Right on Track

It’s Saturday morning.

Pulling into the dirt upper parking lot at Simpson Park I swerve around the large puddle left from the rain the night before. Just this winter we had a frustrating search in the rugged terrain at the back of the expansive park. Dogs and helicopters combed the terrain to no avail. A “ground-pounding” by our foot searchers yielded results only after a long and exhausting night. Now in an odd coincidence we’re returning to the same scene to sharpen skills that just might help us find the subject faster on future missions.

For the next 2 days Fernando Moreira, a highly respected tracking expert, will be giving us in-depth Search and Rescue Tracking Training.

It’s a cloudy day, the sun showing through only intermittently. Fernando takes this opportunity to show us how varying light conditions can affect the visibility of the tracks. With direct early morning sun at a low angle, the tracks he has laid for us stand out in sharp relief. But as a cloud covers the sun the contrast fades and the print disappears into the ground. The effect would be the same around noon with the overhead sun obliterating contrast. He explains we can counter this by shading the area and shining a flashlight at a low angle to create shadows and reveal the prints.

The class dives immediately into practical experience for the SAR tracker. How do you estimate the height and weight of a person from their shoe size? Predict the path of their travel? Where their foot will fall next? How can you tell the age of the tracks? How can you measure and use knowledge of their stride length to your advantage?

The location is perfect for our purposes. To put it plainly- it’s confusing. Simpson Park is a popular mountain biking, running and dog-walking destination. With so many tracks and current activity in the vicinity it can be vital to have several tools that help you to distinguish the track of your subject. Quite often you wont get a clear print- only a series of scuffs. How can you tell if this is your man? Knowledge of their usual stride length (measured from prints at their last known location) can help you rule out many prints and keep on track.

Those who have gone through the class the year before are enlisted to help guide the new trackers in the basics of Micro-tracking. The slightest of clues; the transfer of grains of wet dirt up onto vegetation, a broken leaf, and pebbles shifted slightly forward from their positions are the language of Micro-tracking. We line up across a vaguely level hillside about half the length of a football field. Tracking sticks in hand (trekking poles with a set of adjustable rubber bands to mark print and stride length) we kneel down to read our first tracks of the day.

The ground is already covered in tracks from daily usage of the park, but after a few pointers from Fernando and his aides the subject’s prints start to announce themselves. As my eyes warm up I see the telltale slight depressions, transfers, and subtle shifting forward of pebbles that signal that we’ve discovered the next step.

The next couple days are full with practical exercises and live scenarios designed to help us find our subjects more quickly and efficiently. We learn leapfrogging or ‘cutting ahead’ in boxes and half moon patterns to speed up the process of tracking. We learn to look for natural “Track Traps” along the path of travel. Tracking at night had once seemed impossible, but if you angle the light just so the patterns of slight depression in the ground can become a path pointing directly towards the subject.

Fernando discusses how to most efficiently set up and work tracking teams. We learn to read the story that tracks are telling us- did the subject shift their weight to one side to look back? Throw something? Trip and land heavily? “The tracks don’t lie”, he states.

Several live scenarios are staged to test our growing tracking skills in the field. The team responds successfully to a search for a missing hiker. Another person is “lost” and we learn to track from a central location such as a car, determining a Direction of Travel. We measure the prints leading out from the car, mark the stride length on our tracking sticks and move out in a spiral pattern, careful to not destroy any prints we encounter.

In our final live scenario slight scuffs on the ground, dirt transfer, drag marks and a broken quail egg under leaf cover lead our team to the ‘body’, an orange team shirt. We return proudly bearing our prize and a newfound confidence in our own practical tracking skills.

After a weekend of practice with Fernando, what before had seemed a series of hints in the dirt transformed itself into a clear trail pointing to our subject. After this weekend I’ve come away with an entirely new respect for the value of tracking in Search and Rescue. We’ve added a valuable new skill to our arsenal as a team, one that we can use on missions to come.

 

 

RMRU Members at Training: Glenn Henderson, Gwenda Yates, Carlos Carter, Helene Lohr, Craig Wills, Rob May, Nick Nixon, Mike Herman, Roger May, Michael George, Matt Jordan, Alan Lovegreen, Paul Caraher, Joe Erickson, Lew Kingman, Pete Carlson.

 

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