By Matt Miller, The Nature Conservancy
My nephew Jacob excitedly called me over, with the impatience only an 11-year-old can muster. “You have to check this out,” he exclaimed.
He wasn’t urging us to view a new app on his iPad. He wanted us to see his latest find along a river: a set of raccoon tracks. And, as Jacob enthusiastically pointed out, these tracks seemed to be made not by your ordinary, run-of-the-mill raccoon. This thing must have been enormous. A big old boar coon, to be precise.
Looking for a new activity to get kids outside? Tracking may be close to the perfect activity.
Jacob and his brother Jack had actually initiated this day’s fun: They asked my wife and me to walk with them on the inch of snow, freshly fallen in northeastern Iowa. Immediately we began seeing tracks: cottontail rabbits, white-tailed deer, red fox, fox squirrel.
Wild animals can be difficult to see. But in the snow or mud, they leave signs of their passing. A seemingly empty woods suddenly becomes a treasure hunt for what animals had passed in the night.
There’s an element of mystery: What was the animal doing? Why did it stop there? Where is it now?
I’m well familiar with the oft-heard refrain: Kids aren’t going outside anymore. Conservationists’ solution to this is usually environmental education or highly-structured outdoor “learning” activities.
These are important. But sometimes it’s nice just to get outside and explore, without plans or goals. I know there is the fear that kids will get bored left to their own devices in the outdoors. I don’t think we give them enough credit.
My nephews found no trouble staying entertained. Here: a rabbit jumped between bushes, its distinctive and large back feet making striking indents. There: a coyote paused to survey the river bottom, perhaps looking for the escaping rabbit. With each new track, they’d bend down and construct their own story as to what was going on.
It helps that Jacob and Jack have parents who spend a lot of time with them outdoors, fishing and hunting and camping. They’re also blessed to have great places to explore, like the wooded bluffs on their grandparents’ farm where we searched for tracks.
Ensuring that youth have their own places to explore—whether they live in a city, a rural community, or the edge of the wilderness—should be among the highest priorities for conservationists.
Want to go tracking? It’s really quite easy.
The great thing about looking for tracks is you don’t need any specialized equipment. Any slightly wild place — the edge of a suburb, a city park, abandoned lots — likely have various critters passing through.
Waterways like creeks, ponds and rivers are highways for all kinds of wild animals, and they often leave signs of their movements in the mud.
A good field guide helps, especially if you aren’t familiar with tracks. My old standby — which I wore out when I was a kid looking for my own tracks — is the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie. It includes not only tracks of every animal you’re likely to encounter, but also their scat and other signs they leave behind.
As we stared at the raccoon tracks, ice floated down the river, softly tinkling as it rubbed against rocks. An occasional eagle soared overhead. We stopped for a moment on this crisp holiday morning and Jacob pronounced it “a perfect day.” No argument here.
My nieces and nephews have a future with nearly unimaginable (to me, at least) technology and modes of communication. I hope they embrace it all and use it to their advantage.
I also hope they continue to have the time and interest in the wild things and wild places around them. I hope that their paths continue to cross, quite literally, with those of the deer and rabbit and the big old raccoon.
Matt Miller is director of communications for The Nature Conservancy’s Idaho program. A freelance outdoor writer and naturalist, Matt has traveled around the world in search of wildlife and stories. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
(Image: Raccoon tracks along a river in northeastern Iowa. Source: Jennifer Miller)