I was about a third of the way through a morning of learning to identify animals from their tracks when the group leader told us something unexpected about the place we were exploring.
“People like us, we’re the first to arrive,” he said. “Then the off-roaders. Then the paintball crowd.”
The location was outside Nevada City where my husband and I had come to spend the weekend with friends. These good people know me well enough to propose entertainment they wouldn’t choose for themselves, in this case, a tracking class.
I jumped at the chance. Ever since my husband and I bought property in the foothills, I’ve been curious about the animals who share our land.
We got up early for the class and drove through a confusing set of back-country roads following directions that had arrived by email. I knew we would end up in a woodsy area and I expected it to be beautiful.
I hoped the hiking wouldn’t exhaust me: It was a three-hour class.
At 9:30 a.m. we found our destination, parked the car and joined the tracking group who were standing together at the edge of a vast field of mud. All around us the ground was brown, a lake-sized ring of earth, compacted in some places, squishy in others and crisscrossed by car and truck tracks.
Our hosts explained that it was the site of a former airport. The mud expanse was ringed by large pine trees and I figured we’d head into the woods soon.
We began by examining the mud. The group consisted of about 15 people, the four of us, attracted by a newspaper announcement, and the regulars, a group of serious and semi-serious trackers. By “serious” I mean that some of them work for search and rescue. By semi-serious I mean that even the amateurs carried animal identification charts, measuring devices and books.
As soon as we started looking at the mud, we saw tracks. The most obvious and plentiful were dog tracks, but the experienced trackers identified fox, skunk — even a frog and a tiny millipede. They could tell which way the deer had been running and how fast. They took out rulers and calipers and confirmed their guesses by measuring the size of the tracks and the space between footfalls.
It soon became obvious that this was not a skill I could pick up quickly. Tracks of the same size looked all the same to me. Even when I began to see differences (longer toenails, wider central pad, deeper impression), I realized that the animals’ movements disguise their tracks. If the fox or skunk is running, turning or pausing, the tracks will look different.
Just as I was discovering the difference movement makes, I heard unexpected movement: the sound of a unmuffled car accelerating. A man had just driven his jacked-up Ford pickup onto the mud field and gunned the engine. Then he veered off into a woodsy area at high speed and starting turning in circles.
For five minutes, we heard a rumble but we couldn’t see him. Then the truck reappeared on the edge of the mud field, limping and drenched in mud. The driver had rolled it. A tire was flat, the windshield shattered, the cab crushed.
The driver was OK because he had a roll bar. I saw him stand and talk on his cell phone. Minutes later, a buddy showed up and they hauled the truck away.
We weren’t paying much attention to them, having moved to the far side of the mud, where someone had found a perfectly symmetrical one-inch circle. It came to a peak like a volcano and was surrounded by tiny mud bubbles. This wasn’t an animal track, but what was it? We discussed it at length. A burrowing insect?
Finally, the group leader said, “Maybe it’s a paintball.” He scratched at the mud, applied a little pressure and pulled something out. Bingo.
I’d never seen a paintball, and I know nothing about the game except what I learned later from Wikipedia. I gather that players, wearing protective masks, shoot at each other with paint-filled pellets — basically, war simulation for fun. Playing on a field like this would be called “outlaw ball” because no safety regulations are in place.
Around this time I realized that we weren’t going into the woods at all. Tracks are clear on mud, not on the leaves and pine needles you find in the forest. Our destination was here, as it was for the off-roaders and the paintballers. Our destiny was to look for nature in the same place where people shot, caroused and destroyed.
We spent another hour padding around on the mud learning from the experts and trying to read cues from the animals who, like off-roaders, paintballers and trackers, leave traces of their presence, although the animals are more subtle.
Although track identification is way too complex for me to learn in a morning, I did learn about people.
“Takes all kinds” doesn’t begin to grasp the diorama that emerged at the mud field. I wonder how many similar places I’ve never seen.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at email@example.com