By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: The importance of getting on the right track

Long ago, when hunters, trappers and gatherers comprised much of our population, tracking skills were vital to assure adequate food.

Today, those skills, along with tinsmithing and carriage and harness making, have mostly been expunged by time.

Rohse Colored Glasses

McMinnville's Elaine Rohse is fascinated by words, books and writing - and spends much time sating that fascination.

> See her column

But tracking seems to be making something of a comeback. Nowadays it’s touted as a hobby, as a new window to nature, a reason to get outdoors, a test of your sleuthing abilities.

Many courses and classes in tracking and wilderness survival are offered, of short and long duration. Aspects of both are good to consider at this time because of the virus.

We’re cooped up — have been for weeks. We’re feeling caged. One might wonder if, when we are released, we will forget moderation and discard judgment.

When we take to the outdoors with no training, one hopes this sudden unfettered freedom will not cause us to act foolishly as it did with our friend Robert.

He was one of our group on a hiking trip. We were hiking to a beautiful, heavily forested area where ferns are about as tall as a person, and salal, huckleberry and blackberry vines creep up through the lush greenery.

On our first day, across a little meadow, Robert sees a flower, a beautiful bloom unlike any he’s seen. He heads over to admire it. He examines it closely. He thinks it may be the most exquisite bloom he’s ever seen. He resists the urge to pick it, because that would be a sacrilege.

There in that bower of greenery and blooms, he stretches out on the ground and naps. After a time comes realization: Where are his friends? Which way did they go? He doesn’t hear voices. He can’t see them. He’s alone.

He’s never been lost before and knows nothing at all about the sensible things one is supposed to do when one is lost.

He tells himself not to get excited, to have a drink of water and to calm down. He realizes he has no water.

It would have been fortunate for our friend if, sometime in the past, he had had tracking and wilderness survival classes, but that never occurred to him. It didn’t seem important. He’d taken pickleball classes instead. After all, what were his chances of becoming lost?

Luckily, Robert did find us — or rather, we found him.

Mankind, in many ways, is wise and foresighted and plans for the unforeseen.

We’re encouraged to prepare for earthquakes. You have fire insurance on your home, although you hope never to collect. In the same way, our lost friend never expected to become lost.

But even if one doesn’t get lost, tracking can be of considerable worth.

I can tell you of such an incident. It involved a farmer who had lambs he kept in a pasture near his house. He worried about them because a bunch of dogs had been out in the pasture making the lambs nervous and he was afraid those dogs might come back and harm them. To make matters worse, he was certain that one of the dogs belonged to his neighbor, a good friend.

Even though he lived on the outskirts of town, coyotes had also frightened the lambs. Although they had never killed any, they kept making exploratory forays into the pasture.

One morning, the farmer went to the pasture and found a partially eaten lamb.

Immediately, he thought of his neighbor’s dog and became quite enraged. He went to the phone, called his neighbor and told him his dog had killed one of his lambs. The man didn’t believe his dog had been out, and said maybe it was a coyote.

That made the owner even angrier, but his neighbor suggested he call the officials. The farmer agreed to do so.

The officials came — two of them — and they determined it had not been a dog. They believed that without a doubt, because there were numerous coyote tracks at the site of the killing and no dog tracks.

The owner of the lamb was glad it was not his neighbor’s dog, but highly annoyed with himself, because he had never bothered to learn the difference between a dog’s tracks and those of a coyote.

Most people can probably identify a dog’s print because of its overall shape, but it resembles rather closely those of other animals, although there are some rather fine differing points. The dog’s toes point forward and are held tightly together by the two front toes. When they are lined up, side by side, the track of the coyote is a bit smaller.

Something else: A dog’s nails are thick and blunt, whereas those of a coyote are sharp. Admittedly, it is difficult to distinguish between dog prints and those of coyotes or wolves.

Here’s another story. This is about a nice father and husband who didn’t know anything about camping, but one fine summer weekend decided that would be the thing to do. The family went to a remote, pristine spot where there were no other campers. They put up their tent.

During the night, the father was quite concerned about all the spooky noises. He got up and directed his flashlight at them, but all he could see were eyes reflected back. He went to bed but did not sleep well for the rest of the night.

The next morning, a ranger came by. He stopped to ask the father if they’d had any problems. The father explained there had been a lot of activity during the night, but all he could see with the flashlight were a bunch of eyes.

“Well,” said the ranger, “maybe you’re lucky because we’ve been getting word about a cougar that’s apparently not fond of people. You might have seen its scat and tracks because he’s been hanging around this campsite. If I were you, I’d move on to camp somewhere else tonight. Check where you decide to stay for cougar tracks and if you see a bunch, look for another site. These cougars sometimes can be a little unpredictable and there’s no point in taking any chances.”

The father thanked him and the ranger went on his way. And when he was out of sight, the father sat on a camp chair and thought about what a dunderhead he was. He’d brought his family to a place where there were animals that could have attacked them, and he didn’t have enough camping awareness to recognize tracks of anything except a deer.

Upset by what the ranger had said, he called out, “Hey, kids, I’ve got an idea. I know of a motel in the next town, just a little ways, and I hear it has a dandy swimming pool. What do you say we head up there and spend the night so you can have a nice swim before we go get pizza?”

The kids were all for it, and he thought to himself how it might be a good idea to learn about tracking and a lot about camping.

My first lesson in tracking and wilderness survival was when I was about 10. It had to do with tree blazes.

We had ridden horseback to the Top community area to meet friends for an overnight campout, but had not narrowed the meeting place to a specific spot. We had not yet run into them and wondered as to their whereabouts.

After we rode a bit farther without meeting them, my stepfather, Lynn, took from his saddle bag a small hatchet. As we rode into a thick growth of small pine trees along the trail, he chose a little pine in full view of the trail and made a blaze on it about a foot long and about eight inches wide, peeling off the bark and revealing the creamy white inner layer that showed up so clearly that anyone would notice it from quite a distance.

We rode on for several more yards and then Lynn made a blaze on another little pine, in view of the former and in full sight of the trail.

I asked him why he was doing this and he explained he was letting our friends know we had come this way. I’ve heard that blazes are injurious, especially to little trees, but I guess it’s permissible in such cases as ours. And in that growth of trees it appeared that a little thinning might be helpful.

That lesson piqued my interest in tracking and it occurred to me what fun it would be to become a Danielle Boone. It seemed to me that the art of tracking animals or humans could be exciting. I read a bit about the habits of animals and how to know them by their tracks and found it fascinating.

I learned some animals are grouped by the way they walk, such as bounders, waddlers and hoppers. The bounders include weasels and otters. These bounders place their front feet down and placement of the rear feet is exactly in that place.

The hoppers include rabbits, chipmunks, mice and most of the other rodents, and the red squirrel.

The waddlers include bears, skunk, porcupine, raccoon, beaver. They look as if they are moving only one side of their body at a time as they waddle along.

You don’t have to go far to find wildlife. Even McMinnville’s backyards sometimes provide a variety. I’ve seen an opossum cross my backyard, offspring clinging to her back.

I was just glad she kept going and didn’t take up permanent residence at our address.

Deer routinely come on my patio to sample the greenery. I found a garter snake in my garage. Squirrels love our trees.

A cougar has been seen hereabouts, and a year or so ago, we often saw skunks — luckily with no unpleasant meetings.

I hope, if you have not yet done so, that you soon get to see the track of a raccoon. It’s my favorite track. Kids love it. It’s the replica of a small child’s hand print. Look for it in soft moist soil, perhaps near a river.

Many courses are offered in tracking and wilderness survival, if you’re wondering about giving one a try.

Tracking is one of our heritage’s most impressive accomplishments. You don’t need a license for this insight into nature. Other members of your family might enjoy it, too, and you don’t need fancy expensive equipment.

By the way, you might start looking for turkey tracks in your Yamhill County yards. Since being introduced in Oregon, wild turkeys have decided Oregon is a fine home. But be advised: Although I have not personally given them a try, I’ve been told they can’t begin to compare with the succulence of a Yamhill County broad-breasted bronze.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


Web Design and Web Development by Buildable