Aging Tracks

How fast do raindrops fall?

That’s a Susan B. Anthony dollar

Is illustrating track aging worth the effort required?  Track aging is a challenging skill to master, as is illustrating it.  There are many factors to look for, not all obvious, and many require the skill that comes with experience only acquired by playing in the dirt, and learning to notice and interpret fine details, and changes in color shades.  As for the others…?

When does a track stop aging, or a tracker finish learning how to read the clues present?  Some clues are learned quickly, other parts may take almost forever to grasp.  Is deducing the age of a track a vital skill?  “Yup, that’s a Mountain Lion track all right.  And it was walking the trail ahead of us.”.   “And ummm, when was it here?”.

One of the essential questions in reading the age of a track is, “What signs of aging do you look for?”.  At first these signs may seem tricky to perceive and even to illustrate (try it!!).  One reason for this is the meaning of each indicator can depend on everything else.  For example: compare a hot dry summer day in full sun,  to a cool, cloudy,  very humid day in the shade … how much difference in meaning is there between a wet track left on a rock under those two dis-similar conditions?  Just the quantity of ways aging can appear is huge, the subtleties not always obvious … they are often such wee little minuscule changes.

Another important question is, “How do you interpret what you see?”.  A lot of the answers you probably already know, from life experience.  After all, you’ve noticed what raindrops do to mud, right?  And how mud can dry and crack with age?  Well, yeah, rain falls at so many feet per second, but what is the weight of one drop?  Is every drop the same?  What does hail do to a track?  What effects do raindrops have when they interact with soil particles, or a tuft of hair?

How many kinds of soil are there?  Yes, there are distinct local types: Pacific beach sand, rich Kansas prairie loam, red Oklahoma dirt … now take just one of those, sand … how many kinds are there really, and do they all age exactly the same ways?  How do they act as they dry?  Are there areas where sand and other soil types (with their own characteristics) mix?

Two other causes of weathering, wind, and air temperature, each has its own range of variation.  As you consider just the most likely  contributors the number of things affecting a track grows much larger.  Can one even list all the possible variations?  To complicate things a little more, as long as a track exists it’s aging.  Dinosaurs, meteors, past residents around Mt. Vesuvius?

Fortunately, just as all tracks were made by objects obeying the laws of physics, some parts of aging follow the laws of physics as well, so there is some similarity between the aging processes of all tracks.  And, there are ways to arrange all this complexity into useful forms.  The causes of aging make a great list.  Sorting that list by some of the useful perspectives: changes in color or shading, effects caused by wind, temperature, and soil type, moisture, etc., can help one begin to group them in meaningful ways.

Once the more obvious signs of aging are understood, it is even possible to use them to predict how a track might appear after some certain length of time.  If one examines a track to see how it compares to that prediction, one will sometimes discover what might have been missed otherwise, “That track looks different from what I expected, now why…?”.  For example; take damp sand disturbed by a track made early in the day.  There will be some high points and some lowest spots in the track.  Will those two different parts of the track age exactly the same?  If not what differences might one notice?

The learning process improves when beginning trackers realize that nothing, absolutely nothing, can ever be more useful than going out and experimenting to find the answers for themselves, and then rubbing shoulders with instructors and other trackers.  That said, perhaps it might be helpful if there were illustrations that subtly demonstrated which details carry useful aging information?

As an example of skill in aging tracks:  grandfather Pa Jay was a Texas farmer with a huge garden, pastures for his milk cows, and a few chickens and pigs, so he tended to notice tracks every day.  Eventually he was able to read the age of tracks to the year, month and day, even years later and even from a distance … after they ran a railroad along the edge of one of his pastures.


Concept Illustrated: What causes changes in color and shading (not shadow)?

The idea: Seems like everyone wants to know who the animal was, and sometimes they ask when it was there.  Fortunately differences in shades of color; on the bottom side of a stone, a wet track on rock compared to one you just made with a wet finger tip, or the inner bottom of a track compared to the upper rim (to name a few), can sometimes provide a fairly accurate estimation of when a track was made, or disturbed. Though precision can diminish after a while, the accuracy can sometimes be down to minutes, or even less, and in some soils differences in color and shading can remain distinguishable for quite some time.

To understand these changes it helps to know what caused them, and how to let each clue nudge the estimated age towards accuracy.

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The Other Concepts:

Page: The Concepts of Tracking… The Essentials
The Translucent Foot

Page: Foot and Body Movements … How body movement creates and is reflected in the tracks, and how to read it from them.
Canine Claw Tip Leaves Track in Fine Sand

Page: How To Find and See Tracks … Ways to reveal hard to see tracks and details
Predicting where the next track will be…
Dust Compressions (Dull on Shiny by Canine Toe Pad)
Controlling Lighting to Increase Visibility of Tracks
Track on ‘Bare’ Rock (Red Fox Front Foot)
Using Stone Rolls to Find Tracks
The Tracking Stick

Page: How To Read Tracks … (and trails) – The problem isn’t lack of information
Simple Tire Track and Direction of Travel
True Track (Canine Toe Pad)

Page: The Invisible Skills … Think you’ve gone as far as you can?
Problem Solving by Baby Steps
The Only Way to Get Anywhere Else…

Page: Species … Tracks of distinct species and track features unique to them
Deer Foot – One Walking Step
Red Fox Front and Rear Feet – Side Trot

Page: Track Features … The story is revealed by the details
Pressure Against the Track Wall (Canine Toe Pad)
The Wave, Simple?
The Ridge Between Canine Front Toes
The Layer of Sand in Contact With The Foot

Page: Trails and Sign … Reading all the layers
The Human Trail