A Guide to Winter Wildlife Tracking

Imagine yourself hiking alone through freshly fallen snow in the backcountry. There are no sounds of civilization—not even a plane overhead. You come across an animal’s track…Who left it behind? And, where were they going? Today, my goal is to provide you with some basic information, so you can get started on your own winter wildlife tracking.

Here’s a little bit about my wildlife tracking experience: While doing my undergrad at the University of Vermont, I took a few semesters of winter wildlife tracking. The courses were based out of a large natural area in the woods of Northern Vermont. I also studied ecology, landscape natural history, natural resources, wildlife conservation, biology, and wilderness conservation. Despite all my studies, I would not call myself an expert tracker—not even in the slightest! I am just an amateur who enjoys exploring in the woods.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Pick where you want to go

I recommend choosing somewhere a little off the beaten path: the fewer human disturbances, the better. With that in mind, it’s safer to find some place you’re familiar with and wouldn’t mind stepping off the trail a bit.

My favorite place to track in Vermont is on the Nebraska Notch Trail on the backside of Mt. Mansfield in Stowe. In Pennsylvania, I love going to Valley Forge National Historic Park after a big snowstorm. The most important thing is to find a place where you can be comfortable!

Timing is important

Most animals are active at dawn and dusk, which is known as being crepuscular (in case you’d like to impress friends with a cool, new vocabulary word). I recommend going out first thing in the morning, a time of day when the animals you are seeking are less likely to have been disturbed and before tracks can be muddled by humans, pets, or the elements. I have had my most successful tracking adventures at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

What to Bring:

  1. Snowshoes: I have a pair of MSR Lightning Ascents. They are pretty technical, with a full crampon that makes for a good all-around snowshoe.
  2. Trekking poles
  3. Hydro Flask: Full of hot coffee or tea to keep you warm as you meander about.
  4. Waterproof boots: I wear my Oboz Bridgers, but heavier-insulated winter boots might keep you even warmer if it’s particularly cold.
  5. Hand warmers
  6. Camera
  7. Binoculars
  8. Animal track guide
  9. Backpack: EMS’ Sector Series 22L is a great lightweight option.
  10. Lunch, snacks, and water
Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Tracking Tips

The first thing I do when looking for tracks is take 10 to 20 minutes to tune into my senses. I was taught to find a spot in the woods just off the trail where I could sit in the snow and use each of my five senses in turn.

First, I sit with my eyes closed and just listen: to the wind, to the sounds the trees make, and to the sound of my own breath. While listening to all of these different sounds, be sure to make note of them in your head. Consider their pitch, duration, repetition, tone, sequence, etc.

Next, take another five minutes or so, still with your eyes closed, to take in the smells around you. After that, open your eyes and make this next five about taking in your surroundings. This time, try not to focus in on any one thing but instead to take in many at once. Finally, combine all the senses and take in the environment as a whole for a few minutes.

The tracks you will look for are disturbances made into the baseline of the natural environment. When looking at your location’s big picture, all the components that are typically present in it—like a downed tree, the trail, the snow on the ground, the sun, the fallen leaves, and grass poking through—are aspects of the “baseline.” The baseline is the normal environment in front of you, minus any impact done by animals or humans, such as a stick nibbled on by a deer, a nut chewed by a squirrel, or a branch snapped by a boot. These are disturbances, because they interrupt what is normally present.

When wildlife tracking, the key is to step back to try to see the bigger picture of what is in front of you, so that disturbances become more obvious. Tracks are just a small disturbance into the greater picture, or the baseline, and they are the evidence left behind of animals that were once there.

Once you are ready to begin tracking, a good place to start is up high on a ridge or down low in a valley. Predators like to be at a higher elevation for a good perspective when stalking smaller prey. Valleys and low areas tend to be animal highways consistently being walked, trotted, crawled, hopped, and run through.

Walk around for a while, keeping the big picture of the entire environment in mind as you do so. Your body may be up on the ridgeline, but let your mind wander to those valleys. Patience is the name of the game here, and tracking isn’t something that can be rushed. Take your time, and when you do find some tracks, stick to them to see where the adventure leads!

Tracking Facts

  • Tracks made in direct sunlight crystallize and turn icy due to the melting process. They also crisp up and harden where the greatest amount of force was made in the mark. For example, pressure put into the ball of the foot is where there will be a significant amount of icy change comparable to the track’s edge. In addition, watch out for sunlight. It can create shadows that may result in misrepresentation within the track. Tracks that are made under cover and do not receive direct sunlight will have less melting and less iciness.
  • When I find a new track that I am uncertain of, I like to take my glove off and feel the edges of it. See where the deepest parts are and feel how icy the track is. The track’s age can be determined by how icy it has become. The icier it is, the older and more forcefully the animal made the track.
  • Another thing I like to take notice of is how far apart the tracks are. Was the animal running, hopping, walking, or stalking? If it’s a squirrel headed for a tree and the tracks are fairly spaced, maybe it was getting there in a hurry, because it was being chased.
  • When trying to decipher who left the track, I revert to my handy pocket guide! It’s fun and exciting to try to identify who left the track, and it gives clear tips on what characteristics to look for in the tracks you’ve found.

Helpful Identification Tips

Fisher

This carnivore, part of the weasel family, is the size of a large house cat. Tracks are 2 in. by 2 in. generally, and their patterns commonly feature a bounding gate. They have five toes measuring 3 in. wide by 4.5 in. long.

Red Fox

This carnivore’s tracks, with four toes, can be found in a nearly straight line. Oval tracks measure 2 in. to 3 in. long and usually show small triangular footpads.

Coyote

This carnivore, with four toes, has oval tracks measuring 2.5 in. to 3.5 in. long, and they usually show footpads. They typically walk or trot in an alternating pattern.

Black Bear

This five-toed omnivore has front tracks measuring 5 in. by 5 in. and rear paw tracks measuring 7 in. by 5 in. These bears generally walk on the soles of their feet and tend to follow preexisting trails and roads. Additionally, you may find tree markings nearby.

Moose

This herbivore has tracks measuring 5 in. to 6 in. in length and 3 in. to 4 in. wide and usually featuring prominent dewclaw imprints. You may also see a “heart”-shaped imprint left behind.

Turkey

This herbivore with three toes has tracks measuring 3.5 to 4.5 in. long by 3.75 to 4.25 in. wide. Their stride is generally a straight line, with tracks 8 to 14 in. apart, depending on its speed.

Troubleshooting: 404 tracks not found!

What do you do when you hit a wall and can’t find the next track? I think the biggest part is making sure you are seeing the whole baseline. I know that when I get excited, I can become too focused on one track or even one line of tracks. As a result, I end up losing sight of things, and then it seems impossible to find more tracks or even where they were headed. When you can’t find the next track, retrace to where you started: Look at the initial track, then back up and take in the whole baseline again, and follow those disturbances to the baseline and see where they lead.

If the track still seems to end, examine why: maybe it ends on the ground there and picks up on a tree instead, maybe the animal changed direction abruptly and the tracks head in an unforeseen direction, or maybe the rest of the tracks just can’t be found. Just because they’re lost or unseen does not mean they’re not there. The key part of reacting to situations like this is to remain calm. So, keep at it, and remember that the adventure of wildlife tracking is in finding a brand new set to follow.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Showshoeing Vermont's Camel's Hump

Camel’s Hump is a 4,083 ft. tall peak and a fairly well-recognized natural landmark in the state of Vermont, largely due to its obvious shape. It is located in Duxbury, and from the summit, you can see Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west and the White Mountains in the east, if there aren’t any clouds. It is probably the one mountain in Vermont that, if you haven’t been to the top, you are really missing out on something special.

There are a few trails up to the peak. The Monroe Trail is my favorite, and one everyone should check off their list. It is about 6.8 miles round trip—not your easy jaunt in the woods. In the summer, it’s about a half-day hike, but in the snow, plan on a bit longer of a journey. You can find a trail map here

Getting There

Getting to the mountain itself is fairly simple. If you’re coming from the Burlington area, take I-89 south to exit 11, then take VT Rt. 2 through Richmond to Jonesville, and turn right over the Winooski River bridge. Then, take Cochran Road from the bridge to the first left onto Duxbury Road. It changes its name to River Road at the Bolton-Duxbury town line, but continue following it for about 5.8 miles to the stop sign at the base of Camel’s Hump Road. There, turn right up Camel’s Hump Road, and go about 3.6 miles to the end at the parking areas. Here, there are two parking areas near each other.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Being Prepared

Camel’s Hump is one of my favorite mountains to climb in the winter. There are fewer people on the trail, my dog loves it, and the snowshoeing is fantastic! Somehow, this time of year, the snow on the paper birch trees and hemlock pines makes it majestic and much more appealing.

Snowshoeing is a great way to get out in the winter. It’s something that anyone can do and doesn’t require the coordination or technical skill of skiing or snowboarding, so it is very easy to get started. All this said, the first, and most important, thing you should know is that snowshoeing is still hard work! But, it will also be incredibly fun and rewarding. The journey up Camel’s Hump is strenuous, but worth every step.

Preparation is critical. Dressing appropriately can mean the difference between freezing your butt off or dripping in sweat (and then freezing your butt off because you’re soaked). It’s also important to plan out your trip. The mileage, elevation change, terrain, and weather all determine what kind of clothing, pack, and footwear you’ll need.

For Camel’s Hump, this is crucial because of the difference between the steep and physical hike up and the cold, windswept summit. In addition, weather in Vermont can change on a dime—warm and sunny one minute, and the next, it’s cold, blustering, and snowing.

Staying hydrated is also important. Snowshoeing is a lot of work, as you burn a bunch of calories and sweat, and many people make the mistake of not wanting to drink cold water. It’s crucial to keep hydrated at all times of the year—not just summer—and an occasional snack or two doesn’t hurt. Warming your water before you leave goes a long way to making it more appetizing.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

The Monroe Trail

Camel’s Hump is barely over 4,000 feet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s an easy summit to reach! The trail begins with a gentle climb, but quickly progresses into some seriously steep steps. For the Monroe Trail, follow the blue blazes on the trees, although it is most likely that someone has already been out with their snowshoes and blazed the path for you. I like to start mid-morning to guarantee that. If you’re in for a challenge, try going to the top first thing in the morning after it snows.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

I like to break this trail into chunks, as, mentally, it helps me get to the top a little easier. From the parking lot, the first portion is what I call the wooded section, a fairly open hardwood forest of birch and maples. In winter, with its lack of leaves, you can see pretty far through it. During your journey, this will feel like the longest part.

The wooded section eventually intersects with the Dean Trail, but continue on the Monroe Trail, until you notice the hardwoods becoming more dense and see pines emerging. This will be within a mile or so of the junction and completes the hike’s first portion.

The second part—my favorite—goes through softwoods and pines. Here, the woods become very dense, and you are standing next to hemlocks that seem like they should be taller. And, they would be, if they weren’t buried under a couple feet of snow. While you’ll encounter another junction, this time with the Alpine Trail, stay on the well-marked Monroe Trail. This portion continues until the trail joins with the Long Trail.  

The third portion begins after the two trails merge at a clearing that is sheltered from the wind. It’s a great place to take a break and grab a snack, or to add on extra layers before ascending.

Marking the last little climb to the top, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the conditions. On its narrow and steep parts, your trekking poles will come in handy. Expect to come across ice near the top, especially if it hasn’t snowed recently or if it is on the warmer side, so be sure to pack MICROspikes, or some other form of traction. 

The top of Camel’s Hump is a fairly large area to explore. In the winter, you’ll find most of the fragile flora covered in snow.

To return to your car, just follow the Monroe Trail back down the same way you came up.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Après-Hike

My favorite place to go to after Camel’s Hump is the Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, VT, known for a large selection of local craft beer, including their own, and delicious food. I recommend the hush puppies served with maple butter, as well as the house burger with pimento cheese, fried green tomato, and applewood smoked bacon. Yum!


Hidden Gem: Acadia's Tidal Pools

For many hikers on the East Coast, myself included, Acadia National Park is beloved and cherished, and much of its beauty comes from the surrounding water. But, most don’t think to look there, let alone consider it a reason to love the park.  

On a trip to Acadia this summer, I tried to explore parts I hadn’t seen before and focused on seeing Acadia’s famous tidal pools, located in several places, all unique and each worth a visit. Revisiting old favorites and discovering new ones, I went to three different spots on both sides of Mount Desert Island’s “lobster claw.” 

The most important thing when viewing tidal pools is timing! You must know when the tide is out or when it is coming in. Optimal viewing will be at low tide. For safety reasons, get there when the tide is going out (approaching low tide), and always keep an eye on the water — it comes in faster than you think. For finding the best time, USHarbors.com offers a helpful tide-monitoring resource

Acadia Tidal Pools

Schooner Head Overlook

The first tidal pools I visited were at Schooner Head Overlook. I arrived first thing in the morning, so that I could be there as the 11 a.m. low tide approached. Because of the clouds overhead, there wasn’t a single car in the parking lot. It was a short walk to get down to the waterfront and, from there, a bit of a scramble. Keep in mind that wet rocks are incredibly slippery, and rocks with seaweed are twice as dangerous, so proceed with extreme caution.

This time, the tidal pools were magnificent, populated by crabs, periwinkles, barnacles, sea anemones, sea urchin, and more marine life.

However, Schooner Head Overlook’s main attraction is Anemone Cave. As it is incredibly difficult and dangerous to enter, it can only be reached at the lowest tide. Further, its environment is also very delicate, so, in response, the Park Service no longer advertises it as a place to go.

That being said, you can still see inside the cave without entering. As you approach from the tidal pool areas at Schooner Head, you can kneel on a small ledge to view the inside. I highly recommend taking a peek, as you will be able to see all sorts of unusual life, from hot pink seaweed to deep red anemones. It remains a beautiful natural wonder hidden along Maine’s coast.

Acadia Tidal Pools

The Quietside

The next tidal pools I visited were on Mount Desert Island’s west side, known to the locals as the “Quietside.” Several tidal pools make the Quietside their home, and the first I checked out was at Wonderland. To get there, just pull off 102A to find a small, skinny parking lot with a bathroom.

To access the tidal pools, take a half-mile or so walk through pines, until you hit the shoreline. From there, you can walk in either direction to explore the pools. Wonderland is particularly nice, because the pools are larger and less crowded with seaweed. As such, you can easily get close without causing any damage or stepping on barnacles.

Too, the water is typically clear and gentle, which makes the area a nice place to stop and have lunch. And, for a longer journey, right down the road is Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.

Blagden Preserve

The last tidal pool stop I made was at the top of the Quietside, at The Nature Conservancy’s Blagden Preserve on Indian Point. Not owned by the National Park and, as a result, not frequented by many of its visitors, the Preserve is one of the island’s hidden gems. To get to the shoreline, take the Big Wood Trail for one mile through rich and dense pines, mosses, and ferns. Don’t forget to bring bug spray. Then, the trail opens up into a meadow, where you will see a path down to the water.

Here, the shore hosts great tidal pools, but is especially famous for its harbor seals. Bring your binoculars and plan to be there around dawn or dusk for the best fauna viewing.

Acadia Tidal Pools

This was my tenth trip or so to Acadia, and every time I go, I find new places to explore. The tidal pools are just one small part of what makes the park so incredible. Acadia is always worth the trip, so if you get the chance to head up this summer, make sure to check them out! 


Overseas Hiking: Reviewing The Path of the Gods

I recently returned from a trip to Italy with my family. This initially came about when my dad presented two awesome vacation ideas, as if he were planning a last hurrah for our diverging, postgrad family.

The first was going to Italy to visit my brother, who was studying abroad there for his master’s program. We theoretically would meet up with him in Milan and make our way around the country for two weeks, traveling from city to city to see the sights.

His second idea – and easily my first choice – was to visit a handful of National Parks out West to honor the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. The potential itinerary included both Glacier and Yellowstone. Nonetheless, I was outvoted, so we were headed to Italy.

[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
At first, I was very disappointed and wasn’t feeling excited – which, in hindsight, sounds crazy. For me, this initially felt as if I were missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime.

Giving my input, I had one condition: We had to plan some hiking, as I am a crazy outdoors person and feel cooped-up if I don’t explore every once in awhile. I didn’t care what days or where – I just wanted to get outside, and I knew I would need a break from museums and tours.

Funny enough, without a car, we ended up hiking every day! My favorite, though, was called “The Path of the Gods.” We hiked this on one of our last days, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences I had while in Italy – besides the food!

The Path of the Gods

The Path of the Gods is located on the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples between coastal towns Positano and Bomerano. This trail makes for stunning views of the coastline, cliffs, gorges, and precipices. Before the trip, I had read about it in passing and convinced my family it was worth doing.

In the morning, we started in Bomerano, with cappuccinos at a tiny café. Then ready to embark, we set out and followed the road, unsure of what to expect. When we got to the beginning of the trail, the sight showed me this would be a hike to remember: Sheer cliffs hanging over the ocean below and views of the farms nestled in the hillside.

The hike began with gentle climbs up and down mountain peaks, where lizards constantly jumped out of our way as we walked along this ancient path. It continued this way for a few hours, regularly offering new views. Towards the end, the path started to descend into a tiny town called Nocelle, where you could grab a bus down to Positano or take the steps. Based on my experience, I recommend walking from Bomerano to Positano and not the reverse direction – unless you’re looking for an intense workout!

[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
[Credit: Maddy Jackson]

Independence Day with Ben Franklin: Hiking Tucquan Glen Nature Preserve

[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
[Credit: Maddy Jackson]

What better way to celebrate America than to venture into the woods with Ben Franklin? Not the founding father, obviously – he’s just my dog – but the Fourth of July is the perfect day to get outside to enjoy the freedoms we have.

A great way to beat the heat and humidity of a Northeast Independence Day is to head to Tucquan Glen Nature Preserve, located roughly a half-hour from Lancaster, Penn., and two hours outside of Philadelphia. There, the small parking lot fills up quickly, so arrive early to start your journey.

On a humid, 90-degree day, this hike, shaded by trees and following a creek the entire way, is perfect. Along the trail, you’ll also find ample opportunities to cool down in the creek, easily Ben Franklin’s favorite part. In fact, keeping him out of the water is nearly impossible.

[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
The blue trail closely travels with the creek and, after about 20 minutes, has a large swimming hole. So, to cool off on a hot Fourth of July, why not take the opportunity to jump into a natural swimming hole? At the end, the trail runs into a railroad; carefully cross it and then head down a hill by the small bridge. Here, you’ll find some social trails that lead to the edge of the Susquehanna River. It’s also a great place to eat lunch and go for a swim!

Better yet, the hike is light enough to do the entire thing in sandals, so I wouldn’t go without my Keen Newport H2O pair. As I was constantly jumping in and out of the creek with Ben Franklin and dealing with the river’s muddy bottom, they were extremely useful. I also wouldn’t go without water – and make sure to bring lots of it. Rounding out my list of essentials are Ben’s (the brand, not the dog) bug spray, sunscreen, my Eastern Mountain Sports hat, and a six-pack of local Victory beer – you can’t get more American than swimming in a river and enjoying a local craft beer. Don’t forget an inflatable tube if you want to float for a bit!

Also, please be sure to follow Leave No Trace guidelines: pack out what you pack in. Many want to see this place protected and preserved forever, so that it can be enjoyed for many more Independence Days to come!

[Credit: Maddy Jackson]
[Credit: Maddy Jackson]

Beating the Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain

For half the year, Cadillac Mountain’s peak is the first place in the easternmost state where the sun appears. This fact brings many people to the top with hopes of catching those rays.

For this view, one could take the easy approach: Driving to the top, and waiting inside the car to watch the sunrise. But, what kind of outdoors person would take that route? One of the experience’s best parts is the journey it took to see that sight.

Preparation is very important, as it takes a little planning to arrive at the top before the sun comes up. First, consider your stamina, so make sure you eat something healthy the night before. Speaking from experience, four or five hotdogs around a fire would be a bad call.

Second, factor in the temperature. It might be August, but in Maine, early morning conditions warrant your wool and down.

Third, calculate your departure time. To do this, know when the sun rises that day, and work backwards from there. For example, on August 13, 2016, the sun will rise at 5:34 a.m.

One of the experience’s best parts is the journey it took to see that sight.

[Photo: Maddy Jackson]
[Photo: Maddy Jackson]
As for the actual hiking part, know which trail you’ll take. My personal favorite is the South Ridge Trail. If you’re new to the peak, realize you can pick it up from the Blackwoods Campground, but because of the distance, plan to add an extra mile to your trip. Not camping? That’s fairly simple: Just drive and park right off Route 3. If you’re coming from Bar Harbor, the trailhead is directly past the entrance to Blackwoods Campground.

In total, the path to the summit is 7.1 miles round trip, not including that extra mile from the campground. Drivers should expect a 3.5- to 4.0-mile trip to the summit, while hikers, depending on speed, should plan for two to four hours. During my journey, I gave myself three hours, which allowed ample time for snacks, breaks, and finding the perfect place to watch the sunrise.

This would make 2:30 a.m. my departure time. However, if you’re someone who enjoys breakfast, like myself, I would recommend giving yourself an extra half hour or so. Also, so you can get off to a smooth start, without having to search around for essentials, pack up all your gear the night before. This way, by 2:00 a.m., your bag is all ready to go.

As another point, when you’re putting your gear together, don’t forget the headlamp. Most of your hike will be through darker conditions, so visibility is paramount. Additionally, if you haven’t changed your batteries in a while, an extra set might not be a bad idea.

Once you’re on the South Ridge Trail, the first mile takes you through a wooded section with a gradual climb. Not long after, you’ll emerge from the tree line. Here, take a second to turn off your headlamp and look up at the sky. With almost no light pollution, Acadia is one of the United States’ best stargazing parks, and what you’ll see at that time of the morning will leave you speechless.

From here, the trail continues to the summit, with most of the hike concentrated on the mountain’s spine and going over large glacial rocks. Most of the blazes on the rocks or cairns will be used, so keep your eye out for them. Then, the last three-quarter mile or so dips back into a tree cover that really tests your attention in the dark.

As you walk toward the summit, you may find you’re the first to arrive, so you get to pick the ultimate viewing spot. More cars will arrive as time passes, and in watching the scene, you will immediately feel a sense of accomplishment for getting there first.

Of course, you’ll also feel cold and desire the warmth of the sleeping bag you left below, but the chill becomes secondary once you watch those first rays emerge, as the view will likely be one of the most stunning things you have ever witnessed. So, take your time to enjoy the sunrise, and after the hike down, reward yourself with a delicious breakfast in Bar Harbor, because you deserve it!