Learning to Read the Signs

Muskrat tracks in the snow.

It’s raw and gloomy on a recent Tuesday afternoon when Scott Johnson, Outdoor Adventure Coordinator, creeps along the edge of Paradise Pond intently examining the ground.

Suddenly, he drops to a crouch, his face lighting up. “See that?” he asks a dozen students encircling him. “What does this look like?”

As the students examine impressions in the mud, Johnson guides them through a mental checklist to narrow the possibilities: “How many toes? You can’t quite see the full track pattern, but you can definitely see the stride. Notice the straddle? So you can say it’s about yay big.” He gestures with his hands.

Eventually, the students, participants in Johnson’s Interterm course, Introduction to Animal Tracking, learn that they are examining the tracks of a muskrat.

“You don’t really notice this kind of stuff when you’re walking around campus, but suddenly it’s popping out everywhere,” says class member Katrina Blandino ’17.

“I hike a lot, and I never really look at the ground,” notes classmate Elizabeth McCormack ‘16. “But then when you decide to look for it you’re amazed by the things you find.”

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Scott Johnson (on far right, crouching), Outdoor Program Coordinator, guides students in identifying animal tracks.

Though most of their time was spent outdoors, finding and identifying animal tracks, the class began, on  January 14, with students seated around a wooden table in the Boat House, where Johnson led a brainstorming session to generate a list of animals that live within 50 miles. On a chalkboard he grouped the animals by size and other characteristics, and introduced vocabulary ranging from the familiar canine and feline to the more obscure ungulates (hoofed animals), lagamorphs (the taxonomic order that include rabbits), and mustelids (the family that includes badgers, weasels, and wolverines).

As the conversation proceeded, students considered questions they might not encounter in other classes: How many toes does a dog have? What is  the relationship between an animal’s “stride”—the distance traveled with each step—and its “straddle,” or the width of its track?

For Johnson, teaching a course on animal tracking is a way of opening students’ eyes to the various—and sometimes elusive—forms of life around them. “If you can identify more of what you’re seeing,” he says, “it makes it more interesting and brings you into closer touch with the natural world.”

Outdoor classes also teach students important lessons about themselves, Johnson says. “I find that a lot of these wilderness skills give students confidence and a sense of identity. It’s about tapping into something that you’re passionate about.”

Johnson’s animal tracking course allows students to “get to know and enjoy their campus in a new way, and to explore the bigger New England landscape, where they might not ordinarily be able to go,” says Susan Briggs, Interterm Program coordinator. “This year’s snow cover will reveal all sorts of animal tracks, but tracking involves reading other, less obvious, signs as well—scratches on a tree trunk, nibbled twigs, an otter slide—that reveal who has passed by and what they were up to.”

Johnson hopes the class will afford students a greater awareness of the signs of life around campus—for instance, the easily discernible reddish trails on the sides of many trees, recording the daily traffic of squirrels.

“It’s all these different levels for me,” Johnson says. “For them to see that it’s beautiful, and it’s something to fight for, and it’s something they’re a part of. We’re not separate from it. It’s all interconnected.”