Senses of adventure
Chico Tracking Club brings animal traces to life
With the most subtle of breezes blowing and the heat of the morning yet to reach full swelter, Adrian Baume surveyed the dirt parking lot by Alligator Hole.
Only a few cars had made their way to this point in Upper Bidwell Park, so the dusty surface was relatively untouched. To an untrained observer, the only evidence of disturbance—beyond the vehicles on the periphery—were stick-thickness tracings of rings and parallel lines.
Baume saw more. He’d made the markings earlier to highlight areas where wildlife had left traces. Moving from spot to spot, squatting on his heels like a baseball catcher, he pointed out faint tracks of birds, squirrels, a rabbit, even a bear. He identified their species, described their gaits and extrapolated their paths of travel.
Normally when novices join him in the field, he asks them to perform the deductions. Baume teaches classes as part of the Chico Tracking Club, a year-old group that holds events regularly around northern Butte County. He made an exception this particular morning, July 4, when he met with the CN&R to demonstrate his avocation; he prefers to let participants immerse themselves in the entire experience.
“Going back far in our past, we depended a lot more on our senses for our survival—it was something that was ingrained in our education from infancy up,” he said. “You had to be aware … then later on you had to be able to procure food and pay attention to the changes in the seasons to figure out where to harvest food sources. So it was just built into our existence.
“But now, we can easily go through most of our life without being very aware: Just type on our computers, check our email, clock in and out for our jobs. We don’t have an investment in paying attention unless we find another way of motivating ourselves.”
Anasuya Basil, another founding member of the Chico Tracking Club, also teaches classes. Like Baume, she practices holistic healing arts in Chico (he acupuncture; she acupressure, craniosacral therapy and nutrition). They have a common lineage in their tracking training, West Coast expert Jon Young, though Baume first studied at Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School in New Jersey.
“I am enthralled by the thought that our ancestors were able to read tracks the way that we read a book,” Basil said. “It’s such a puzzle for the mind.”
Chico Tracking Club instructors—Baume, Basil and Wyatt Hersey—aim for at least one event a month, which they publicize on their Facebook page (see infobox) and the CN&R calendar. Not only do they cover techniques to recognize footprints, but also to expand the senses.
The paradigm they follow is adopting abilities of particular animals.
See like an owl.
Hear like a deer.
Smell like a dog.
“Owls have evolved to look pretty much straight ahead and see in a 180-degree field of vision,” Baume explained. “We’ll just have participants relax their field of vision, not tunnel-vision so much.” That changes the scope of perceiving fine points.
For deer ears, “picture yourself having a set of sensitive radar antennae, able to swivel,” he said. “You can pick up faint sounds from signals in all directions.”
Detecting scents, Basil said, “is usually a weak sense for us.” Dogs have particularly gifted noses, so “sniffing the air like a dog” can enhance a human’s ability.
“Also feel the texture of things and the breeze on your skin,” she continued. “When you start to become aware of your senses, when you look at a track, you become a lot more aware of the details.”
Awareness represents Baume’s overarching goal for Chico Tracking Club events.
Yes, it’s great for health to get out in nature—he cited multiple studies connecting time spent in the forest, for instance, to improved mental and physical wellness. That’s a standard impetus for outdoor activities. Baume sees another benefit.
“I think it awakens people’s passions for the world around them and makes all life more interesting when you carry that tracking mindset into all aspects of your life: at home, at work and everywhere,” he said. “It increases your curiosity, turns on your senses and reawakens your interest in lifelong learning.”
Basil, likewise, hopes trackers gain something broader. Connecting with animals individually—knowing their habits and movements, the way we know people’s life stories—could translate into positive action.
“The macro goal is to live in a community where we’re collectively in touch with nature again,” she said. “I think that would bring a lot more happiness; I think that would help people feel like it was a meaningful thing to preserve wild lands and understand them more.
“The more technologically engrossed we become, the more nature we need in order to stay balanced.”