Holy Grails of the Trails

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Joe Kreuzman looks for animal tracks in a dry creek bed in North Mountain Park. He is starting a club to help people learn how to track different animals and identify their tracks. Tracking club will meet once a month at North Mountain Park Photo by Jim Craven

by Myles Murphy
Ashland Daily Tidings

For Joe Kreuzman, the forest floor is more than simply a place to put one hiking boot in front of the other. It's a book to read slowly and carefully, learning about the creatures that travel this way and that as they go about their lives beyond the regular limits of human awareness.

Kreuzman will attempt to raise that awareness through a new club he's starting in which people can learn and share animal tracking and identification skills. "We learn how to read nature's manuscript," Kreuzman said.

 

The club, which will be named at the first meeting, is free and will meet on the last Sunday of every month at North Mountain Park. Kreuzman will show club members how to identify and analyze animal tracks, how to follow trails and how to put together all different aspects of the environment - weather, time of day, season, terrain - to help understand a trail left by an animal.

"It connects out to so much more than just what we're looking at," Kreuzman said.

Kreuzman moved to Ashland from Bend in May 2009, but for the past seven years he's taught each summer at Coyote Trails School of Nature at Earth Teach Forest Park on Dead Indian Memorial Road. At Coyote Trails, children, adults and families learn primitive skills, awareness, tracking and a philosophy of nature, Kreuzman said.

Coming from the Bend area, Kreuzman said he is looking forward to a new cross-section of animals and trails in the Ashland area. Near Bend, with its higher elevation and high-desert conditions, typical tracks included mule deer, marmots, badgers and different bird species. He expects to see a change in the ground squirrel species, from Eastern Oregon's golden mantled ground squirrel to the California ground squirrel common in Southern Oregon. And Kreuzman can spot the difference in the traces they leave.
In Southern Oregon's hills, Kreuzman looks forward to seeing traces of red fox, ringtail cat, different species of rabbits and even the elusive pine martin, which he recently caught a fleeting look at in the Crater Lake area.

"For me it's seeing the rare animals that are so secretive and sly that is the grand prize," he said. "To get a glimpse of even a track is so exciting. It's like the Holy Grail."

The club is open to people of all levels of tracking ability and experience, but Kreuzman said 5 is about the earliest age at which a youngster has the attention and focus required to begin learning about tracking.

Beginning trackers pick up a new way of looking at the world very quickly, but the finer points of the art develop at different rates for different people. This mostly depends on the amount of "dirt time" - time on the ground working on their skills - new trackers invest.
"Pretty much right away people will begin to see the ground in an enlightened way," Kreuzman said. "As they advance they pick up a really fine attention to detail."

The skills learned can open people's eyes to new ways to appreciate otherwise commonplace experiences, according to Kreuzman. That string of beautiful sunny days last week? Not just an early chance to break out the summer sandals. California ground squirrels, hibernating through most of the winter, came out in droves for the warm weather.

"For them to be out of their burrows is very unusual this early in the year," Kreuzman said.

As he brings people up to a higher level of tracking ability, Kreuzman hopes to develop a community resource of experience that city or law enforcement officials can call on to help identify signs of potentially dangerous wildlife that wanders into town.

"I'd love to have enough members of the tracker club qualified to a level where they can be called on to differentiate, 'That's not a mountain lion,' or 'It is, and it's a female weighing about so many pounds,' " he said.

The club's first meeting will be from 9 a.m. to noon this Sunday at North Mountain Park. For more information call Kreuzman at 541-482-0513