Joe Kreuzman remembers the first time he saw a footprint. He was 2 years old.
"I was with my sister, and we just stepped out of wet grass onto the hot concrete on the sidewalk, and I remember looking back and seeing a little wet track," Kreuzman recalls.
Kreuzman has been studying tracking ever since and has turned that passion into a career. The executive director of the Medford-based Coyote Trails School of Nature teaches tracking frequently at the organization's field school at the Earth Teach Park above Ashland.
In the past few years he's also taught tracking in Vermont, Belize and South Africa.
Winter, he says, is an ideal time for the novice to get into tracking.
"This time of year, everybody can see tracks in snow," says Kreuzman. "The energy is left and visible."
Snow, he says, creates a canvas upon which the invisible is revealed.
"When it snows in the backyard, people can be consciously aware of all the birds, squirrels, mice, voles and weasels that live there year round and see the fox that comes up on their back porch and piece it all together," says Kreuzman. "That's what I love about tracking this time of year in snow."
For backyard trackers, you can see a lot without having to drive to the wilderness.
"Even in the center of Medford, you're going to find fox and bobcat," Kreuzman explains. "(You) interpret the language of the forest. It's a common language in our DNA that we've had since the beginning of time. Then to be able to connect that through the manuscript that's left after a snowstorm and a mammal moving through, it creates a really special moment."
The beginner usually focuses on species identification from a track, but a footprint reveals much more.
"You can tell whether it was male or female, how fast it was moving, if its stomach was full or empty, when the track was made — track aging," Kreuzman says.
Though teasing out many of those details can take years of experience, "aging" a track is important even for the beginner, and learning that skill starts with record keeping.
"If you keep a weather journal, you're now connecting yourself to the environment you're in "¦ you go through the freeze/thaw, you go through the sun, the fog," Kreuzman says.
By knowing the recent weather history, you'll know how much a track may have been distorted by melting or wind or other weather agents.
"A lot of people will see a dog track and think it's a wolf because the track has been distorted and it's huge," Kreuzman explains.
To get started in tracking, Kreuzman suggests spending 20 minutes a day outside, no matter where you live.
"Ten minutes every day in the morning and again at night, slowing down, giving yourself that 20-minute break every day, will help increase your awareness and sense of place," Kreuzman says. "It requires a lifetime commitment of change in your habits, and a lot of that is consciously choosing to be aware of slowing down."
After a while, he says, you begin to notice details that were formerly outside your circle of awareness. Tracking and awareness go way beyond actual paw prints.
"Rubs and chews, kill sites, feathers, the actual track itself "¦ there are feeding signs, tunnels, trails," says Kreuzman. "All of that pieces together a story for the tracker."
After living in the Rogue Valley for 10 years, he's discovered plenty of details he would never find in a book. After finding frequent bear tracks in the snow at Earth Teach, for instance, he realized that local bears in the lower elevations do not hibernate, whereas those up high do stay put for the winter.
One of his favorite animals to track is the ermine.
"They're active year round. A small weasel with a high metabolism, they have to feed throughout the day, similar to a hummingbird," says Kreuzman. "They hunt the mice and the moles and the pocket gopher. They will tunnel and be in those tunnels "¦ they're so beneficial because they help keep the rodent population in check."
Technology can be a friend of the beginning tracker, he says. Taking photos of tracks and later zooming in on them with a computer can help with identification. By taking a photo straight above the track and using your body to block sunlight, you get the clearest photo, especially with snow tracks.
"Throw something down for size; I recommend a penny, then shoot the photo straight on," Kreuzman explains. Then, at home, you can use calipers to get the exact dimensions of the track."
To illustrate his point, Kreuzman places a penny beside a fresh fox print in snow on a dirt road at Earth Teach.
"You can tell the difference (at home) if this is a red fox or a gray fox if you have this penny there," says Kreuzman. "The red fox is bigger than the gray, and the gray usually have toenails showing up."
Ultimately, says Kreuzman, tracking is about unraveling a mystery.
"Coming up on that track, not knowing anything about it, it creates a sense of adventure and fun. The tracks don't lie," he says. "You can even ascertain the health of an ecosystem based on the diversity of tracks, who's living there, who isn't."
In a practical sense, tracking helps anyone feel more comfortable in nature.
"Gaining that knowledge," says Kreuzman, "will help dispel the fear of the unknown."
To learn more about the Coyote Trails School of Nature, see www.coyotetrails.org.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org