Some tracking experiences

It's been a while since I've done this sort of thing. But a good student should retain a good bit of it eh? God I hope so.

Recently I collaborated with a long term friend on a new project which involved a "lot of moving parts" as he said. We have started a small cattle herd. It's been a great sense of fun for our family doing this.

But we have also found that although these are large animals, they can get through some really small spaces to get out into the big wide world. I realized years ago that goats will test your fencing abilities, cattle will also. Sometimes, it's not even your apparent lack of fencing ability as it is that water levels have dropped and suddenly they can cross bodies of water that they previously could not.

So their is the ackward, slightly worrisome point where you go over to check on the cows and you don't see them. You call to them, you walk around the fields checking the shady spots well, you shake the treat bucket. Then it hits, "oh fuuuuudddggeee" only just like Ralphy you don't say "fudge."

Everyone spreads out, cattle roundup, ready..... break!! Alright, time to put those tracking classes to use!

You want to spend some time initially figuring out where and how they got out, but you'll lose valuable time doing that. Lacking a clear starting point you immediately start checking track traps in the general vicinity.

What's a track trap?
A track trap is an area where you can readily pickup a track like a clear sandy area or a muddy area where a track will "stick" out better. In a perfect world or in tracking class, this will tell you the general route of travel, the number of the animals or people, etc.

For mantracking, their is ways you can tell if they are women or men, carrying packs, rate of travel, sick or wounded, possibly moving at night, etc. In an ideal world, we would find a track trap area wherein we could draw two lines across the area about 8-10 feet apart, then we could proceed to identify individual tracks as well as factor out the number of people, etc. It's useful to draw out the tracks, measure them, take pics if possible, etc. This info is usually helpful later. My quarry had a size 12 hoof with a split toe. Jokes aside, you would think "Dang Robert, it's a COW, should be easy to track!" But that was not the case in certain areas of hardpack.

In real life, it's rare to find track that are very clear each and every time. Tracking is often like piece'ing together a story, bit by bit, clue by clue. Sometimes you add in what you believe is correct and hope like hell that it is correct.

So start with obvious lines of movement and cut track there. We checked near gates to outer areas that were open. Gate going to the road was clear, double checked sandy area past that and before that and nothing. Here I should mention, this isn't a gate that if left open should have allowed the cows out, this is an external access to the property gate. Checking another gate near a lower area that is hard packed and wooded, I picked up the faintest mark. I had a feeling and I ran with it. Here's the part that's odd, you will get "feelings" and instincts on where to go, how to proceed, etc. Prayer helps. I'm not a super experienced tracker, so it's not that "I" am that good, I'm not. But I relied on my feelings throughout this whole endeavor. Trust your instincts.

I go a little farther to a clear area and find tracks. Problem is, they are heading in multiple directions. We figured out that some of the cows stayed on one side of a fence and one ended up on the other side of the fence. She is the main quarry in this story.


Direction of travel, lines of drift, etc.

So depending on who/what your tracking, they may stay on generally the same line of travel, or they may do crazy stuff. This can also be a "clue" to what your tracking, their condition, etc. For example movement at night with limited visibility will look different to the tracker than movement during the day.

In general, tracking with a team is the way to go. In the tactical sense it's not just a handful of dudes that protect a tracker, they are ALL trackers, just functioning in different jobs. Just as Joe Normal patrol member should also be able to lead the patrol, run the compass, use the radio, etc. all team members should be able to do all jobs required of the task. Just like with a standard patrol wherein the point man can be swapped out along the line to avoid fatigue, the lead tracker functioning in a tracking team can be swapped around also. So if we had a tracking TEAM with us, we could have left one person at the last known track, then had others make large circles out from that on both left and right sides of the last known track. This is considered lost spoor procedure type stuff and it can be useful at numerous points in the endeavor. If your by yourself, you can mark the last known track with a stick, rags, anything you have.
Knowledge of the terrain and access points is helpful in this endeavor also. In my case, I knew their was fencing to the south that ran the length of the property and terminated at a creek junction. Given the found tracks and their generation direction of travel I assumed we could jump to that spot and find track.

Here is where it's important to state that your typically not moving track to track when you do this. In other words, their is no need to find EVERY print. When your learning in a controlled environment, it's helpful to do that. However when your in pursuit, it's not necessary and can slow you down drastically. Now that doesn't mean that you don't pay attention to spoor though either. Basically you can sometimes "jump" further down the trail, confirm spoor further along and continue along, versus slowly trying to check for each and every single track. Much easier to do with multiple people or multiple teams however.

Instead of walking from one track to literally the next, you can often times look at the general direction of travel and the terrain which often times funnels and controls movement to a certain degree. From there you can usually move a good distance and cut track again along the general route.

With a tracking team, you would have one guy out on the left flank and one guy out on the right flank. These are typically positioned slightly ahead of and just out from the lead tracker. If you picture a Y with the flank trackers on the left and right tips of the Y and the lead tracker right where the two left and right sides come in, you'll get the idea. Behind the lead tracker can be one or two people. Some people focus on the flank tracker being strictly flank security. In reality they will need to be able to switch roles and do both. The concept is that since the lead tracker will be "on track" and most of his focus there, the two out on the flank are solely there to protect the team.

In reality the flank trackers are there with a dual role of both security and to track themselves. They should be trained trackers themselves, not just another gun in the fight. This may not be always possible as trained trackers are rare. If that's the case, the classic last spoor procedure has to be modified if the flank trackers are of dubious tracking ability. Tracking is something everyone should learn, as it makes you more aware of the general "big picture."

First and foremost if your working with someone with little or no tracking ability, it's important to stress to them right off the bat to stay the hell off the tracks/trail. My son is not new to patrolling and wood skills, but due to inexperience in tracking, dehydrated and general tiredness from the long day, I had to tell him repeatedly to stay the heck off the tracks! What I found my best use for him as an inexperienced tracker was in staying at the last known track as we approached decision points.

A decision point is a spot where the quarry has a decision to make. A trail junction, an opening to the woods, a water access point, a road, etc. He has a decision to make- turn left, turn right, go straight, cross the water or follow it, etc. Each decision point is a mini tracking exercise in itself.

So let's imagine a woods trail, we are following it and since we are trying to make up time, we are moving a little faster than a normal patrol pace. The woods are thick and the trail is the main lane of movement. If the quarry were to break into the woods, it would be evident from the trail because of the thickness of the woods. Every hundred yards or so, we are marking a clear track when we find it. I thought to grab a few blue shop paper towels out of my truck when I started this fun exercise, so I was tearing them and marking sign here and there with them. You could use just about anything, obviously if it's a tactical situation don't make it too obvious. We have the general route of travel for the quarry (the woods trail surrounded by thick woods on either side) and we are regularly confirming via a quick search and check for sign every so often.

Now the terrain opens up and the woods trail becomes something a truck or tractor goes down regularly. We confirm sign again and continue in the general direction of movement. Not long after we hit a trail junction. Here's where you will hear conventional thinking that says "most of the world is right handed, so they probably went to the right" or "water is typically down hill so go down hill." The reality is you have only limited knowledge of what to expect from your quarry. You can make assumptions, like for example I knew the cow would likely rest up in the shade late morning and early afternoon. I knew she was a black cow, and therefore the sun would be beating her up most of the other times. However I did not know if she was severely agitated, she is in general a pretty calm and tame cow, but what if something has spooked her? When they get off on their own they can and often times do stupid things outside of the security of the herd.

At a decision point you need to look at the last known track and hopefully be able to clearly identify it. Mark it or have another stand behind it. Now you have to go to the other trail and check also. Move up the trail by walking just off the trail a bit, checking for spoor. Ideally you'll find a track trap before too long that you can confirm that the quarry either went that way or did not go that way. Here's where the classic tracking stick method of finding the next tracks if helpful. On the 2nd run out after the other cows were located, I thought to grab a big walking stick from the house. The idea being that you use your rifle, a stick, etc. and that you know the approximate stride of the person, animal, etc. and therefore when you need to find the next track, you hold the stick near the last known track and swing it in an arc. Unless the animal suddenly learned to levitate, the track will be within that arc.

In our little adventure we encountered no less than a dozen decision points just like this. Unless we could quickly find spoor on the other side of the trail in the same general direction, I had to cut sign on each trail. Some intersections had four and five trails coming together. Lacking clear sign, I would always go with my gut feeling and continue in the same line of travel.
Time is important during the follow up. I was interrupted twice during my follow up on this cow. First time was late morning and the rest of the family texted me to say they found the other cows tracks (the group split up with the one I was tracking going around a fence and the rest staying on one side of it). So I had to leave the trail and help corral those. We regrouped after that, actually took a few minutes to gather proper equipment- it's nice to have water when it's 110 degree and humid as hell. We took maps, radios, better marking equipment, a walking stick, etc. and that's when my son came with me. The second interruption came late in the afternoon as we closed in on her when a well meaning landowner was trying to "help" us find them via zooming us around in his Ranger.

Time comes into play in various ways. The tracker/tracking team is always trying to make it up in various ways. We had someone riding the dirt roads in the area constantly searching for sign the cow crossed or walked down the road. A dirt road is a huge track trap. Had we found any, we would have beelined right to there and continued from there ("jumping" ahead). A concerted tracking effort will seek to have several teams out and they will "jump" teams of trackers ahead as they seek to gain time. As we got over a mile into the follow up, it became clear to me where she would likely come out at. I called my wife who was covering the roads and had her keep checking those areas. Knowledge of the local terrain, plus the animal continuing in a general direction plus the confirmation of sign along that general direction made it clear where she would end up. We also knew she was going to find a shady spot to sit for a while in the heat as they normally do in the afternoon.

I feel as if we were very close on our follow up a few times. As we got within 300 yards of where she ended up, I noticed the tracks changing to the right side of the trail. What had changed? That's something you have to ask yourself as you track. Really try to think like the quarry. What had changed was that it was now afternoon, 110 degrees Afrika hot and she was walking in the shade! That side of the trail would have been right in the sun in the morning, so she did not come through here then, she came through there recently.I looked at the map and realized not far ahead there was a little pond. We hurried our speed up and got to the pond. Sure enough she had been there and it looked recently. Fresh mud that had not yet dried out but was in the sunshine told me she wasn't far ahead of us now. This was about the time the landowner talked to my wife out on the road and offered to "help" by zooming us around in his Ranger. Her tracks had gone into a marshy area and it was getting hard to track there. Out of the blue we had a big thunderstorm roll in while we were all riding in the Ranger. This soaked the crap out of all of us. By then it was clear that my earlier hunch about where she was going to end up was going to pan out.

By this time it was 5pm and the family was spent. I drove them home and dropped them off to get out of wet clothes and send my son to pick up dinner for us. I got back on trail and found the cow in the field I always expected her to end up in at around 7:30 that night. I'll never know for sure how far behind her I was, but when I found her she was being sniffed and smelled by a bunch of smaller cows, so she hadn't been there long.

Was a great opportunity to practice tracking skills. As a survivalist you have to look for every opportunity available to practice every skill you can.

Tracking skills are an integral part of good patrolling skills in my opinion and an important skill to work on.
Robert