Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Tracking School

I returned to the woods this week and enrolled on a tracking course with Woodsmoke, a highly respected bushcraft school based in the Lake District. I've done a teensy bit of tracking with them before on their Woodlander Course, and lots of my own amateurish attempts, but this was to be three days of structured and in depth training that I hoped would open my eyes to the world around me. I was not disappointed. 

Sniffing out a scent trail.

We were in at the deep end from the very beginning, with exercises designed to enhance our memory and senses, culminating in following a pre-laid scent trail through the woods. Of course the human nose is not good enough to follow a natural trail, but smells are useful when identifying signs and scat, so it was wonderful to discover the human senses are not as dull as we assume.

Rainstorm so heavy night fell in the middle of the day.

The weekend was full of tests and challenges that gradually opened our eyes and helped us to tune in to the subtle signs around us. Alongside the rigours of the course, nature also had a curveball for us - epic rain fall that began on the first day, and continued in prolonged bursts for the next two days.  It wasn't long before little floods were pooling around camp and rivers running through tents and shelters.  I was impressed with the way the lessons were adapted and continued within an increasingly difficult environment. We even managed to watch a wonderful film on the first night about the bushmen who track in the Kalahari, thanks to some generator engineering and a cosy boathouse (providing welcome respite from the rain).

Dissecting a fox scat.

As the course progressed, I became increasingly confident not only in my own senses, but was able to understand where the limits of a really experienced tracker lie.  Abilities that had once seemed supernatural to me were shown to be based in science, while other tracking myths were quickly debunked. By the end of the course  I was scrutinsing broken blades of grass and running my fingers inside tracks to feel their form. Although many times I was unsure of what I was reading there, often enough I was rewarded with good evidence that allowed me to progress faster along a trail.

Course Director Steven Hanton demonstrating gait analysis- very Pythonesque.

Another comedy moment. Blindfolded piggy backs- can you walk in a straight line?

Looking for animal sign amongst dune systems at Ravenglass. 

By the end of the course, I was completely hooked, and keen to get straight on to my next trail. The skills taught at Woodsmoke are only the foundation stones of what is a huge area of study.  I think the next step for me is to try and understand better what happens to tracks and trails over time, as there is something reassuring about fresh signs, but these are rarely found in nature. I can't wait to get out again, only this time with my eyes wide open. 

The ending of the rain. A misty final morning in the woods.

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