Animal Tracking

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By Carol Sottili
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 28, 2001

Animal tracker Susan Morse got down on all fours in three feet of snow and stuck her head into a bush. As 20 would-be trackers huddled around her, she sniffed deeply. She breathed hard. She sniffed again. She slowly rose to her snowshoes, turned to the assembled throng and frowned.

Sorry, no smell of fresh bobcat urine.

Only moments before, our group, bushwhacking its way through untouched powder in the mountains of Vermont's Mad River Valley, had been hot on the trail of possible bobcat tracks. Morse was hopeful, although she didn't quite like the pattern of the partially snow-covered tracks. And the absence of scent marking wasn't a good sign. But we pushed on, following the trail to a narrow precipice. Morse picked up the broken branch of a hemlock. A porcupine had been feeding there, she deduced -- likely the rightful owner of the supposed bobcat tracks.

We'd started our six-hour animal-tracking trek from the base of the Mad River Glen ski area, led by Morse and the ski area's naturalist, Sean Lawson. On a perfect, 20-degree day, as the Mad River skiers snapped on their boots, we strapped on our snowshoes. As they skied downhill, we began hiking uphill. Whose idea was this, anyway?

But as we headed on virgin snow into the silent forest, thoughts of skiing were quickly displaced with the hunt for fresh animal tracks. While about a half dozen of us were tourists taking a day off from skiing, the rest were locals, drawn to the walk by Morse's reputation as a premier animal tracker and Mad River Glen's status as the best ski area in the nation for environmental programs.

As we hiked up the ridge, heart rates creeping toward their target zones, it became apparent that this would be no soft stroll down a nicely packed and marked trail for desk jockeys looking to feel good about the environment. Morse, a camouflage-wearing woman who hunts deer, loves cats and has a wicked sense of humor, is a blunt talker. As head of a nonprofit organization called Keeping Track, she is at home in the field, teaching rank-and-file citizens how to amass data about the presence of certain target carnivores, and using that data to identify contiguous land corridors that the animals travel through. Various government agencies, including the U.S. Forestry Service, use the information when making land-use decisions.

Morse's message was simple and tough: It's up to every concerned citizen to help collect enough scientific evidence to convince the authorities to save land, or else species will become isolated and eventually extinct. But theoretical talk took a back seat to the detective work of figuring out what animals live in this forest.

"There's an old Iroquois saying," she said. "A feather fell in the forest. The eagle saw it. The whitetail heard it. The bear smelled it."

Pointing to marks on a beech tree that would have easily gone unnoticed by us, Morse described how a bear had climbed it in a quest for food. As she wrapped her arms around the trunk, mimicking how a black bear would approach the climb, Morse told us to "be the bear." It was a refrain we would hear often over the course of the trip.

Other signs of animal life that were invisible to the untrained eye became almost obvious during the course of the day, as our observation skills were shaped and tested. Small trees snapped in two, twigs pulled off, were the work of hungry moose. Nestlike piles in crowns of large trees, with branches pulled inward, were evidence of bears gorging on nuts. Fur on a tree's bark was the remains of a black bear's scent markings.

Fascinating animal facts peppered her conversation. Some female animals are attracted by the pheromones in male urine; the fisher, a weasel-like carnivore, can throw a porcupine from a tree, breaking its back before devouring it; mountain lions purr; black bears use the same trees, called "babysitter trees," over and over again as havens for their small cubs; and contrary to popular opinion, cats, both domestic and wild, do not scratch to sharpen their claws, but are instead marking territory.

As Morse shared information and observations, Lawson, the pony-tailed naturalist who leads most of Mad Glen's nature treks, concentrated on stretching more than our minds. Trailblazing through deep snow, he led us up hills and down gorges, eventually covering about three miles and a 1,000-foot vertical rise. Emerging from the forest, we crossed the road back to the ski trail, this time heading downhill with the skiers as they finished the last run of the day.


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© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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