts of America, who have now been amalgamated with the Boy Scouts of America. The Test was "Be able to identify the tracks of men, women and children, and of all the principal domestic animals, and be able to say upon your honor that you have successfully followed the trail of some dumb animal or human being for at least a mile without that one's knowledge."

The Degree book says first of all: "This Test is very important, and is really a trying out of your whole Scout training. To comply with it you must be able to observe keenly, compare one thing with another nicely, have a clear memory, and be able to reason how the sign came to be.

"This takes patience in getting all the sign possible, and imagination in supplying the things that do not happen to be there, and being able to see a possible vision of the happenings that made the sign."

Just the same points, you will notice, as those upon which this book has been based. The suggestions offered are these:

  1. Look sharply and intently.
  2. Look carefully and patiently.
  3. Take into account possible age of tracks.
  4. Take into account changing weather conditions.
  5. Take into account nature of ground to retain tracks. .
  6. Never give up, the trail is somewhere.
  7. Take plenty of time to think
  8. Make everybody stop talking about other things.
  9. Sit silently and deliberate about the chances.
  10. Try to picture in your mind the party making the track.
  11. Remember the possibility of a purposely misleading trail.
  12. Accustom yourself to the observation of the ways of going of people and animals even when you are not tracking, such as the gait of people, and horses, dogs, cats, chickens, birds, etc., and of vehicles, observing the trail made. In this way only will you be able to know sign when you need to.

That makes a fairly complete lot of suggestions. So far we have dealt, directly or indirectly, with all of them except the possible age of tracks, changing weather conditions, and the nature of ground.

So much depends upon the state of the ground and weather that it is very difficult to recognize the track that is being followed under all circumstances. Its appearance on hard ground, and on soft soil, will be entirely different, and yet it is the same track. Possibly the best way to meet this difficulty, and to teach yourself how to recognize a track under varying conditions and on different kinds of soil is to keep on imagining what sort of tracks would be left, by a man or an animal, on the ground you are actually walking over at the time. By that I do not mean that there need necessarily be a track there at all; it is your imagination you want to bring into play.

On rocky ground, where there is no dust, you will have to look for small stones, or bits of twig, that have become displaced, when it is possible the spots from which they have been moved will show up. There may be a scratch here and there, or a small piece of rock chipped off, or (remember Tiger!) the rocks may themselves afford easy and obvious stepping places. If the rocks have lichen on them, some of it may be rubbed off or marked, or grasses and weeds growing in crevices may have been disturbed or bruised.

On hard ground, of a stony nature, tracks are practically invisible except at a distance. Sometimes, luckily, a small stone or two may have been displaced. The soil from which a stone has been displaced may look slightly lighter or darker than the surrounding ground. If the ground is very dry, usually there will be a faintly lighter shade; and if the ground is at all damp, a darker patch will show. Similarly the stone itself may have the side which lay on the ground exposed, and that side will show darker or lighter, as the case may be. Again the pressure of the foot upon the ground may make the spot show up slightly darker, or possibly lighter in some soils.

Soft, deep dry sand or dust does not give a clear impression, for the sand or dust falls in round the track and makes it blurred and difficult to read with any accuracy.

Soft and damp sand, or other soil, will leave a very clear-cut impression which will be easy to distinguish and follow, and will remain apparently fresh for a considerable length of time, if neither the sun nor the wind is very strong. If the soil is at all sticky, like clay, the impressions left on it will be all the more clear and lasting.

Although it is difficult to obtain any clear impression on grass, yet a trail through grass will show up very clearly. The bruised and trampled-down grass can be seen some distance ahead, and it is quite easy to decide in what direction the track leads. If on looking at a field you see a track through it that looks lighter than the surrounding grass, then you can be certain that whatever has made the track has been going away from you. If the track, on the other hand, appears darker than the surrounding grass, then you know that whatever has made the track has been coming towards the place where you are standing. This is because when grass, or undergrowth, or even bushes, are bent down at an angle the light is reflected back from their surface. You will notice the same alternate strips of light and dark when the lawn has been rolled alternately in different directions.

A tramp visited a Scout camp very early one morning and departed with a number of garments, some food, and various other odds and ends. When the camp was roused the loss was discovered. It was noticed that a track leading away from camp showed up in the grass. This was followed for some distance, and the stolen goods were found hidden in a thick clump of grass in the middle of a field. The tramp evidently thought that they would be safe there until he could remove them after dark the next night. Whether he was watching the trackers all the time or not is not known, but evidently he thought that it was no safe place for him, and he was not heard of again!

It is still easier to trace a track through grass that is wet with dew or light rain, or which is frosted. Frequently, too, places will be found where the grass has been nibbled, or where a crack in a man's boot has torn off a blade or two, a little point this which may enable you to identify the actual wearer of the boot.

Snow as a tracking medium has already been dealt with at some length.

But whatever the nature of the ground may be, it is always wise to look up off the ground for "sign" from time to time. Where there are bushes, bits of hair or fur, or a shred of clothing, may often be seen, which will give a clue to the track, to whatever made the track, and to its height or bulk.

You may come across a broken twig, the clean ends of the break showing that it has been recently done. There may be other signs, such as the droppings of animals, which give clear indications as to the maker of the track, the way it has gone, and the length of time that has elapsed since it passed.

The age of tracks is "a most important point, and requires a very great amount of practice and experience before you can judge it really well."

In this respect a very great deal depends on the type of ground and on weather conditions. As I have already indicated, the sun and wind have a great effect on the appearance of a track. If any damp earth, or sand, has been kicked up from under the surface soil, a hot sun or a strong wind will soon dry it off to the same color as the surrounding soil, and a strong wind will round off the sharp edges of the impression by blowing the surrounding dust over them. But the same track made in the same ground might look fresh for a considerable length of time, if it was a still, cloudy day. You will have to think out the problem for yourself before you can come to any decision with regard to the age of the track.

Spots of rain may have pitted the track, as in the case of our friend, the Ichnuim Sphaerodactylum, and if you know when it rained you will have an additional clue as to time. A strong wind may have blown dust or grass or straws or leaves over the marks which will again give you a clue, if you have any idea as to when the wind got up or died away again. It is always important, when in the open, to keep an eye on the weather, wind, etc., and to remember what it has been recently.

The track you are following may cross other tracks, or be crossed by them, which will serve again as some indication. The marks may cover a track you know was made the night before, or the track of another animal whose habits you know to be nocturnal. On the other hand you may find the traces of insects and worms that have worked across the marks, showing that the track was made before they commenced their night wanderings.

If you are following a man, or men, the ashes of fires, spent matches, cigarette ends, scraps of food, etc., may tell you a lot.

Grass that has been bent will spring into its normal place again in a few hours, but if it has been broken it will wither. The owner of a station in Australia was riding with a bushman after a particular lot of sheep. He saw a lot of tracks, and suggested they should follow them. "Oh no," said the man, "these were only made two days ago, and the sheep we want must have passed this way a week ago."

So this whole question of ground, time, and weather seems to be somewhat inextricably mixed up, but if you set your mind to it, and analyze the different causes that are influencing the appearance of the marks you see, you will, with practice, be able to come to a fairly accurate solution as to time.

Your knowledge of the weather will also enable you to account for some of the peculiarities which the marks appear to show. Just as in deep snow, prints are apt to appear extraordinarily large, so, after rain on slippery ground, are the prints of animals likely to spread and take on a deceptive appearance. You must study the habits of the animal world in both wet and fine weather, for in the former the game usually lies closer.

Again and again we find that, from whatever angle we regard it, tracking calls for the most close and careful observation as well as constant practice!

Training in Tracking

Outdoor Skills






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