“Sign” …the observable evidence of a person, animal or machine’s passage
For trackers, seeing “sign” is not usually the problem. Differentiating a disturbance made by the person that you are tracking from the contamination caused by something else is often the challenge.
In tracker training we spend so much time perfecting our observation skills that seeing even infinitesimal disturbances becomes almost commonplace. Where tracking gets difficult is in areas that are contaminated by disturbances caused by something or someone other than our quarry. On a pristine line of sign where the direction of travel and the stride length is known, any disturbance in the area where the next foot fall should be...is probably what we are looking for. However, these “pristine” conditions are rare, and contamination is commonplace.
At one event, the training area had been mowed a week before by an industrial machine that had chewed its way through the grass; followed by a dry spell making everything brown and crunchy. Adding to this mess, was a resident herd of elk trashing the ground. As a result, literally every square inch was disturbed...yet all the beginner trackers were able to follow a line of sign through the area. How did they do this?
The success of this challenging exercise could not be attributed to any one specific “thing,” but to the numerous techniques and skill sets learned and then practiced during the weekend course. Let’s explore some of the basics here.
Originally developed by Ab Taylor and his team at the US border patrol, the “Step by Step” method of tracking is the foundation of training for many tracking schools in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere). At its most fundamental level, Taylor found that once the first few foot prints of the quarry being tracked are discovered, a simple measuring device made from a ski pole or broom handle could be marked with the measurement of the stride length, making subsequent foot falls easier to find.
The sign cutting stick causes you to look where you want to be looking, instead of everywhere else. The end of the stick becomes a pointer towards where the next sign or track is expected to be found.
“Fundamentals of Mantracking”
Albert “Ab” Taylor
Keep in mind that the disturbance found at the end of the stick rarely shows up as a distinct print but usually as an anomaly, or something that catches the eye as “out of the ordinary” or “out of place.” As well, by marking the approximate heel of each disturbance, (using a small piece of flagging tape), then visually lining up the marks, it only takes a few tracks to get an idea of the direction of travel.
Once the tracker knows the direction of travel and the stride length, the probable area of the next footfall can be established, and the process of elimination begins. By close observation, check to see if there is more than one disturbance in the proximity of the next footfall. Ask yourself, "Can the source of any of the disturbances be identified as being made by anything other than the quarry, i.e. animal tracks, other people, etc.?" The instructors at Universal Tracking Services (UTS) call this a “make it or break it” moment. By eliminating everything else – you are left with the most probable solution ...which is - “that you have found your next track.” For Sherlock Holmes fans, you will recognize this as his basic philosophy of crime solving.
What this means to beginning trackers… is that during training, every footfall should be identified in the order that they appear. Identification ranges from observing almost microscopic disturbances to seeing near perfect signature prints. With unidentified anomalies, using a tracking stick to help measure the distance between footfalls and having a confirmed direction of travel helps differentiate disturbances caused by the person you are tracking from some other source.
While tracking in contaminated areas, there are other techniques and skill sets that also come into play, such as the importance of “drawing prints” and “micro framing” to name a few...but these will be discussed in future posts.
See you on the trail,