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Hot on the trail

Eleven people crouch with their faces close to the sandy ground, staring intently at footprints made less than a minute ago.

It's a windy, overcast Sunday morning in late March at the North Mountain Park playground in Ashland. They shift position often, regarding each footprint from multiple angles, taking in their surroundings using what group leader Joe Kreuzman calls "wide-angle vision."

"An elk can see 270 degrees, behind its head. Video games are focused and obsessive-compulsive. Our ancestors used wide-angle vision, it was survival: if you didn't see it first, the cougar might drop out of the tree, and that would be the end of you," Kreuzman says.

Kreuzman is introducing members of the newly formed Ashland Tracking Club to the ancient art of tracking, a skill that requires a relaxed but total concentration on one's surroundings, processing sensory cues from the peripheral vision — hence the name "wide-angle vision."

This tracking club is the latest endeavor of the Ashland-based Coyote Trails School of Nature, a nonprofit organization Kreuzman founded in 2003. The school moved to Ashland last year from Bend. Its mission is to teach earth-based primitive living skills in the natural environment to children, teens and adults.

In many cases, generations in the same family study skills together, such as fire making, building shelters, foraging, trapping and making primitive tools.

"This is something we can do together," says Brian Dwyer, who lives in the Colestin Valley.

Dwyer's 14-year-old son, Rory, attended a week-long introductory camp for teens last summer taught by Coyote School instructors at Earth Teach Forest Park on Dead Indian Memorial Road.

Rory has been practicing his skills ever since, and today is able to answer many of the questions Kreuzman poses to the group of primarily adults.

For the next exercise, half the people turn their backs while their partners walk across a grassy lawn, then they attempt to follow the tracks.

One secret to success in this and other tracking techniques, says Kreuzman, is to seek out the disturbance.

"Tracking is all about disturbance to baseline (conditions). Once we know the baseline, then we'll know the disturbance to that baseline," Kreuzman explains.

Now the group is ready to track animals in a wilder setting. Tracks abound in North Mountain Park. During their February meeting, club members identified tracks belonging to mink, bobcat, beaver, dusky-footed woodrat, spotted skunk, raccoon, harvest mouse and California vole.

A thick patch of standing dead grass is the location for a vole search. These tiny rodents create tunnels at ground level through waist-high grass that makes them invisible to casual observers and predators alike.

The trackers carefully part the grass and follow the tunnels made by the repeated trips of the voles. For the persistent tracker, the tunnels eventually lead to a burrow. The observant may find a mound of tiny vole scat. The lucky may even find a vole hair.

Serendipity plays a role along the way. Earthworm casings and the acidic scat of a junco are revealed.

Kreuzman and fellow Coyote Trails instructor Howard Holt point out these clues to the new trackers. They have studied tracking and wilderness skills at the nationally renowned Tom Brown Tracking School in New Jersey.

Interest in tracking began for Kreuzman at a young age.

"I was 2 years old walking through wet grass and stepped onto hot concrete and noticed my footprint for the first time," he recalls.

In addition to holding summer classes in tracking, the Coyote Trails School of Nature teaches a weekly class at the Willow Wind Community Learning Center and has worked with the Wilderness Charter School in Ashland.

Their goal for the local tracking club is to create a group of accomplished trackers who can help find lost pets and, ultimately, to assist search-and-rescue teams in finding lost humans.

Tracking, according to Kreuzman, is not about learning new skills, it's about relearning lost ones.

"Tracking is in our DNA," Kreuzman explains. "Today we're bringing it back into our awareness."

For more information on the Coyote Trails Nature School, visit http://coyotetrails.org.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org

Brian Dwyer, 44, along with his son Rory, examine the fine details of what happens when you walk on different types of surfaces, such as grass during the Tracking training at North Mountain Park, Sunday, March 28, 2010. - Photos by Larry Stauth Jr.