Saw fresh tracks along the road on the way in. Spent the eve learning the 6 (7) Arts of Tracking from Jason. Went to bed well after dark—walking away from the campfire and into the darkness felt like walking into the whole galazy, the stars just inches away in every direction. A few instructors walked by, complimenting me on my new bivy-style tent. Out of the darkness, we hear a distant howl. Someone is walking through camp, the sound of footsteps in dry grass enough to drown the sound. “Listen,” someone whispers. “Listen! Stop walking and listen!” The footsteps stop; the distant howl holds a long drawn-out note.
I walk away from camp 20 minutes or so, to a creek we crossed on our travels today. Roy walks along partway, and we discuss the “wisdom of trails” and the ability to trust the path you are on. According to an old story, the Creator actually created all of the animal trails before he created the animals. So part of the animals’ original instructions were to follow the paths that the Creator had intended for them. It’s been a big lesson for me, in the last year, to learn to follow deer trails. It is in my nature to see that I am at Point A, and I wish to be at Point B, and therefore I will go directly from one to the other, no matter the obstables in my way. 5 acres of solid blackberries be damned, I WILL get to Point B!” I am learning that the deer often want to get to the same places that I do. But they won’t bust through 5 acres of blackberries to get there. They will meander around, check out an interesting meadow or two, stop at the drinking hole, and eventually make their way around to Point B. If I remember to trust those trails, even when they seem to be leading exactly opposite the direction I think I want to go, I usually get around to where I wanted to be. And it’s often faster than whacking through the blackberry thicket. “The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality,” I tell him.
After he turns back, I find a pool in the creek and strip down. I use my all-purpose red bandanna to wash up, and the cold mountain water makes me gasp and leaves my skin tingly. As I sit on a stream-side rock to wash my feet, I imagine what it would be like for the wolves to meander by now. There’s something that feels right about encountering such a symbol of primitive power while sitting naked beside a mountain stream. I pause and lift my head. There are robins, grey jays, and juncos in sight. In the distance, I hear a raven call. I wait a long moment, but no wolves appear, and I hear no alarm calls.
After I finish my bath, I take my sarong with me to the nearby meadow to dry off in the setting sun. The oranges and pinks of sunset are focused on the ridge at the far side of a large meadow. We walked partway up that ridge today, following raven calls. Tracking wolves means finding elk, and finding elk means listening to ravens. Wolves and ravens have a sort of understanding, since both like to eat elk, but a raven can’t kill one. So the ravens follow the elk herds and call the wolves. When the wolves make a kill, the ravens get the leftovers. So we, like the wolves, followed the ravens’ calls. We found plenty of fresh elk sign, but only one old wolf track in a dry wash. I am on the far side of the meadow from the dry wash now, and I can see ravens congregating on a point of trees that extends out into the meadow. It’s on the north end of the meadow, to my right, and is a section that we didn’t explore today. In my mind’s eye, I can picture the elk herd moving through the tall grass at the base of those trees, finding the softest spot to bed down for the night as the last bit of sun slips down behind the ridge. I note the spot so that tomorrow morning we can walk through that section looking for beds.
On the far side of the meadow, far enough away that I can only make them out by the distinct motion of their heads and necks while they walk are 2 sandhill cranes. A light breeze moves the grass across the meadow and the cranes take to the air. I hear the crazy, prehistoric call that they make, and it echoes of the far ridge so that I can’t tell if it is the pair in flight or if there are others in the tall grass. Just then, in the tall grass bordering a dry creekbed right in front of me, I hear rustling. Something small is moving from right to left down under the grass. I can see the grass moving and hear it rustling. It seems like an animals about squirrel sized, but there are no trees nearby. The nearest ground squirrel holes are several yards away. We’ve seen lots and lots of mink sign so far this week, and I picture that sleek dark brown body and tiny patch of white bounding through the creek-side brush. I never see the animal, but I am filled with a sense of well-being and connectedness as the sun finally slips behind the ridge, the ravens stop calling, and the grasses settle into stillness.
It occur to me that even in if the deer trail doesn’t end up taking to you Point B, if you don’t see the wolves loping along the edge of the meadow like you thought you might, you don’t find the elk beds where you thought you would—those trails end up taking you along a route such that you want to be exactly where you are, as soon as you arrive there. I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing than watching the light escape from the meadow in the middle of the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness on an August evening.