Updated: Sep 26, 2019
Back in July I had the privilege of taking a small group of awesome trackers on a 5-day intensive here in the wilds of Humboldt County. My goal for the week was to give the group an in-depth look at the signs and behaviors of black bears, mountain lions and whatever else we came across. I wanted to emphasize the practical nature of tracking in the hopes of reducing the mysterious/macho stigma around woodsmanship* and predator-tracking, and making these skills feel attainable, transparent and straightforward.
*Throughout this post I will be using the words "woodsman", "woodsmen" and "woodsmanship", all of which could be perceived as being gendered to reflect males. However none of the skills and techniques described herein are in any way specific to males, or any other gender, and it is my intention for these words to be inclusive of all people who spend time in the woods regardless of their gender.
On our first day, Sunday 7/14, we spent a few hours under a bridge on the coast while we waited for one participants flight to arrive at the Arcata Airport. Bridges over creeks provide shelter for fine substrates like silt and dust that preserve the tracks of even the smallest creatures, and here we studied the tracks of American mink, Pacific jumping mouse, deer mouse, song sparrow, raccoon, river otter, black-tailed deer, gray fox, rough-skinned newt, and mallard.
After a couple of hours under the bridge we headed to the airport where we picked up Heather and high-tailed it to the mountains. Two days prior to the start of the class I had found some really cool sign in the Six Rivers National Forest and I wanted to get the group there as soon as possible before the sign aged any more than it already had. We were in split into two groups and heading out highway 299 when my truck started sputtering and losing power, so we pulled over. There was no way a little car-trouble was going to stop us from getting up to the mountains, so we ditched the truck and all piled into my Volvo station wagon. Clinton proved himself to be quite the gentleman by offering to ride huddled with our packs in the way-back of the car. Amazingly the Volvo soared right up 15 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain on bumpy a dirt road, and we arrived at a junction of forest service roads where a special story was written in the dust.
Instead of immediately pointing out every track or detail and jumping into a lecture, I like to let folks look and find things on their own and then guide them to the answer through a series of pointed questions. In this way I will guide the group through the same deduction process that I go through when interpreting sign, which I hope makes the whole exercise more transparent and meaningful. The group spotted some fresh black bear and common raven tracks in the dirt junction before discovering the sign that I was really excited about, which gave us a great opportunity to discuss aging and determining the size and sex of black bears by their tracks.
Black bears are sexually dimorphic with males achieving greater size than females at maturity, and these tracks were large enough to say with certainty that they had been made by an adult male. The tracks had been dusted over by a vehicle that had driven nearby but the tire treads had a distinct dark tint to them, suggesting that the minimal moisture held beneath the immediate surface layer of the dirt had been exposed so recently that the high-elevation sun and breeze had not had a chance to whisk it away back into the atmosphere yet. In hot climates such as this, tracks showing a dark tint on a dirt road are certainly less than 24 hours old. After discussing the moisture of the tire treads with the group they noticed that a few of the bears tracks still had some dark color to them, which lead them to correctly conclude that these tracks were also less than 24 hours old and that the initial appearance of weathering was due to the dust kicked up and re-settled by the vehicle that passed by after the bear.
After our discussion about aging and sexing the bear tracks the group began to wander about the junction, eyes scanning the dirt in search of the next story. I watched closely as they approached the section of the road where I knew the story I had brought them to see was written. The passing of several vehicles and a small herd of cattle over the weekend had greatly obscured the sign, but the group had already proven themselves to be a savvy bunch and I knew they would notice it even in its extremely subtle state. We were standing right over the traces of the story, and discussing the tunnel-like trails and traps of ant-lion larvae on the edge of the road when I noticed Ashley furrow her brow and tilt her head - she had seen it. "Wait... what's that?", she pointed to a faint set of parallel drag marks in the dirt gently arching back and forth in a rhythmic pattern.
They soon noticed that there seemed to be a set of footprints associated with the drag marks, landing in a regularly-spaced pattern on either side of the swishing lines. The tracks were roughly apple-sized with four toes and a large palm-pad with two lobes on the leading edge of the pad and three on the back. They quickly recognized these features as distinctive of a feline, but although they all agreed that it seemed too big to be a bobcat they also thought that it might be a bit small to be a mountain lion. In my experience it is very common for even experienced woodsmen and trackers to find that mountain lion tracks appear smaller than they expected, even if they have seen lion tracks several times before. This may be a side-affect of our society's tendency to exaggerate the dangerous sides of predators, or something else all together, but regardless it's something I've noticed time and time again and have come to expect.
With minimal prodding the group settled on the conclusion that these were indeed mountain lion tracks - but why the drag? What was it doing? Was it carrying a kitten or prey, or dragging an injured appendage? Well the first step in answering those questions was determining the sex of the lion. Lions, like bears, are sexually dimorphic, with males being much larger and heavier than females. Here in Humboldt County a typical adult male lion is about 135 pounds and a typical adult female is about 80 pounds. This size difference is apparent in the tracks, and biologists and woodsmen have used a measurement of the heel pad to sex lions for decades. Measured at the widest point, the pad of the hind foot of a mountain lion will tell you the sex with surprising accuracy. Under 48 millimeters, almost certainly female, greater than 50 millimeters, almost certainly male. The gray area between 48 and 50 millimeters can be occupied by sub-adult growing males and particularly beefy females, and I have documented both within that range. I shared this information with the group, and asked them to take turns carefully measuring the heel pad with a ruler and to share with me their results. They each returned a measurement of right around 50-51 millimeters. This may not seem extraordinary, but I was absolutely blown away. Having trained dozens of trackers and biologists in measuring and sexing lion tracks, I have learned that it can be incredibly difficult to get folks to be consistent in their measurements, and it's common to have variation as wide as 10 millimeters or more between people. All 5 of these folks returning such close measurements really impressed me, and set me to wondering what it was in their backgrounds that had trained them to such precision. 3 of the 5 participants were recent graduates of Alderleaf Wilderness College (which I attended as well back in 2010), 1 of 5 was an instructor at Alderleaf, and all of them had taken CyberTracker Track and Sign Evaluations. Watching them return their measurements one at a time I felt a deep appreciation for the lineage of science-based trackers of which we were all a part, and gratitude for the many teachers and friends who have helped us all along our journeys as trackers. I had to think there is something special about this school of training.
With the group in consensus that these tracks belonged to a male mountain lion, I shared with them that based on other features in the tracks and the location of the trail that it was almost certainly one of my study animals, M1. M1's tracks are very compact, with almost no space between the toes and the palm pads, resulting in a small overall appearance. Back in 2016 when I first started tracking M1 and before I had fitted him with a GPS-collar I had a difficult time determining his sex from the tracks, and over the years of tracking him since then I had developed quite a familiarity with his particular morphology.
A note on sexing mountain lion tracks - It is often said and taught that female mountain lions have more negative space in the track (that is, a gap between the pads and the toes, and between the individual toes) than males do. Mountain lion experts of far greater prestige and experience than myself have stood by this claim and I would be a fool to pronounce them wrong, but I will say that in my experience this negative space between the toes and pads has been extremely variable between individuals. In my study area I've found several males that had much more negative space between the pads and toes than females, particularly on the hind foot, and looking for this rule actually caused me a great deal of confusion when I started professionally tracking and sexing lions. Nowadays I use the negative space between pads and toes as a very useful clue for identifying different individual lions by their tracks, and for sexing I strictly use the size of the hind pad. Again I'll emphasize that many people for whom I have deep respect have stood by the notion that females have more negative space than males, and what I've stated here is simply my experience which I feel compelled to share. Back to the class.
Now having established the sex of the lion we could rule out the possibility that it was a female transporting a kitten by holding the scruff of its neck in her jaws, but that still left lots of room for interpretation. I recited the old chant that had been taught to me at Alderleaf when I was just beginning my journey as a tracker - "When in doubt, follow it out", and encouraged the group to backtrack the lion as far as they could. Having already done this myself on Friday, I knew where the lion had came from and what was causing the drag (and the group knew that I knew), but it had been completely obliterated by vehicle traffic in the center of the junction so I provided some tips on effective searching and then waited for them to find it on their own. Shortly thereafter Nick announced that he had discovered the drag continuing backwards across the junction, in line with and about 50 yards away from the tracks they had already discovered.
The road on which Nick discovered the back-trail leaving the junction had had much less vehicle traffic than the other roads leaving the junction and the group was able to follow the drag backwards at the pace of a slow walk. I encouraged them to keep their heads up, eyes forward, and to look for the sign 5-10 yards ahead of them instead of staring straight down as they walked. This is a good practice for following any tracks as it increases your visual awareness of your surroundings, but the steeper angle of view can also allow shadows of very subtle patterns to reveal themselves when they might be invisible from a straight-down view.
The group back-tracked the lion about 1/3 of a mile down this road, and discovered a few places where the drag marks had been spared by the car tires and were still very clear.
After looking at a clearer section of the drag Nick suggested that the parallel marks might have been made by the feet of a fawn dragging as the lion carried it in his jaws - a thought that had occurred to me as well when I first back-tracked this story on Friday. The answer was soon made clear, as we came to a place where the drag-mark simply disappeared on the edge of the road. There were scuff-marks right where the drag ended (well really, began) that were consistent with the bounding/pouncing gait of a large animal. There were also tracks of a doe and fawn on the road here, though many of them had been obscured by traffic. The sign on the road at this spot seemed to suggest that indeed the lion had pounced on the fawn right here, but warranted further investigation. We decided to walk farther down the road to see if we could find the drag backwards beyond this point, which would mean that the kill must have happened elsewhere. After a couple hundred yards we could not find any further sign of the drag, but we did locate a couple of very subtle lion tracks that had no drag marks in between them. This provided enough evidence to make a final conclusion with high confidence - the lion had been walking along the road when it spotted the doe and fawn on or very near the road, probably feeding on the lush vegetation growing on the road edge in the full sun-light, and the lion had dropped to the downhill side of the road to stalk closer. The lion had then burst onto the road from below in a bounding gait and pounced on the fawn either right on the shoulder of the road or just a few yards up the bank on the uphill side and quickly subdued it.
Now that we knew the full story behind the drag it was time to follow the trail forwards and look for the feeding site. We walked back to the junction where we had first found the dragging tracks and continued onward down the road, looking for the subtle swishing pattern in between the treads of vehicles. We reached the point where the lion tracks left the road and we split up into pairs and walked down the ridge looking for the feeding site. I told the group that after two days of feeding on a fawn there would be almost nothing left, and instructed them to simply look for a well-used bed with fawn hair in it. Often times at fawn kills that is all that remains of the young animal, or perhaps a tiny fragment of skull or a tooth. After about a half an hour of searching we had not found any sign of the kill, so we decided to head back to the car and call it a day. From the site of the pounce to where the lion left the road was about 1/3 of a mile, and I had no idea why the lion carried the fawn that far or how much farther it might have gone after leaving the road. It is common for lions to drag prey anywhere from 10-200 yards but I had never seen anything like this. I wondered if M1 had something else on his mind, something that continued to pull him north even after making this opportunistic kill - a female, perhaps. But that was pure speculation and it was now after 7 pm so we headed back and I had the group drop me off at my broken-down truck to wait for a tow. An hour into the wait Clinton, Cailey and Ashley showed back up with a beer for me - which was a sign of good things to come and greatly appreciated.
We spent the next two days on the coast of Humboldt County, following bears beneath marbled murrelet nests in the giant redwoods. We saw bear rub trees, stomp-marking trails, cambium feeding, bedding sites, scats, and the signs of many other creatures along the way. I was particularly excited to show the group a heavily-used bear stomp-marking trail leading to a red alder tree that held at least a decade's worth of bear-marking sign. Black bears are considered solitary animals because they spend most of their time alone, but they actually invest a ton of time and energy into socializing through olfactory messages left on the landscape. The sociality of bears is a matter far more complex than I can claim to understand, but Benjamin Kilham's book "Among the Bears" is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in wildlife behavior. Suffice it to say for now that black bears are familiar with all of their neighbors just as we humans are, and the messages they leave on the landscape contain (at the very least) information about individual identity and reproductive status. And bears create these messages through a variety of marking behaviors. I think it's reasonable to separate bear marking behavior into three categories - 1) stomp-marking, 2) straddle-marking, and 3) rub-marking. In the video below a bear demonstrates a thorough marking ritual which includes all three behaviors.
Stomp-marking is probably the most common of the marking behaviors, and is performed by a bear walking in a stiff-legged direct register gait while pounding and twisting its paws into the ground, often dribbling urine while doing so. Multiple bears will use the same stomp-trail over and over again, carefully placing their feet exactly in the tracks of the bears before them. This results in obvious patterns of alternating deeply worn depressions where the bears left and right feet have struck the ground. Rub-marking is when a bear stands on it's hind legs and vigorously rubs its back, head and neck onto a tree or shrub. This ritual often includes biting and raking the tree with claws, resulting in permanent scars written in the bark. Straddle-marking is done by walking directly over low shrubs and saplings, bending them under the torso between the legs and underneath the groin, again often while dribbling urine. All of these marking behaviors are performed by both sexes of bears and peak intensity occurs in June and July during the bear rut (mating season), but I have seen marking occur at all times of year. Each of the marking behaviors can occur individually or in partnership with any other of the three, but it is probably most common to see stomp-marking leading to a tree which has been rub-marked. Marking is done by bears at food resources, wallows, travel-route junctions, habitat edges, and bedding areas.
Click the arrows to scroll through the series of pictures
And here at the junction of two old logging roads we discovered a text-book example of a bear stomp-trail leading to a rub-tree. The stomping bears had worn deep depressions into the grass and duff around the tree, whose bark was heavily marred from years of rubbing, clawing and biting by bears. There was also mud transferred onto the tree from the marking bears, indicating that there is a wallowing area somewhere near by.
In the grassy old road junction there was a fresh bear trail heading downhill, and the folded-over blades of grass gleamed as the sun reflected off of their glossy under-sides. The group didn't need any help from me to know that this was a fresh trail, so we decided to follow it for a ways. The bear dropped down off the road into the forest and past an unbelievably massive stump of an old-growth redwood, a stark reminder of a different time.
Just past the giant stump the bear began feeding on the cambium layer of young redwood trees. This behavior is often fatal to trees, and has been a source of great conflict between timber companies and black bears, especially in the last 30 years while the behavior spread rapidly throughout the Pacific Northwest as bears learned the trick either by observing their mothers or by finding the sign left by another bear and putting two and two together. The bears simply tear away the outer layers of bark to expose the thin layer of transportive tissue (xlyem and phloem) called cambium which carries glucose, water and other nutrients up and down the tree. The bears used their incisors to scrape away this thin fibrous layer, and they can completely girdle a tree in minutes, leaving no hope of survival for the tree. Sometimes bears will climb 70 feet high or more into a tree, stripping the cambium the entire way up. This bear had partially stripped about a half a dozen trees in a small area, and since the cambium was still glistening moist and fresh I figured we could try a taste as well. I used my knife to cut potato chip-sized pieces of cambium out for everyone, and we popped them in our mouths. They were pleasantly sweet and satisfying to chew as they squished out the glucose-laden moisture from the soft fibers of the living wood. We could understand why the bears like it!
The group followed the bear's trail past the stripped trees and down towards a swamp rich with skunk cabbage and other moist vegetation that make excellent bear food. Trailing bears this time of year is usually very difficult because of the density of crisscrossing trails of all ages and the lack of rain to help with differentiating fresh from old, but we were lucky to follow a stretch of trail that not been too heavily used by other bears in the last week and the fresh tracks were relatively easy to follow. The group did a great job taking the trail job down the hill, anticipating the bears route along fallen old-growth longs and under huckleberry thickets.
When we reached the swamp at the bottom of the hill we decided to leave the bears trail and head out to the beach to see what other sign we might find. On our way back we noticed some more interesting bear sign, an elk humerus, a tail feather from a northern saw-whet owl, and a site where a raptor had plucked the feathers from an american dipper.
On the beach we skirted the edge of a marshy red alder and Sitka's spruce forest, where the sandy substrate held the tracks of striped skunk, river otter, coyote, gray fox and Roosevelt elk. We found an old scat, tubular in shape with bones and hair in it. Scat is extremely variable depending on the animals diet and health (you may have some personal experience with this notion) and I make an effort to avoid the pitfall of over-confidence when attempting to identify a scat. Whether you are a teacher or a researcher, it is best to be honest and open about the natural room for error in scat interpretation and allow that it is possible that a couple different creatures could have created the scat that you are now examining, unless you are absolutely certain. It is far better to put 100% confidence in a scat belonging to either a bobcat or a coyote than to put 100% confidence in one species and be wrong. With this in mind I told the group that I thought the scat we were examining was made by a bobcat, but could also be a gray fox. We began to pick apart the scat to examine it's contents in hopes of finding something that might lead our interpretation in our direction or another. If, for example, we found remnants of beach strawberry, beetles, or other vegetation in the scat that would mean with great certainty that it belonged to a gray fox as bobcats are obligate strict carnivores (though they will occasionally eat grass as a natural de-wormer and digestive aid). When we dissected the scat we pulled out a tiny tooth, sharply pointed, brittle and mostly hollow. See photo below.
The tooth was really sharp with knife-like serrated edges, which naturally led the group towards the conclusion that it had belonged to a meat-eating predator mammal. But in this case that assumption was false, and I directed the group to pay attention to the extremely fragile nature of the tooth, it's hollow brittleness, and while examining the tooth closer it literally fell apart in Clinton's hands. I asked them what that might indicate, and posed the possibility that it could be a deciduous (baby) tooth from a very young animal. This spurred a flurry of ideas from the group that very quickly led to the questions "could it be a fawn's tooth?" Indeed it could. Deer are known even to layest of the laymen as the peaceful vegan denizen's of the forest, and this tends to cause people to assume that they have gentle peaceful-looking teeth. In fact, plants often make a pretty tough meal, and most members of the deer family at least start their lives with very sharp-ridged molars, useful for grinding and slicing tough plant fibers into digestible slivers. I have become very familiar with the teeth of young fawns because, as mentioned above, they are often one of the only things left behind when a mountain lion devours a fawn, and I have noticed how their young teeth are brittle and hollow, designed to sit snugly atop their permanent teeth as they rise like mountains, eventually being lifted out of their socket and falling away.
Having identified the tooth, I asked the group if it helped us identify the maker of the scat. Bobcats certainly prey on fawns (and adult deer for that matter), but gray foxes have been documented in at least one instance to do the same, and in either case it could have been ingested by scavenging a previously deceased fawn. In the end the fawn's tooth doesn't provide definitive evidence in favor of bobcat or gray fox, but it does increase the amount of money I would bet on the scat being bobcat, who are much more adapted to preying on larger animals.
We then followed a little game trail into a dense forest of young Sitka's spruce trees, where we found several gray fox scats containing berries. About 15 feet away from the fox scats were a series of similar sized scats, maybe 10 or 12 of them in all, arranged in a random seeming pattern on the edge of a stagnant arm of the marsh. See slideshow below for close-up of the scat and a view of the area.
The scats were mostly formless, liquid splats that had dried into a tarry substance, and they contained a few odd-looking vertebrae of a small creature. The vertebrae were semi-transparent, or at least lacked the white opacity of mammal and bird bones, and were very round with a concave surface to the centrum (central part of the vertebra where it articulates with the ones in front of and behind it). These features are distinctive of fish vertebrae, and with this piece of information the group recognized that these must be river otter scats, and this must be a river otter latrine, AKA "otter roll". These are places that river otters regularly return to where they roll around on the ground, defecate, scent-mark, rest and play. The extent of the function of river otter latrines in terms of communication is not currently understood, and a slough of theories have been put forth and tested but strong evidence has not been found for one in particular. For now the safest thing to say is that these are sites where river otters spend time maintaining their coats, an absolutely critical responsibility for mammals living in cold water. Anyone who has watched river otters at latrine sites however will have noticed that it seems clear that the animals make an effort to investigate the scent of those who were there before them as well as leaving their own messages, which strongly implies a communication function of these latrine sites.
We left the forested otter latrine and headed north again along the open dunes with the pacific ocean on our left and a freshwater wetland backed by forested cliffs on our right. We passed the tracks of a pair of trotting coyotes, a feeding bull elk, the skull of a brush rabbit and eventually found some obscured river otter tracks which we back-tracked a few hundred yards to where the critter had emerged from the ocean. River otters are perfectly at home in the ocean and do quite well for themselves foraging for fish, shellfish and crabs in the intertidal and sublittoral marine habitats. We discussed the gaits of otters, skunks and coyotes and started to make our way back to the car to rest up for the next day, and we paused on the way out for me to take a picture of the group in front of the comical park sign depicting a cow elk trampling a tourist (a very real concern in the calving season).
We spent the next day around the Klamath River and Redwood Creek, where we found a variety of cool wildlife sign from black bear bites to deer mouse caches. The tidally exposed mud where the Klamath nears the ocean held perfect tracks of raccoons, river otters, mink, beavers, black bears and bull frogs. The osprey were too numerous to count at the river mouth, and seals, gulls and pelicans joined in harvesting the bounty to be found at the meeting of fresh and salt water. We even had a rare day-time view of a beaver as it slapped the water with it's tail, splashing a young tourist boy who had dared to bluff-charge the critter at close-range. At the river mouth we found sign of an entrepreneurial deer-mouse who had taken to harvesting acorns, hazelnuts and other seeds delivered by the river from their inland habitats to rest in neatly-curving linear rows on the beach with all the other flotsam and jetsam. In an interesting break from typical mouse protocol (of which it seems many individuals are curiously uninformed), this particular animal would take the nuts and seeds from amidst the relative safety of the jumbled detritus on the ground and haul them up to the top of an RV-sized rock to eat them in the wide-open. Opening an acorn is a considerable task when you are a mouse, and the gnawing compromises your awareness of your surroundings, putting you at an elevated risk of becoming lunch yourself. For this reason deer mouse feeding sign is typically found under cover such as a log or rock overhang. But animal's lives are complex, and they can respond to shifting pressures, rewards and threats as they learn throughout their lifetimes, and this mouse provided a good reminder to stay open to the evidence as you find it, and learn from animals what you may.
At the end of the day we discovered a large scat left on the sandy river bar of Redwood Creek. It was not particularly long, maybe 4 or 5" total length, but had a very wide diameter of just over an inch. The scat was composed of three blunt, slightly oblong segments that were clearly separated, and there was no apparent twisting in the contents. It had been bleached completely white by the sun and breeze, which typically happens when the scat contains mostly meat (or dog-food). We broke the scat open to examine the contents, and found that it was extremely compacted and very difficult to penetrate - this is typical of felids, but can be variable. Once opened, we found large bone fragments and the coarse guard hairs of deer. The group was now convinced that this was no dog turd, and must have come from a bobcat or mountain lion. While bobcats certainly eat deer (and so can dogs) they are not capable of creating scats of such a wide diameter, and the group was relieved to hear that this was indeed a mountain lion scat. All of the participants had seen many bobcat scats, and this one had just seemed totally different - the large, separated, oblong, almost-round chunks of over an inch diameter just did not fit with the search image they had developed for bobcat, but many of them were surprised to find a mountain lion scat in such a place. This scat was not on a trail, or road, or any sort of travel route, or even near any semi-distinct landscape feature at all. It was just right in the middle of a random sandy patch in between some willow thickets surrounded by several acres of identical features. We were also about 100 yards from a daily-visited fish weir and a highly-trafficked paved tourist road. Mountain lions (and many other carnivores) tend to regard their feces as a tool for communication and therefore place them where there is likely to be high mountain lion traffic, so their message is more likely to be discovered and interpreted by another lion before entropy has it's way with it. I was just as surprised to see a lion scat in this spot as the group was but, like with the deer mouse cache earlier in the day, animal behavior is flexible and so must we be in our interpretation of their signs. And with that we headed home to rest and gear up for the final two days, which we would be spending backpacking in the pristine high mountain country of the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
On day 4, Wednesday July 17th, we piled our backpacks into the trunk of the volvo, creating a sort of protective (or suffocating) cocoon for the noble Clinton, who had yet again volunteered to ride in the way back rather than split the group into two vehicles. Between 6 humans and 6 large packs I figured we had at least 1,200 pounds of extra weight in the low-riding volvo, and the poor car scraped loudly as we pulled into a grocery store parking lot for some last-minute supplies. But somehow the grocery store proved to be the greatest vehicular obstacle of the day, and the volvo soared gracefully up the 20 miles and 5,500' elevation gain on dirt forest service roads to deliver us safely to the trailhead. We shouldered our packs and began the 5-mile trek to the lake where we would make our camp.
Immediately out of the trailhead we noticed one of my favorite native plants, the cascade lily, whose radiating symmetrical whorls of leaves and striking giant flowers seem strangely out of place in this rugged mountain landscape. The trail winds 5 miles along a major ridge-top at roughly 5500'-6000' elevation most of the way, and the land is mostly covered in mature forest dominated by an interesting hybridized conifer, white fir x grand fir. The forest is open and many of these relatively quick growing conifers are dead or dying, leaving many massive snags through the woods both standing and decaying on the ground, and these snags played an important role in interpreting the first wildlife stories we came across. Many of the snags bore the unmistakable sign of pileated woodpeckers, whose monstrously powerful and reinforced skulls are capable of creating incredible damage to dead trees. Pileated woodpeckers love to feed on carpenter ants, and many of the snags were chock-full of these big black insects. There were clear examples where trees had been jack-hammered to the point of nearing collapse by the ambitious woodpeckers seeking their prey, but there were also places where the woodpecker's sign was more delicate - just pecking away a small hole through the thin layer of bark to get to the ants just underneath. In places this left a sign more similar to that typified by hairy woodpeckers, which has often been described as foraging in an "S" pattern up a tree. I kind of hate that description, and other such narrow definitions of wildlife behavior, because it implies a simple-minded "programmedness" to animal behavior, as if hairy woodpeckers are just programmed to peck an "S" into every damn tree they see no matter what. These sorts of signatures leave no room for interpretation on the part of the woodsman, and no room for improvisation on the part of the animal. Animals come at the world just like you and me - they encounter problems, experiment with possible solutions, and learn from experience. So do hairy woodpeckers peck "S"'s into trees? Sure, sometimes, but they also do a heck of a lot more than that. Is it impossible for a pileated woodpecker to peck an "S" into a tree? Of course not. These little "guidelines" can serve to be more confusing than helpful to aspiring woodsmen and trackers, especially when wildlife break them so often, so again I emphasize the importance of being flexible in interpreting animal behavior, and when in doubt assume that they are smarter and more adaptable than you think.
Carpenter ants are not only a staple for Pileated woodpeckers, but black bears as well, who use their powerful forelimbs and claws to tear into stumps, snags, and downed logs to feast on both the adult ants and the larvae. In the quiet of mid-day in late summer one can hear the commotion from a long ways off as bears rip into the rotten wood, moving from one log to another, sometimes laying flat on their bellies with their faces deep in a stump as the swarming ants facilitate their own demise, getting lapped up by the bear's probing tongue. Over time the industrious work of woodpeckers, bears, ants, termites and bark beetles reduces these snags to fragile skeletons, making them structurally unsound and vulnerable to wind, rain and snow. As a side-note, I encourage anyone who spends time alone in the woods to keep a chainsaw in their vehicle at all times of year, as more than once I have found my only route home blocked by a tree which was felled by the hammering of pileated woodpeckers, which can make for a very long walk. Whether felled by bears, woodpeckers, or the elements, once a snag comes to rest on the ground the next stage in the decomposition process begins, and so with it comes many more ecologically significant functions. Refuge for salamanders and insects and food for fungi (which are themselves food for many wildlife) are just a few of the important functions dead trees serve on the ground as they ultimately become the soil, from which many future trees will find nourishment. Perhaps one of the less ecologically significant roles of these decomposing trees, but one that is of particular relevance to me and my work, is the role they play in facilitating mountain lion communication.
Mountain lions create scrapes with parallel swipes of their hind feet, leaving a divot in the ground with a mound behind it. These scrapes are often accompanied by urine or feces deposited on the mound at the back of the scrape. Scrapes are incredibly important for mountain lion communication and I have spent many years studying them and thinking about their functions and meaning, and I could probably write more than most would care to read about them so I will save much of that for a future post and be brief here. Mountain lions use scrapes to convey their identity, sex, reproductive status and residency, and since mountain lions occur at such low densities on the landscape (see my other post on mountain lions here), it is important that they create these scrapes in places where 1) other mountain lions are likely to travel, 2) the substrate will hold scent, and 3) they will not be destroyed by the elements or activities of other wildlife, so that the message can last as long as possible. Gravel, rock, bare dirt and sand do not hold scent very well, and mountain lions tend to choose to create scrapes in patches of duff. Scrapes will be made in conifer needles, deciduous leaves, piles of sawdust and wood-chips, moss, and decomposing woody material, among other substrates. When a snag is felled across a travel route, be it a road, human trail, or wildlife travel-route, the passing of animals or vehicles will over time break down the log where it lies on the trail until it becomes mulch-like. These mulch-like patches of duff along travel routes provide ideal places for lions to scrape, and the dead woody material holds the scent from the animals feet, urine and feces. Older scrapes, like the one pictured above, can be very difficult to notice as the shape of the scrape weathers and scats become white-gray with age, but knowing to take a closer look in these areas will often pay off.
A mountain lion creates a scrape
We continued up the trail and crossed from the Six Rivers National Forest into the Trinity Alps Wilderness where a forest service sign indicated the change in land management but also bore the signs of wildlife. Human signs are unique features in wild landscapes and therefore attract the attention of wildlife. This sign bore an astonishing amount of the unmistakable gnawing sign of squirrels and chipmunks, as well as the bite and claw marks of black bears, who also left distinct stomp-marking trails radiating out from the sign. I believe that the rodents that chew on these sorts of signs are doing it in the interest of marking their territory and are not actually ingesting the plastic material, but anyone who has witnessed a rat infestation will know that rodents will actually eat huge volumes of plastic over time, so I cannot be certain that these squirrels and chipmunks are not deriving some strange nourishment from this behavior.
A few more miles up the trail we encountered the first recent lion sign of our trip, in the form of a smallish scat left on the side of the trail that was not accompanied by a scrape. The group quickly and unanimously identified the scat correctly, proof that the many bobcat scats and handful of lion scats we had previously observed had left them with a fool-proof search image for distinguishing the two species, mostly on size. This scat was somewhere in the range of 2-5 days old, and the small size and the lack of an accompanying scrape left me with a feeling that it was a female lion. This sort of speculation was based on little definitive evidence, and was far from enough to convince me of anything, but I shared with the group that this was the more typical size for a female lion with the caveat that I had seen male lions leave smaller scats plenty of times. Such a speculation may seem completely useless in terms of practical tracking, but keeping such notes in the back of your mind can turn out to be very practical indeed if you encounter more sign further along that strengthens your hypothesis, as we did several hours later in this case.
A half a mile later and we had arrived at our camp for the night, on the shore of a shallow alpine lake in the base of a steep bowl of granite cliffs and scree slopes. We took a rest, set up our tents, and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings, with the songs of robins, red-breasted nuthatches and Townsend's solitaires filling the air. I had brought a small fishing pole and set off to the deeper end of the lake to try and catch a few trout for dinner while the group rested and filled up on water. The deepest part of the lake was still only about 5 feet, and the trout were easily visible in the crystal-clear water. I casted and watched them respond as I reeled my lure repeatedly in, noticing the speed and jerking motions that scared the fish and those that attracted them. Soon I had two beautiful rainbow trout ready for dinner, but there were a few hours of daylight left and I had other plans for the group so I wrapped the fish in plastic and buried them under a big rock to keep their scent down for the bears until we were ready to cook them.
With camp established and a load out of our packs we headed up the steep slope to the ridge-top just above the lake. I was hoping to look for lion sign on the ridge top, which I knew to be a major travel-route for all sorts of wildlife, and to sit and glass the hills for bears, deer and whatever else made itself visible as the day became dusk. We followed the trails of deer and bear up a very steep climb above the lake until we popped out on top of a boulder, where the scent of deer was very strong. Right on top of the boulder, with a commanding view over the lake and many miles of wilderness, we found a very fresh deer bed. Given the scent of the deer and the appearance of the bed I was initially convinced that this bed was "smoking fresh" and that we may have actually just pushed the deer as we approached. However as we knelt down around the bed for a closer look I noticed a few things that made me think twice about its age. There were fresh tracks of a California ground squirrel and of a western toad traversing the bed, which had both clearly been made after the deer had left. Right away this told us that there was no way that we had pushed the deer from this bed, and the tracks of the toad helped refine the age further. Western toads here are largely nocturnal, and while they can be seen near water during the day time the majority of their travels are completed in the night, which tells us that this bed was almost certainly used by the deer the day before. People who are interested in the practical applications of tracking, be it hunting, photography or wildlife research, may not initially see the value of understanding the signs left by small critters such as squirrels, toads and insects, but being able to identify the tracks of these species and knowing their activity patterns and behavior can have all sorts of practical implications when it is super-imposed on the sign of whatever species you are most interested in.
Once we gained the ridge-top we headed west until we reached a perfect spot to sit, with an excellent view of hundreds of acres of perfect deer, bear and lion country. We were just about to sit down when I noticed a subtle round impression in the decomposed granite and dirt, which I recognized as a mountain lion track. The track was imperfect, marred by wind and the activity of rodents nearby over several days, but showed the distinct bi-lobed leading edge of a puma's heel pad. The group noticed that the track was fairly small, and even in its slightly blown-out condition measured only 48 mm wide across the heel pad, telling us that it belonged to a female cat. The track was headed across the ridge to the north, down towards the lake where we had set up camp. We discussed the age of the track and the group concluded that the track was probably about 2-5 days old. Already I had formed a conclusion in my mind - this was the track of the female cat who left the scat of the same age on the trail about 3/4 of a mile back the way we had come. This may seem like scant evidence to build such a conclusion on, but mountain lions occur at low densities and pieces of evidence found miles apart may have been made by one cat within an hour. When considering the lack of other fresh lion sign in the area, the fact that the tracks were headed in the direction of the scat we found, and that they appear to be the same age, it becomes clear that the simplest interpretation is that the tracks and scat were made by the same cat. I was just about to start asking the group some questions that would lead them to this conclusion, but they didn't need my probing - "So this is probably the same cat who left the scat back on the trail?". They were catching on quick.
It was a steep 700' back down to the lake and our camp and I was trying to avoid having the group navigate that in the dark, but they couldn't pull themselves away from the view on the ridge-top. We were looking out over 600 square miles of road-less wilderness, one of the wildest places left on earth, and it was clear that the group felt it. After spending so much time alone in this wilderness, in howling storms and blistering heat, through moments of wild fear and unbridled joy, I feel a very deep connection with this place. I truly love it. The mountains are seared into my memory and my dreams, and the profile of each peak and ridge-line draws from a well of deep feeling to paint an abstract and colorful blur of emotions in me. Each one is different, tinged with memories and stories from the wild animals I've known there, and my imagination swirls and fills in the gaps, guessing at the ancient past and distant future. The thousands of wild creatures, each rich with stories of birth, fear, cold, comfort, tenderness, satisfaction, want, killing, being killed, sex, starving, getting fat, and who can even begin to guess what else.
I felt that the group was pondering these same things as we peered out over the land in the gathering dusk, and I felt so touched, so lucky, to have finally had a chance to share this place with people who appreciated it as much as I did. We eventually started the climb down and were treated to one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen as the sun sank deeper into the fog bank sitting some 40 miles away over the mouth of the Klamath River and the Pacific Ocean. We paused on top of a massive boulder over the lake and appreciated the moment. Clinton had stayed behind at camp and we could see his campfire as a tiny flickering light some 500' below.
Back at camp I rolled my sleeping bag out on the ground and sharpened up a stick to cook the trout on. The trout were buttery and delicious with no seasoning of any kind, roasted straight over the fire and eaten skin and all. After 4 whole days and nights together the group felt close, and after some thoughtful fire-side conversation we all drifted off to sleep...
I woke up when some subconscious reflex bolted me upright and I found myself staring at a black bear about 12 yards from our fire. I said "HEY!" and it didn't move. Damn it. I got up and took a few brisk steps towards it and yelled again. She took off. She was a smallish bear, and had been exhibiting a curious and cautious body language so I was not too concerned. The group seemed surprisingly undisturbed by being suddenly awoken by my shouting, and we quickly drifted back to sleep. For the next few hours I was repeatedly awoken by doe after doe after doe feeding around and sometimes running right through the middle of our camp, but the bear never returned and I woke in the morning feeling rested and at ease.
We made breakfast, broke camp, and started the climb for the second time up to the ridge top to search for sign. We had a long walk with full packs ahead of us, so made sure we were full on water and paced ourselves as we climbed. Back on the ridge top we headed west and encountered two several week-old lion scrapes, positioned beneath the low-hanging boughs of a incense cedar which provide shelter from the sun and other elements. Ashley then found a scat about the size of a peanut composed of nothing but insect exoskeleton remains.
I had just done another workshop on the coast where we had discovered several skunk scats full of ten-lined june beetle carapaces and they were a very similar size and shape to this scat. Striped skunks are not particularly common in these high elevation forests but they are occasionally present, working the prairies and serpentine chaparral, and I had seen a few skunk digs near where we found this scat. Most of the group had concluded that this was a skunk scat and I was just about to confirm their conclusion when Ashley said "Wait, could it be toad?". I had ruled out toad unconsciously based on the size, it was so big! But I remembered that I had seen some absolutely giant western toads in this area, and that I've been shocked by the size of toad scat before. We looked closer at the contents of the scat, breaking it apart and pulling individual insect pieces out to examine. Pretty soon I found the tell-tale angular abdomen of a dragonfly naiad, the larval aquatic stage of the winged insects, and then another, and then another. What's more likely to be eating a strictly aquatic insect, a toad or a skunk? Easy. That sealed it, and thanks to Ashley for keeping me from accidentally lying to the group! We also noticed that nearly all of the insect parts in the scat were intact, not crunched or chewed at all, which is consistent with toads who swallow their prey whole. Over the course of the day we found about a dozen more monstrous toad scats, full of the same selection of beetle and dragonfly naiad exoskeletons.
We picked our way back east along the ridge-top and began to climb up towards the 6,956' summit above us. As we climbed we jumped a beautiful cinnamon black bear from his bed and watched as he sauntered off up the hill from us. We passed a beautiful fresh bobcat scrape and scat, some buck antler rubs, and more black bear marking trees than I could count. Over our two days in the trinity alps we passed literally hundreds of trees marked by black bears, and the group learned to recognize what I call "black bear bonzai trees". These are trees who have been regularly straddle and rub-marked by black bears since they were just a couple feet tall, and the consistent mild damage from rubbing, clawing and biting causes the trees to have a stunted, contorted appearance. Many of these trees grow up to be atypical trees with complex crowns and large horizontally branching leaders creating perfect nest sites for owls, raptors, and marbled murrelets, who fly dozens of miles between their nests and the ocean every day. It is a fact that the marking of black bears unintentionally creates better nesting habitat for these species.
We gained the summit and took in a panoramic view of many thousands of square miles of some of the roughest and wildest country on Earth. From where we stood we could see Mount Shasta, five different counties, and the Marble Mountain, the Russian, The Siskiyou and the Trinity Alps Wildernesses.
We continued past the summit and down the mountain, to rejoin the trail we hiked in on having made a loop up and around from the lake. Back on the trail we moved quietly and quickly, and at some point I spotted a black bear walking towards us on the trail. The wind was in my face, and the bear hadn't seen us yet. I stopped and the group stopped behind me and looked, for a few moments we watched the bear approach unaware, but at about 30 yards it saw us and darted back off the trail. After many miles on the trail we arrived back at the trail-head, where my volvo looked frighteningly out of place amidst the rugged terrain. We took off our packs and our boots and reflected on the trip.
For my part, there is no greater joy to be found in teaching than with a small group of truly passionate and skilled students. The group had clicked together like a family since the first day, and there was a palpable feeling of mutual appreciation, and of gratitude for the reminder that even in this day and age, six relative strangers can come together and share such an experience. There truly could not have been a better group, and I was left with a blissful high feeling for days after we parted ways. We would pile in the volvo and begin the winding 3 hour drive back to the coast, with selfless Clinton scrunched in the back beneath a mountain of packs, eagerly awaiting the comforts of civilization - namely, beer and pizza! Back at my house in Arcata we drank beers and talked late into the evening, and in the morning we parted ways. I went back to the mountains from which we had come, but this time for work, and the rest of the group began their travels to their respective homes many hours away. And life goes back to normal, but with five new friends and five new days of cherished memories. Many thanks to Heather, Nick, Clinton, Ashley and Cailey for making this trip as great as it was.