Finding the Path:
An exploration of tracking
We walk together down an unplowed access road through an area, north of Elephant Mountain, known as Servicebury. Trees, bare and grayed by winter’s grip, stand sentinel at our sides. We stride quietly, following the deep ruts left by the lone truck that has come this way since the last snowfall.
“Looks like we’re not the only ones who’ve followed this truck.” I comment, referring to an uninterrupted stream of tracks that stretches down the middle of the road through its most distant bend.
Greg pauses and kneels, putting his face close to the snow. “Yeah, this is definitely a coyote.” He confirms, tracing four toe-marks preceding the trademark “x” shaped depression left by the pad of the animal’s foot. Greg stands, taking in the tracks from a different perspective. With the toe of his camo-patterned muck boots, he traces lines in the snow, breaking the long trail of tracks into repeating groups of four. “See how these prints are really evenly spaced out? It makes me think that he was just walking, following this road for easy travel.” His head turns up the road and takes a few quick steps. “Oh, but if you look over here, something got him going.” Greg narrates, his pitch elevating and speech quickening with contagious excitement. Again, with a few strokes of his toe, he breaks the tracks into fours. “See here, the pattern shifts. We lose the walking pattern, those even groups of four. His pace picks up. Now, we’re getting two tracks clumped together with one track in front and behind. Something’s got him interested.”
The coyote’s trail takes a sudden turn, dipping in and out of the tire-marks, towards a slight mound, nothing more than a clump of snapped twigs, on the edge of the road. “Oh yeah, this is very typical.” Greg explains, “Coyotes often will find elevated points and use them as marking points.” Sure enough, a pale, yellow icicle of frozen urine clings to one of the protruding sticks.
“Okay, now it’s your turn.” He announces playfully, pointing out a much smaller trail of tracks in the trees a few strides away from the mound.
Calling up everything I’ve learned over the last few days, I attempt to imitate Greg’s process. I drop to the ground, lowering my face until my nose is just shy of the powder. Despite the slightly dramatic pose, I still detect only the most basic of elements. The tracks are smaller than the coyote prints, much smaller, looking as though they were carved with a toothpick rather than pounded by thudding feet. Rather than a pattern of four, evenly spaced prints, this animal’s path is characterized by two heavier pit-like, plant marks by the front legs and two lighter impressions by the rear legs separated by large intermediary spaces. I slip out the tracking card, a laminated index of the different shapes of the prints left by mammals in the area sorted by size and tracking pattern. The tool evokes Greg’s principal explanation of the different mammal types from our first meeting: hoppers, bounders, walkers, and waddlers. His words pulsing in my mind like tracker’s mantra, I sort these tracks into the hopper category.
I turn back up to Greg and tentatively draw my conclusions, “Looks to me like it’s a hopper because of all the space between the groups of four and… we’re at the border of the trees, so is it a squirrel?”
“Close, but not quite.” Greg responds, “You were right about the hopper bit, but look at how the animal moves. How does it move around the trees.”
I reexamine. “It’s running under them?”
“Right, or you could say, it’s running between them. A squirrel would actually run from tree to tree, but this guy doesn’t seem to want anything to do with them. Give it another shot.”
I take another look at my card. “Rabbits are too big. Squirrels and chipmunks won’t work. So… is it a mouse?”
Greg was imparting upon me an important, rudimentary lesson in tracking. Tracker and professional wildlife photographer, Paul Rezendes, writes in his guide, Tracking and the Art of Seeing, “Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal.” Tracking isn’t solely an art of finding the next track in a path; it’s learning how to see the world from an animal’s perspective, understanding what drives it, what it needs, what it fears, and how, why, and when it moves in relation to other aspects of the forest. In other words, Greg was pushing me to see more holistically, beyond the specific prints immediately in front of my face. Rezendes continues, “Sometimes there are no tracks at all, but there is never a square yard in the forest that does not tell us something about the wildlife within it.”
A confident energy possesses him as he leads us further on the rediscovered route, nimbly navigating over fallen trees and roots and cruising through snow.
“So, Greg, how many times have you walked this route?” I ask.
“Thirty times or so.” He responds, matter-of-factly.
“Do you know normally bring company?”
“No, the majority of the time, I’m by myself.”
“Do bring any kind of emergency gear like a first aid kit, a light, a radio, extra food and water, anything like that?”
“I guess that would be my compass.” He chuckles softly, his salt-and-pepper cheeks creasing into an amused grin. “Well, that, and my legs. As long as you point yourself straight, you can get out of here in a few hours.”
“Provided you can walk.” Comments an internal voice, an instinct emerging from memories of nights spent on frozen, Sierra slopes last January training in Wilderness First Response. Despite my own reservations, I can’t help but admire Greg’s boldness, which has the gruff, humble quality of a self-confidence won with time and experience. Thus, I silence my concerns, determined that there is much to learn, by following in Greg’s footsteps.
Greg Borah is a man with many titles: carpenter, father, grandfather, tracker, vitner, and basketball stud (according to a colleague, he has a reputation for being the “townie” phenom that comes in and schools the college employees). Ask him yourself about his busy lifestyle, and he’ll tell you, “I’m a carpenter by trade, but I have a lot of other interests, and tracking’s one of them. I don’t like to sit still.” Tracking began for him as a child in Long Island when he and his pals used to chase snakes through the woods. After spending his summers in high school working out west on a “haying crew” in Nevada, he knew that he would day leave the congestion of the city and suburbs behind and cultivate a rural lifestyle. Vermont, both rural and close to his family on the East Coast, was a natural choice.
Since coming here, he began volunteering as a tracker for various ecological projects in this part of Green Mountain State. From a technical perspective, Greg is responsible for walking certain transects or a line that links a series of randomly chosen points. By walking these randomly distributed paths and noting the tracks that cross it, he gathers statistically sound evidence of either the presence or absence of certain species, a strong indicator of the ecological health of the environment.
Technically, this is the service that Greg Borah, the tracker, provides. But when one enters the woods with Greg, I believe something much more spiritual, primal, or ethereal occurs. When Greg sees a set of tracks, he strives to understand the story of the animal that made it, an ability born from an active mind and a deep curiosity about and connection with one’s environment. As Greg once said, “I think part of being a good human is being a good animal, and tracking is a way to do that.”
“Once we hit the dairy farm, it should be the second house on the right,” I read aloud from the directions I jotted down during my last conversation with Greg. Looking up through the windshield, my eyes sweep the dirt road in front of us. Nestled in the valley, farmland stretches before us for what appears to be a few a miles before colliding with rising Green Mountains to the East and Adirondacks to the West. The sky is blue, so clear that you can almost make out each distinct tree in the distant ranges.
“I think that’s the dairy farm up there,” remarks my friend and classmate, Jebb, who has agreed to assist me with an extra camera during today’s interview. The aroma of large quantities of manure wafts into the car, confirming that we’re nearing our destination. Greg’s instructions are precise, leaving us little room for error. “The second house on the right,” a grey wooden home with wrap-around porch, comes immediately after the farm. Jeb swings the car into the spacious driveway, the tires crunching satisfyingly on the gravel and snow.
Camera bags slung over-shoulder and tripods in hand, Jebb and I proceed to the front door, passing a home-made basketball hoop slightly removed from the driveway. We ring the doorbell, provoking an eruption of barking from inside. Moments later, Greg pulls open the door, clad in a camouflage patterned long-sleeve shirt and jeans, and invites us past his excited dogs and into his home.
Crisp winter light floods into the house through a wall of large south-west facing windows. “These are a few of the things I’ve picked up over the years.” Remarks Greg, leading us into the mudroom. Feathers of all colors, patterns, and size are tied with red ribbon to braches mounted horizontally on the wall, forming beautiful, cascading racks of plumage. Underneath hangs a tightly woven pod of twigs with a cavity the size of a fist, which Greg indentifies as a red squirrel nest. Branches, gnawed off by porcupines, still carrying golden, dry leaves, frame the feathers. A section of birch bark the size of a man’s torso, is suspended on the wall, gouged with bear claw-marks. Jebb and I hang our coats on a rack next to an otter pelt. Just like the woods, everything in Greg’s home has a story.
Climbing the stairs, a bobcat pelt drapes over our shoulders, fluffy, golden-brown, spotted black with large paws and intact claws. As Greg unearths more boxes of bones, feathers, and pelts, he walks us past his bookshelves, laden not only with field guides and tracking collections, but also anthropological works on the native peoples, adventures stories of mountain men, and several works on agriculture and geography that I’ve heard enter discussions at the college.
Indeed, Greg is much more than a carpenter—his restless spirit and hungry mind pushing him to follow all of his many interests. And in doing so, he continues to lead an examined, intentional, active life.
My feet follow by instinct the single-track trail on the ridgeline that rises like an earthen fin from the coast. Waves slam powerfully against the cliffs below. I can’t see them, lost to me in the thick fog, but I hear their incessant crashing. Wind howls in from the Pacific, tearing through the valley, ripping tears from eyes. The golden grasses dance around my feet as I follow the descending, scraggly trail to the beach below. I grew up here amidst the pounding surf and towering redwoods, in the creeping, hungry fog that claws its way over mountains and oozes into valleys, on sun-kissed ridges that drop into the sea.
Last summer, after crossing half the country by car, my dear friend and I neared the conclusion of a journey of many thousands of miles. After days on the road, crossing prairies, mountains, and desert, Marin County, California with its forested open spaces, golden, rolling hills, and sparkling sea, rose like a Garden of Eden.
And so it was. But, for that reason, for its beauty, for its luxury, for its affluence, I had to leave. Too curious was I of all else that was out there. As is suggested in the opening prelude of Moby Dick, “there comes a time when all healthy young men feel the call of the sea.” I too felt that primal urge, the need as a young man coming of age to cast myself from my natal nest and throw myself into the depths of the world, to experience new, alien, and uninhibited, to expose myself geographically and culturally to alternative methods of living, thinking, and existing, to search for a diversity of answers to the riddle of how to live a life on this planet.
So, I left, first making for South America, where I spent three months in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia and Peru, living with a wide variety of host families, backpacking in the wilds of the Andes, and exploring the countries by bus, open-air truck, and everything in between. I then left for North Africa, for Morocco, where, alone, I hiked the Atlas Mountains, learned to surf on the Atlantic Coast of Africa, and eventually bussed and hitchhiked my way to Northern Norway, couch-surfing and camping all the way through.
The following passage is an excerpt from my travel journal from a few days spent in Hamburg, Germany in May 2012.
They come and go together and alone.
A couple eats lunch together by the water.
A man in a nice suit reads a newspaper and checks his watch, spending his lunch break eating pasta at a café.
A woman rushes through the square, speaking of a matter of great importance to someone on the others side of the cell phone clamped to her ear.
Two proud parents share ice cream while pushing a stroller containing the beginnings of a new family and a new life together.
I sit at a café, the breakfast I ate an hour ago long since cleared. I’m still here with my notebook splayed open and a pen in my hand. I’ve been here so long that the wait-staff doesn’t even remember that I ate something and were very confused when I asked for a check, which they forgot about too.
I sit here still and watch the world go by.
Everyone belongs here; they have lives and connections, each person’s life a single thread that weaves and mixes and crosses among the rest, tangling into the complex, living tapestry that is the community of Hamburg.
I am a loose thread, directionless, connected to no one, floating on the surface of it all.
It’s one kind of loneliness to be without people. It’s another to be without purpose.
Sometimes, I am very lonely.
I returned to my small corner of the world, only to find that I was not as I once was, that home and my relationship to it had changed since my departure. I lost myself, no longer sure of who I was or what I was doing with my life—a common affliction of twenty-something year-old people in our society. I came to Vermont searching for purpose, for people, and for place. I needed a new home.
After a semester at our college on the hill, I had exchanged perspectives with people from all inhabited continents of the world and a large diversity of domestic backgrounds. Still, I lacked a driving passion, a mission, a journey. My narrative rather than arcing, building, developing, felt to me like the limp end a of piece string: spineless, feeble, aimless. I tore into myself, “Why don’t you know what you want anymore?” Hundreds of people that I met who would never have access to the opportunities available to me at Middlebury wore heavy on mind, “Why? What are you doing to make the most of what is available to you here?”
I felt pressure, pressure to apply myself. I felt fear, fear that I would squander, fear that I was not worthy. I felt anxiety, perhaps from not yet being ready to mantle of the responsibility of living an examined life. I felt trapped, cut-off from the world living in rural Vermont, but even more isolated because, despite living on campus, I had hardly experienced the area with anyone that lived here.
I was lost.
I needed a way forward.
Tracking, in my mind, was a way to satisfy those needs. It was an opportunity to leave campus behind and walk in the woods, to begin to develop a basic exposure to the variety of environments that exist in the winter in Vermont. I wanted to walk it with somebody who lived here, a local expert, somebody who could read all the signs I was unable to see, who could teach about all the forms of life that call that reside in this corner of the North East Kingdom. While I was fundamentally oversimplifying, I understood tracking as the art of being able to see into what initially appears to be chaos and obscurity and find the next step.
That’s what I needed, a way to find the next step.
He stands silent and still in a forest of swaying trees and groaning wind. His hands grip the handles of his hiking poles, driving them into the knee-deep snow. Alert eyes narrowed, his head swivels slowly, searching the wintry landscape for the way forward.
“The blow-over from the last storm last week is unbelievable.” He reflects, explaining the massive toppled trunks whose torn, gnarled roots now loft walls of frozen soil, perpendicular to the forest floor. “Everything looks so different than just a few weeks ago.”
While the violent alteration of the woods is visually striking, it carries with it one practical implication for two trackers, hiking without a trail: with so many trees missing, the series of blue dots my companion had drawn onto tree trunks during previous tracking expeditions, the system of reference points we have followed all day, has completely disappeared.
I feel out of place, wanting to help, but my untrained eyes struggle to distinguish between all the trees before us.
Greg moves forward, taking decisive steps towards a tree that emerges at forty-five degree angle from the ground, the trunk sagging under the weight of this winter’s snow. “You ever hear the song about Davy Crockett?” He calls over his shoulder. I shake my head, but he isn’t looking back, too focused on the snow balancing on the precarious trunk before him. “You’re never lost,” he continues while raising his right ski pole over his head, “just temporarily disoriented.” The metal slices straight to the bark, connecting with a resounding crack. The snow slides right off, exposing a fading blue dot. Only then does Greg turn back to me, a boyish grin on his face.
And into the woods once more we go.
In order to truly know the way, sometimes you have to create the path.
Hours later, trudging down a steep slope on tired legs, we encounter our boot tracks from this morning, a signal we’re reaching the end of today’s journey. Now on the final stretch, Greg’s pace shifts. His strides are less pointed, slower and halting, drawn out as if to savor each footfall. His face tilts up, his black hood slipping back to reveal a head of close-cropped, salt and pepper hair and curious, dark eyebrows. His features have calmed and his grey eyes have adopted a soft, almost tender gaze as he searches for the last remaining tracks before leave snowy paths behind for a Ford F-150 and a winding, two-lane highway back to Middlebury.
Suddenly, a peculiar set of tracks cut across the trail in front of us. With four distinct toes on paw, moving in bounding groups of three, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Greg takes a breath in, “The groups of three strides with gap in between, this is a fisher.”
Wordlessly, we agree to follow it, abandoning the transect and clambering up the steep hillside. The space between the groups of impressions grows the deeper we follow, “Something really got him moving here.” Greg comments. He pulls his head up and pans, “This area’s had a lot of activity.”
Tracks, distinct groups four with “x’s” in the paws, converge from a variety of angles. They were coyotes and they were a lot of them.
“Something must have drawn them in.” The longer we follow, the more tracks appear in the snow. I feel a building since of anticipation—we’re moving towards something big.
All the tracks collide, the concentration of footfalls churning the snow brown from the dirt underneath. At the center of all the commotion, perched on top of the dirty snow, lies a deer jaw-bone. Picked clean of flesh, a red tinge clings to the bone, emphasizing that at one point, it had belonged to a living, breathing organism.
We wait, the drama of the scene sinking in.
Greg catches my eye, “Another snowfall and this’ll just be another nothin’, another forgotten story.”