Saturday, March 9, 2013

SIX SENTENCE SATURDAY: A Smidgen More on Tracking by Marc Cameron

        They call it Biting the Bone.
        On a manhunt for a particularly bad outlaw in the Lower 48 several years ago, we flew over a deserted camp a couple of miles off the road. The pilot set down nearby so we could search for any sign that might connect the spot to our fugitive and provide us direction of travel. Among other things, we found that the camp's previous occupants had eaten a can of peaches and a roasted sage hen. What was left of the bird’s drumsticks showed that the campers had not only eaten every last shred of meat off the bones, but gnawed the little round nubbins of cartilage off both ends, crunching through bone to get at the marrow.
         I dated a girl in high school who ate chicken this way. In fact, I do believe she preferred chicken bone to chicken meat. But, apart from her, I’ve not met many well-fed Americans who can get past all the chewy tendons and connective tissue on a chicken leg, let alone go to the trouble of biting the bone. I have, however, known many people from Mexico and South America who were raised doing just that.
        Again, I’m drawing generalities here, but we’re giving it our best guess when we track. In this particular case the guess that this camp didn’t belong to our fugitive, but to a couple of possibly undocumented visitors from south-of-the-border, was bolstered when we found remnants of red chili peppers in some poop.

        I know, ‘again with the poop’. I warned you that would be part of this tracking business.

As we saw in my last post, there is a heck of a lot more to cutting sign than looking at footprints. Good trackers are good naturalists. I enjoyed Chuck Tyrell’s post on survival skills. Knowing what plants are and are not native to an area is stuff every good tracker puts in his or her medicine bag for later use.
In the pucker brush. I'm working rear guard on the right.
Remember, the sign tells us a story.

We have a saying in Alaska: Step out of the RV and into the food chain.
Up here, wilderness work with the US Marshals carried the added wrinkle of not being at the top of that food chain—whether we happened to be tracking a felon or looking for a hunter who had lost his way. The knowledge that what started as the search for a missing hiker might well turn into the scene of a bear mauling—and at worst, a grizzly guarding a fresh kill—made us pay special attention to the story on the ground as it unfolded before us.

Here’s a sample scenario that happened to us more than once:

--Pucker brush lines either side of the trail. (Pucker brush is named from the reaction of a certain muscle group in the body, caused by the high probability big grizzly bears are hiding in that brush.)
--On the trail we find the distinct impression of a Danner boot left by the person we are tracking--with lots of 'kick' debris forward of the toe.
--Over the front half of the boot track, driven deep into the mud, is the hind print of a large grizzly bear. --It measures eleven inches from heel to toe with another two inch span to the claw marks.
--The ground is saturated from nearby streams and water seeps into the track while we stand there.
Note the "kicked" debris in front of each track. This is also an indicator the quarry is moving forward (not walking backward to confuse us)

So, from this we learned:

Our quarry had passed this way, walking at a good pace.
A large grizzly was somewhere in between us and our quarry.
Said grizzly had stepped in the boot print recently enough that muddy water was still draining into its track. 

A simple story but it’s irreplaceable training at reading sign—and keeping our eyes peeled for big toothy critters.

Moose track over a boot print, water slowly seeping in. Note the 'kick' debris in front.
As I’ve said before, my publisher has me on hiatus from Westerns for a bit--writing Adventure/Thrillers. I figured I’d choose a Western flavored scene (though I’m following others that have gone before me, putting in a few more than six sentences.)

So, from NATIONAL SECURITY, the first book in the Jericho Quinn series (Nov 2011), here’s Air Force OSI Agent Quinn and his new friend, Marine Gunny and Cajun, Jacques Thibodaux, on the night they are drawn into their new assignment.

     “Somethin’s eatin’ you, ain’t it, Chair Force?”
     “I was just thinking,” Quinn said. “You know I grew up in Alaska, right?”
     “I always did want to see that place…in the summer, mind you.”
     “The year before I left for the Academy,” Quinn said. “I went on this big deer hunt with my brother and dad out on Kodiak.”
     Thibodaux raised an eyebrow. “There’s some mighty big bears on that island, beb.” 
     Quinn put his hands in his pockets against the chill. “It was dark and cool…just like tonight. We took three Sitka blacktail deer about dusk and were covered with blood by the time we headed back to camp with the meat in our packs.”
     Thibodaux gave a low whistle. “Not a good way to be in bear country.”
    “You’re telling me,” Quinn said, remembering the event as if it had just happened. “On the way back, we came around a corner in the alder brush next to a little mountain stream and there was this live salmon lying in the middle of the trail. Its skin had been peeled off right before we happened along and it was still flopping around in the mud--with some pretty serious teeth marks in its tail. The bear was nearby and pissed, thrashing in the alders, close enough we could smell him. No doubt he wanted to get back to his meal of freshly skinned salmon…”
     “You feel that way now?” Thibodaux asked. “Like a hunter covered with blood in the middle of bear country?”
    “Nope.” Quinn sighed, walking toward the darkened brick house. “I feel like the fish.” 

Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published nine novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).  His present Jericho Quinn series—NATIONAL SECURITY, ACT OF TERROR and STATE OF EMERGENCY (available in April 2013)— features an adventure motorcyclist, Air Force OSI agent and renaissance man who spends his days sorting out his life and kicking terrorist butt.   Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
Visit him at:


  1. Yeah, Marc. Good to know that flora and fauna of the setting, the geography, too. Dan Chamberlain's The Long Shooters is about as good a high-country setting book as I've ever read. You can just tell when the writer knows. When Dusty Richards writes about Arkansas, you can tell he knows the country. My forthcoming Monty McCord novel is set in Colorado. I don't know the country as well as Arizona and it was tough researching enough to feel good about it. Louis L'Amour spent a lot of time at the scene of his novels, he says (check Youtube). Thanks for the great post, Marc. We'll have to do a dialogue post from Japan.

  2. The only tracks I ever had to worry about was watching for wild hog, and cougars on the old farm. You lead an interesting life Marc. Great information, as usual.

  3. L'Amour spent a lot of time in my neck of the woods (Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau) when he was researching the Sacketts. By the way, Marc, I love reading these blogs of yours!

  4. Thanks guys. I'm still a bit jet-lagged and hopping from place to place doing research so I'm not sure if I'll have connectivity when I get up tomorrow. It's about midnight here in Japan. My friends with the police department over here took me out to eat motsu tonight--maybe Charlie's had it. Sort of Japanese version of menudo or chitlins. Pretty darn good.

    Livia, hogs and panthers are plenty to worry over...

  5. Good stuff, Marc. I'm learning a lot. Loved your excerpt, too.

  6. Fascinating stuff, Mac. Expert trackers obviously take their clues from the land, foliage, fauna, snow, mud, animals and so forth. This would probably require another blog - or a book! - but I'm curious what happens in terms of clues when the hunt shifts to a city, or metro area? What kind of clues do you have to depend on? Different problems I'm sure, but is it more difficult, or just different in terms of tracking methods? Thanks for the tracking lessons.

  7. Thanks, Jacquie

    Good question, Tom. Though there often aren't many footprints in a more urban environment...or too many...the techniques of observation hold true.
    For instance--checking the hood of a vehicle to see if it's warm before I walk up to a house, the smoldering cigarette in an ashtray, unmelted snow in the relatively warm entryway of the home, a glass with moisture running down the outside of it--all simple examples I know, but you get the picture.
    I talk about it in my work in progress, but when someone runs through a crowd they leave a 'wake' of reactions from other people behind them. That can even be tracked for a short time until the crowd settles down. Much of it is not an exact science, but it holds true throughout most environments.

  8. Utterly fascinating, Marc. I am boomarking these blogs. And a great excerpt.

  9. As always a great lesson told in simple and graphic ways. Thank you for taking the time to teach we novices.

  10. Marc, I am thoroughly enjoying these posts of yours, and that excerpt was great. I have National Security but have not had a chance to read it yet. You should think about putting together a book for people like us with no experience with your tracking tips.

  11. Thanks, guys. I appreciate the comments.
    Just spent the evening talking over the differences between American and Japanese law enforcement here in Hakata... Interesting stuff...