“Oh-ho, look at this,” naturalist Richard Carstensen tells his friend and colleague Steve Merli.
Men crouch under the high tide just off the downtown Juneau Seawalk trail. They study part of a cream colored skull with a long beak. Carstensen measures it with the length of his hand, then gently pulls it out of the damp earth.
“Christmas Jesus!” Merli whispers. “Incredible.”
“It could be a heron, it could be a sandhill crane,” says Carstensen, “And I’m trying to rule out the sandhill crane.”
Both men were among the founding members of Discovery Southeast, a non-profit outdoor education organization for youth and families. This summer, the organization will team up with experienced trackers to lead a certification course for adults.
Wilderness trackers read signs in the natural world to find and identify animals. It is useful for hunting, conservation and photography. But it’s not enough to find an animal, a paw print or a bone, they say. It’s understanding the context. For example, Carstensen can see signs that somewhere along the road from the bird to the skeleton, this heron was a meal.
It doesn’t appear that this beach in downtown Juneau is a tracking hotspot — while they’re examining the skull, a plane flies overhead and evening traffic zooms by. Still, they spotted a dozen goats on the side of a nearby mountain, found the breastbone of a seagull, and identified the skull they found as that of a heron.
Merli says it’s all about observing and letting curiosity guide you.
“Everything is a track, and every track tells a story,” he said. “We can just look at everything around us. There are all kinds of signs here.
The track and sign route will likely be a little more off the beaten track.
This is an intensive 2 day workshop that will teach students to think like Merli and Carstensen – to identify footprints and understand how wildlife interacts with the landscape.
Former Juneauite Kevin O’Malley will lead the workshop at his wilderness school near Seattle. He says the ecology of Southeast Alaska is exciting for trackers because of the large animals like bears and mountain goats. Six people around the world have already signed up. A few are Juneau locals, and one plans to come from as far away as Central Asia, he said.
Marcus Reynerson of Tracker Certification North America will teach the course. He is one of only ten evaluators who can certify new trackers for the program. He says this is the first time his organization has offered tracker certification in Alaska.
“Really, wildlife tracking is basically just pattern recognition,” he said. “And humans kind of evolved to read patterns.”
A tracker certification can be useful for certain jobs, such as naturalist or resource management positions. It is also a way of measuring personal growth, like the belt system in karate. Reynerson is like a black belt in field ecology.
He says tracking is just another lens through which to view the living world.
“There’s this kind of very ancient aspect, it’s in our bones, it’s in our DNA, it’s in our humanity, where we just do it. And so when you turn that lens on reading signs and animal tracks, you can really tap into a rich history.
There will be a test with up to 60 questions ranging from simple to complex. Reynerson says not to sweat too much. Ultimately, your interpretation of the natural world is always up to you.
To learn more about the program or to register, visit the South Sound Nature School website.