Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Night Tracking
The eyes have it – understanding how the human eye adapts for night vision

Canadian survival expert Mors Kochanski – the author of “Bushcraft”, really doesn’t like flashlights at all. This is even more remarkable when he discusses the merits of walking at night instead of the day on his famous 100-mile walk-abouts. Kochanski’s common-sense reasoning includes the energy saved by not having to have a fire at night to keep warm; then being able to sleep well during the heat of the day – without concern for nocturnal predators. Through a lifetime of experience without a flashlight in Northern Canada’s boreal forests, Mors knows a thing or two about night vision. Walking through the evening dusk into the darkest night, Mors simply lets nature do its magical adaptation, morphing daytime vision into the remarkable ability to see at night. 
Third generation tracker Fernando Moreira, started tracking when he was eight years old in his native Portugal. Decades later, living in Reno Nevada, Fernando is a dedicated (and respected) tracker recognized throughout the United states for his tracking skills. To acquire night vision, Fernando states that you must get the human body to produce and release the chemical associated with good night vision. To make this happen, he suggests that you sit in a dark room (or with a light proof shroud over your head) and using a red filtered light - look at the surrounding red shine being careful not to look directly at the light for about twenty minutes. Fernando suggests that you may have to repeat this exercise a few times to fully activate the chemicals in your eyes.

 In the book “Manhunter – a “must read” for trackers, Ian Maxwell goes into detail about “vision”. Maxwell describes the actual physiological functioning of the eye and explains how night vision works. Remarkably, the parts of the eye that allow us to clearly focus when there is a source of light, changes over to a support role in the darkness.  Basically, there is a small area at the back of the eyeball where lighted vision is concentrated on specific sensors called “cones.” These sensors allow us to detect colour, details, and distant objects. In darkness, the eye primarily uses different sensors called “rods.” Dispersed over a larger area, rods are located away from the central, cone rich area at the back of the eye. The result is that if you look directly at an object in darkness, the eye has difficulty seeing it… you must train yourself to use your peripheral vision to see things at night.  This is called viewing “off center”.

According to Maxwell, to gain “night vision”, there are four basic adaptations. When entering a dark area, the pupils enlarge allowing more of the available light to reach the sensors at the back of the eye; an area called the retina. Within about five to ten minutes of being in the dark, the cones become accustomed to the dim light and the eyes become a hundred times more sensitive to light. During the night vision adaptation process a chemical called rhodopsin is produced, which gives us night vision in about thirty minutes. During this adaptation process, the rods adjust to the darkness becoming 100,000 times more sensitive to light. Maxwell warns that fully adapted night vision can be lost with just a flash of white light. He recommends that to maintain night vision that strict light control is maintained. In one of our next posts we will explore what Ian Maxwell recommends for illuminating tracks at night.

The take home message from these three experts is that if we understand how our eyes adapt to low light conditions, we can continue to function at night...albeit at a diminished capacity. As night tracking is such an important topic, we will continue to explore more on night vision including what illumination to use. We may even be able to challenge some longstanding core beliefs about what lights are best.
See you on the trail,

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tracking the Deer Family

Tracking the Deer Family

Tracking animals is thrilling, especially when you close the gap to where you can see the animal you are tracking. The thing to remember is that big or small, everything that moves leaves signs of passage… if you know what to look for.  In this article, we will discuss tracking members of the deer family.

The deer family are classed as ungulates. Ungulates are hoofed animals such as deer, moose, elk, and caribou. According to scientist, at one time in ancient history, ungulates had five toes on each foot, but through the ages have evolved to walk on just two toenails. While looking at your hand, imagine the thumb disappearing and the little finger and the index finger shrinking back into the position of the “dew” claws. The middle finger and ring finger remain as the primary toes, but also shorten up leaving the animal walking on the remaining enlarged toe nails.

Normally, the only time you will see the dew claws register in the tracks of the deer family will be in soft matter like mud and snow, or when the animal is running or going down a steep incline. The single exception is the caribou, where the front dew claws can be seen in the track even when they are walking normally on even ground.

Another adaptation with caribou is how big the hooves are in comparison to the animal. For woodlands caribou and their northern “barren land” brothers to survive a winter's deep snow and summers in marshy areas or muskeg, they need large hooves. Scientists suggest that the large hooves are the evolutionary equivalent of growing snowshoes. Because of the oversize hooves, the caribou exerts about two pounds per inch at the hoof in comparison to a moose at eight pounds per square inch. The caribou’s elongated dew claws also help distribute the animal’s weight, hence the dew claws registering in the track even while walking.

When tracking fresh “sign”, watch for a change in the track pattern…you may be getting close and spooking the animal. Make a point of always being aware of the direction of the wind. Ungulates will often circle back into the wind before browsing so they can scent any predators approaching along their track.

Once, while trailing fresh elk sign, I got so absorbed in following the tracks that I overtook a small herd of elk bedded down in the afternoon heat. I can remember noticing a horrible gamey smell a split second before all hell broke loose with half a dozen panicked elk scattering all around me. It’s a good thing that nobody was there to witness my startled little girl dance. 

While tracking ungulates, it is often important to know what gender you are following. Due to the frequent exceptions that happen in nature, there are few indications of gender in the tracks or sign that are 100% accurate. Urine puddles may be the most conclusive sign. Male ungulates tend to produce a stream of urine with the puddle in front of the hind hoof tracks. Females tend to splash urine behind the rear hoof tracks. However, unless you find a urine puddle, you need to recognize the numerous small differences that taken together will indicate gender. 

Before we get into specifics, it is important to know that when walking, ungulates tend to step with their rear hoof into the same place that their front hoof just vacated. This is called “a direct register”. The result is the rear hoof print directly on top of the front hoof print.

Aggressive young male deer will often slightly overstep their front hoof track with their hind hoof. Older males will often do the opposite where the hind hoof falls a bit short of the front hoof track. Does, being prim and proper are more inclined to place the rear hoof track directly into the front one.

The primary way to tell if you are tracking a male or female is that in most cases male ungulates walk splay footed (toed out) whereas females have a neutral foot fall or are pigeon toed, (toes turn in). An exception to this is when a female ungulate is in later pregnancy, where the female’s rear hooves will splay out. To be able to check the orientation of the print you must first figure out whether you are looking at the right or left track. This is easier to see with whitetail deer tracks as the outside toe is slightly longer than the inside one.

Mature male ungulate rear hoof tracks will often register slightly inside the front hoof tracks due to a wider, more muscular chest and neck which supports the added weight of the antlers. Conversely, female ungulate’s hind hooves often register slightly outside of the front hoof track due to the wider hips required for birth…basically they have a bigger backside than the male.

While in rut, bucks of all ages will often drag their front hooves. During the rest of the year, only young bucks tend to drag their front toes. This is especially noticeable in shallow snow.

Except during fall breeding season, elk herds tend to be all female or all male. The exception may be a couple of juvenile males in a female led herd. From spring to early winter, small calf tracks will indicate a female led herd.

Tracking is a perishable skill that requires practice to remain good at it. Tracking also requires knowledge of the characteristics of the animal that you are following. Understanding the unique information in this article will go a long way in helping you “read” the tracks made by members of the deer family in North America.

See you on the trail,

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

You never forget your "first"

Tracking – When it counts

You can never forget your “first”… first love, first car, first solo adventure. These “firsts” usually include places, events or people that stick in your mind; often having a significant impact on future interests. During a “debrief” in a local pub after a tracker training event, a fellow tracker asked me about my first real tracking mission.

Three o’clock Sunday afternoon - the radio squawked...”Bart, this is Command, report to SAR base immediately”. Recognizing a tense edge in search and rescue manager Mike’s voice, I hurried to the mobile command truck. So far, as best that I could tell, the weekend exercise for our search and rescue team seemed to be going well...except we hadn’t met our objective of finding the three lost hikers...yet.

On entering the command van, Mike wasted no time in explaining the situation. The three person team that was sent out to act as lost hikers for our search teams to find, were two hours overdue. The exercise was supposed to end one way or the other at 1pm. The “lost” team was supposed to have either been found by then or to return to base on their own. It was now 3pm and the SAR management team was about to declare a “no duff” emergency. The primary problem being that the people who would be tasked with finding the lost hikers in this real emergency would be the same SAR teams who had been unsuccessfully searching for them since Saturday morning when the exercise started.

Mike summarized that as well as being two hours over-due...all communication was lost with no area cell phone coverage and the team not answering their radio. Further...they had missed their last three scheduled “check in” radio calls.

Remarkably, while setting up the search scenario, Mike had not anticipated any problems with the search teams finding the lost threesome. He had dropped them off at the side of a logging road with the instructions to “get lost” and if not found by 1pm on Sunday – to return to the road for pick up. Mike had no idea where they were.
Back at the command van, I couldn’t help but wonder why Mike had called me in. Just what did Mike want me to do about the missing members that our trained search and rescue teams hadn’t already done?

About six months earlier Mike and I had attended a weekend “tracking” course put on by Universal Tracking Services. Although we both enjoyed the experience, it just wasn’t Mike’s thing. However, I was hooked. I had attended one other weekend course in the interim and was looking forward to my third tracking course in the coming months. With this in mind, Mike asked me, “ Bart, do you think if I showed you where I dropped the team off, you might be able to track them?”... I really didn’t have an answer. I know that with just two tracking courses under my belt and some dismal practices, I certainly didn’t feel confident, but all I could say was "let’s go take a look.”

The relatively short trip up the logging road was made in silence. The concern for the well being of the lost team was palpable. On arrival at the drop off, Mike simply said “good luck” as I exited the truck.

Once on the ground, I cut for sign along the loose dirt on the road side. Surprising myself, I almost immediately found three sets of tracks and disturbances where the team had unloaded their packs. Frankly, I was excited about just how quickly I was able to confirm the “point last seen.” 

Continuing with basic tracking protocol, I searched for (and found) three distinct signature prints in the roadside dust, then took the time to draw the details of each print on footprint cards. Although this maybe only took ten minutes in total – the emergency responder bias for taking immediate action, made it seem to take an eternity. My tracking instructors’ voice kept repeating in my head...”always take whatever time is required to draw accurate footprints."

Once on the trail, I finally fully understood the importance of accurately drawing the footprint cards. It is all about building up patterns in the brain so when you observe partial prints, the details are recognizable. I was finding just enough patterns in some of the disturbances to prove to myself that I was on the right track. If I hadn’t taken the time to draw the tracks I would not be confident that I was following the lost team members.

As much as I would like to tell a story about an incredibly brilliant chase...once on the trail, the reality is that except for a short moment of indecision where the game trail forked and I found myself having to figure out which route the team took, I was generally able to track at a fairly fast walking pace. The whole tracking segment probably took less than twenty minutes. It was almost anticlimactic when I found the team.

I actually heard them before a saw them...the three team members were just finishing packing and preparing to hike out. Remarkably, not a timepiece amongst them and with their radio battery long dead, they had guesstimated that it was probably about time to call the exercise quits.
With my radio, I called into the greatly relieved SAR management team that I had found our lost group and requested a pick up vehicle to meet us at the road.

During the exercise debrief, it was not lost on the SAR team that a single, very inexperienced tracker was able to locate the lost group in about a half hour where numerous, well trained search teams working hard all weekend were unable to find the group. This realization was a game changer for future search operations.

Spurred on by the success of this first real use of tracking, I couldn’t get enough training and experience. Through the subsequent years there has been many successes where tracking played a part in a positive outcome. But there has also been enough failures to keep me honest. One thing is for sure, “by using teams of trained trackers early in a search greatly improves the chances of a successful outcome.”

See you on the trail