KENAI -- Wild animals are almost instinctively elusive, but not seeing any creatures stirring doesn't mean none are present. Tracks left behind can reveal a complex world of animal behavior, particularly for species adept at avoiding humans.
"Wildlife tracking can be a lot of fun, especially when you find tracks of hard-to-spot animals. It's like being a private investigator," said Michelle Ostrowski, an education specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge who teaches seasonal wildlife tracking programs as part of broader environmental education courses offered.
Ostrowski explained tracking is similar to detective work in that it is about solving a mystery by having a keen eye and understanding subtle clues left behind. To unlock the secrets of these stories written in the ground, one must first learn where to find tracks and then how to read them.
"Now is a good time to look for tracks because, with the August rain, it's a little muddier," she said.
Mud is one of the best soil types for finding tracks because of how well it records details of a particular animal's print, especially silty, high-clay mud. As the mud dries out, prints in it last a long time.
Sandy areas are another place where tracks can be preserved. Well-traveled hiking trails in the forest, sandy shorelines of beaches and muddy banks of rivers and lakes are all places to look for prints, Ostrowski said.
"It's important to stay safety conscious while looking for tracks," she said. When following bear tracks, for example, Ostrowski said to exercise caution and bear in mind the prints could be five minutes, not five days, old.
Some tracks lead into areas of duff and leaf litter. Ostrowksi said these areas are not as suitable for track viewing but are not without possibilities.
"In these areas you have to look for other kinds of evidence," she said.
This can include scat, scratches or rubbings in tree bark, overturned logs, chewed or bruised vegetation, hairs snagged on branches or in bark, and trampled-down vegetation where an animal has bedded down.
"Winter tracking can be good too, especially after a fresh snowfall," Ostrowski said.
Identifying tracks is the next step, and this too is similar to sleuth work because it involves lots of comparing.
"To identify tracks we compare the track pattern, the size of the track, the width, the number of toes and we look to see if there are claw marks," Ostrowski said.
"There are alternate, two-print and four-print track patterns," she said.
An alternate track pattern involves a left, right, left walking movement. It's not only what humans do, but is the track pattern for most of the local wildlife.
"Bears, moose, caribou, wolves, coyotes, lynx, porcupine -- they all do it," she said.
A two-print track pattern, on the other hand, is when the back paws of an animal go into the tracks made by front paws, so often two prints are all that are seen.
"You tend to see the two-print pattern in animals with flexible spines, such as martens, minks, ermines and river otters, she said.
With the track pattern identified, measuring the size and the width of a track can help whittle down what species left it, particularly for species that are closely related and would leave a similar-looking track.
Moose and caribou both have cloven hooves, so they leave what is essentially a two-toed print, but measuring them will make all the difference.
"The moose track will be longer than it is wide, while the caribou track is wider than it is long," Ostrowksi said.
Measuring also helps with canid tracks, which can often appear similar, she added.
"Coyote and wolf tracks can look a lot alike, but when measured the wolf track will be much larger," she said.
When similar tracks are found, counting the number of toes can help distinguish which species left it.
For example, wolverines, lynx and small wolves leave tracks that are roughly the same size, but Ostrowski said, "Wolverines have five toes, while lynx have only four toe marks."
Looking for claw marks above the toes can be another way to determine what animal made the tracks. "Coyotes and wolves will leave claw marks, but lynx are felids that walk with their claws retracted, so there will be no claw marks," she said.
Ostrowksi said there are numerous books and other resources that can be taken into the field to help make identifications.
"There are a lot of good resources out there. We have books on animals tracks here at the refuge that have photos of the track, and track patterns, and other information about the natural history of the animal," she said.
Ostrowski's personal favorite is "Animal Tracks of Alaska" by Ian Sheldon and Tamara Hartson, which she said contains almost every conceivable track.