September 24, 2008

Tracking Apprenticeship Day on the Skagit Sandbar

Hey every one out there. I wanted to share a few snippets about a wildlife tracking apprenticeship field trip we took on September 13.

A small group of us carpooled up to the sandbars of the Skagit River. This was a trip to a new location. None of us had been there before. Not even Jason. But lay your doubts aside, it was phenomenal!

Right from the beginning we found a wonderful spot and Jason set up tracking station for us to investigate. This small bar of clay running along the side channel of the main river was rich with tracks. We identified a number of species on this spot and there were enough tracks to show some of what the animals were doing in that location.

A Douglas squirrel had passed through and left a nice set of deep tracks showing all 4 feet clearly. A house cat had come stalking by, and its tracks crossed the trail of a mink. Along the edge of the river where the bank formed an overhang, a Norway rat had walked by; its front and hind feet showing up in pairs.

As we looked closely at the tracks, song sparrows sang from across the channel and a kingfisher came rattling by.

We moved on from here and head further along in the riparian zone on the edge of the river. A ruffed grouse spooked off the trail ahead of us, and then as we tried to get closer, it exploded into the air with a whir of wings. Where the grouse had been, we found the bones and feathers of an American crow. We discussed how many of the feathers had been clipped at their bases and surmised it was likely killed and eaten by a mammalian predator of some kind.

From here, it was on to the main event! We searched out the shallowest portion of the side channel to cross, so as to reach the giant sandbar beyond. Well, we found just the spot. But, before we crossed we found several great trails to check out.

Beautiful raccoon tracks traced the edge of the channel. We also got to compare and contrast some nice tracks of spotted sandpipers and killdeer.

After pulling our eyes away from the silty sand, we got down to the business of crossing. Pulling shoes and socks off, we crossed what was described as "brisk" water. Immediately after, we found tons and tons of tracks. Tracks on top of tracks. Raccoon, Canada goose, greater yellowlegs, sandpiper, great blue heron, black-tailed deer, coyote and many others printed their tracks in all directions over the sandy soils.

The tracks were so extensive that we spent a significant amount of time practicing the art of trailing, following a single animals tracks over a long distance. We chose to focus on deer.

It was sunny and grew progressively warmer, the further we explored out on the sandbar. A perfect early fall day to be in the natural world.

All in all, one of the best tracking days I have been on in a long time. The kind of day trackers dream about...

For up coming Wildlife Tracking Apprenticeship dates and information, visit:

September 23, 2008

Wilderness Certification Program: Week 1

Posted by Taran Rallings

Last week kicked off the first week of the very first Alderleaf Wilderness Certification Program. The week was one of introductions. Introductions to each others, introductions to the school, and introductions to the subject matter.

Orientation (Wed)
We covered a lot of issues like school educational philosophy, personal introductions, syllabus overview, and campus history. Its interesting, the extent to which, a rough understanding of a region's natural history can cement your sense of place.
We did cover a few practical issues, particularly around hazards. We talked about knife safety, bear/cougar attacks, falling branches (widow makers!), poison plants and water quality issues. I was very interested to learn about the falling branch situation, I had never heard of that before. Cottonwoods and alders are not to be trusted!
We did a basic fire building exercise, just to get a gauge on our ability to make a basic fire with matches. I think everyone did well.

Introduction to Naturalist Training (Thurs)
Today started getting into someone of the meaty goodness that I had been looking forward to. The importance of being a good naturalist was really stressed, as being a good naturalist is the foundation for being good at all other wilderness activities (tracking, survival, etc).
We covered basic taxonomy and dabbled a bit in natural history and field skills. Having a liberal arts background makes repeating the basics of science very important for me. It was all very interesting.

We then took this thing called the "tourist test". Which is, apparently, another way of saying "the worst test scores taran has ever had". The test was broken into two pieces that roughly correlate to animals and plants. The first section was a series of slides and sound clips showing animals. We then had to write down the specific (yellow bellied marmot, not just marmot) species shown or heard. The second section was on the property identifying tagged plants. I got destroyed on both sections, scoring 22/50 and 12/40 respectively. It was a very sad day, but lots of fun. It will serve as a great gauge for progress throughout the year. I am already determined to do far better next time around!

After the tourist test we were given a "sit spot" assignment. This is a place on the property that we choose as our personal grove of naturalist study. We are going to spend 20-30min a day there and record the changes over the seasons. I found the PERFECT spot. It was nice and dry under two hemlocks(?), surrounded by red huckleberry and ferns. Unfortunately, a hive of yellow jackets has similar feelings about the spot. So I will be locating a new one when I get back to campus on Tuesday. Thankfully, the property is large and interesting enough to have ample opportunities for other spots.

Introduction to Wilderness Survival (Fri)

The introduction to survival was great. This was really getting into territory I knew nothing about. We spent some time covering the different kinds of "wilderness survival" ranging from modern emergency survival to wilderness living skills. I think what interests me the most is wilderness living skills. I am quite interested in not dieing in an emergency, but the ability to actually thrive in non-human environments is what really excites me.

Jason broke down all the major factors that go into wilderness survival, basic priorities, and the necessary mental attitude. We then went into more detail covering the considerations and approaches to shelter, water, fire, wild foods, and survival kits. Now, I am not a huge gear fiend but this got me kind of excited. I really want to throw a kit together now. Once you start learning, even the basics, you really get into it. I want to assemble all this gear, try out new options, add stuff in, etc.

The last major project of the day was building bowdrill kits for making friction fires. I cannot verbally express the joy of making a friction fire. Jason provided us with the hardware store ingredients for a friction kit. Now, I realize that this is not nearly the same thing as doing it from gathered gear in a survival situation, but it was disturbingly rewarding. I now have a bowdrill kit that I know how to use to make fire! I am going to slowly swap out store bought bits for gathered pieces. I feel like I have developed some mild form of pyromania.

All in all, a fantastic first week.

September 12, 2008

Our New Classroom

Our Alderleaf indoor classroom is completed!

Warmed by the late summer sun, it is now awaiting the start of our 9 month programs next week. Also, in this classroom we are excitedly anticipating hosting professional tracker and guide, Adriaan Louw on Oct. 1st:

Wildlife Tracking in South Africa
An Evening Presentation with Adriaan Louw

As well as famous tracker and author, Mark Elbroch on Oct. 3rd:

Evening Presentation on Mountain Lions
with Mark Elbroch

Come hear these amazing trackers and naturalists share their knowledge on wildlife!