Last weekend when Rick Berry and his tracking partners were leading a small group near Lake Tahoe looking for beaver signs, they stumbled upon something unexpected.
A headless rabbit and piles of fur lay in the blood-stained snow.
Above them, looking down from a perch in a tree was an irritated red tailed hawk that wanted to finish its dinner.
“You can focus on one thing, but you’re always going to find something else. … That’s the exciting thing because you never know what’s going to happen,” said Berry, the founder and director of 4 Elements Earth Education.
Humans have tracked animals as long as they have hunted them, but in modern times, the skill of tracking has reached a new appreciation among scientific and conservation-minded circles.
Trackers are now being sought by wildlife biologists to help locate endangered species, said Scott Davidson, a Bay Area-based tracker who teaches the skill at the earth studies school Regenerative Design Institute and works with a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of mountain lions.
“It’s a hobby for some, something much deeper for others. … For me there’s nothing more engaging and enlivening as tracking wildlife in a holistic way,” Davidson said.
Davidson, Berry and 4 Elements Program Director Scot Woodland led the recent outing near Tahoe City, “Tracking the Winter Sierra.”
In March, the three trackers will participate in a locally hosted Cyber Tracker Conservation Evaluation that will bring in some of the world’s top tracking evaluators.
Giving credence to trackers in recent years is Mark Elbroch, a doctoral student in wildlife biology at the University of California, Davis, and author and co-author of a number of books including, the new Peterson Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals.
He is the initial evaluator for CyberTracker Tracker Evaluations in North America and a key player in the reliability of using tracker observation in wildlife research.
While out on a jaunt, Elbroch discovered and later verified a Wolverine track near the populated snow covered trails of the Castle Peak area.
Years of tracking have taught Berry and Woodland to view the world differently. They are always looking for signs. With their keen senses, it isn’t long before they spot some evidence of wildlife.
“It’s everywhere. It’s right underneath your nose,” Berry said.
When identifying a track, it starts with a question. Soon, a story begins to unfold.
“They start to become the detective,” Woodland said. Besides tracking animals, Woodland volunteers with local Search and Rescue teams to scout out crime scenes, missing people and, sometimes, dead bodies.
About five years ago, he started a local tracking club called Northern Sierra Tracker. The group meets once a month at places like the old Nevada City Airport and Bridgeport.
While he talked in the warm morning sun, Woodland’s attention was drawn to some scat on a fence railing. What had the animal eaten? Were those berries? What kind?
“Basically it’s the same thing as awareness,” Woodland said, turning his attention to the forest.
“There’s a million questions to ask that cedar tree to become connected to it,” Woodland said. The process of studying the world in this way helps children and adults develop a better relationship with nature while opening their minds, he says.
“This way we really empower the kids to stir up that mind and see the world through their own eyes,” Woodland said.
Woodland first became interested in tracking after reading books written by naturalist Tom Brown Jr.
Brown is the author of 16 books and field guides, including the popular 1978 hit “The Tracker.” As a boy, Brown learned his tracking and wilderness skills from an Apache elder named Stalking Wolf, who began “coyote teaching” him.
At age 15, Berry attended Brown’s Tracker School on the East Coast. He’s been hooked ever since and teaching across the country for the past 20 years. For seven years, Berry ran the Children of the Earth Foundation, a nonprofit program linked to Brown’s teachings.
“It is my livelihood. I don’t know what else I’d do,” Berry said.
Tracking is just one of the earth skills that Berry and Woodland teach children age 7 through 16 enrolled in the 4 Elements seasonal semester program, Fox Walkers.
For four years, Berry has taught groups of children in an outdoor classroom located off Lake Vera Road on a piece of land known as the Burton Homestead, a Bear Yuba Land Trust property where he and Woodland collaborate with members of the Tsi-Akim Maidu tribe.
Fox Walkers become caretakers of the land still healing from years of mining and grazing. They make fire using only friction and build shelters, bows and arrows and animal traps out of sticks. They find their way.
This summer, children will help create a new camp — an indigenous-style village along the banks of the Feather River near the University of Earth.
Over time, children enrolled in the program develop a deeper awareness of nature, learn to still their minds and open up to the vast possibilities of their own imaginations, say Berry and Woodland.
Pretty soon, students are equipped with knowledge they can carry for a lifetime, knowledge that will give them confidence in the wild.
“When you start to learn these skills, lost is just a state of mind,” Berry said.
To learn more, visit www.4eee.org.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-401-4877.