This is the question that elicits our desire not only to say yes I have hiked today, but also to tell our story.
We are a community of comrades bound by our love for the out-of-doors and particularly that of hiking, backpacking, trekking, etc.
As many of you know already, my particular niche in this wonderful lifestyle is adventure or discovery hiking.
It is to that end that my hiking this last week has been focused on what I originally thought was trail riders (horse people tramping the trails). I was aware that there were some range mules roaming the thousands of acres of open country where I was hiking but their presence was not apparent except for the find of an occasional neck bell. These critters apparently often have large bells attached around their neck to make their presence known.
During my last two hikes this week, I was, as always, asking myself what I was seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.
Continually striving to perceive what was going on around me. One of the inquiries that often open my mind to seeing more clearly is to ask myself what is incongruous about what I am seeing. I had been hiking two days this wee and seeing lots of horse signs but what I was not seeing was man signs. Not only no man signs but the horse travel was often through brush and in areas not normal for the trail riders.
My prior supposition, based on little to no evidence, was that the occasional bell sounds usually far off were the singular ringing of a small band of range mules. My proper deduction should only have been that there were range mules in the area with no hypothesis as to their number, their activity, etc.
This week I went off trail, which is my particular delight in hiking and particularly in investigating the activity in the habitat. I followed a spoor of prints so obvious and plentiful that you would trip over them. As I came around a blind of trees I saw movement. One of the key principles in adventure hiking is to be present but not manifest. So I dress in colors that blend with the habitat that includes my pack, hat and shoes. I am cognizant of the noisemakers in my hiking and I am constantly asking what am I hearing, seeing, perceiving, smelling, etc. Over time I have found that the questioning becomes a behind the scene activity taking place in my head and almost unconsciously. I am often even aware of the wind direction.
As I was following the tracks before me I saw a slight movement, which at first I could not discern. It was 6:30 AM and I was in a relatively heavily wooded area so it was dusk like. As I watched and waited a large mule appeared, it was grazing within 40 feet me. As I was taking a picture, which turned out quite indistinct due to my turning off the flash, I saw further movement behind the mule. To my delight I was in the midst of some 20 to 30 mules and horses milling about in a treed area. I did not hear a single ding or jingle.
After taking some further pictures, I passed on intending to revisit the site later in the day. After further review of the trails throughout the area, most of which were shared both by the equus caballus (horse/mule) and the mule deer, the evidence further demonstrated that it was a rare occurrence that trail horses were ridden in this area. Most all this activity was from a range version of a solid-hoofed plant-eating domesticated mammal with a flowing mane and tail.
It is in this arena of seeing, not just looking, that is so important as we hike the hills with the purpose of entering into the activity about us.
There were two distinct clues as to what I was looking at that I did not immediately see. Part of that takes place in us because we often don’t spend time studying Ethology…the study of animals and their behavior in their natural environment and Botany…the study of plants. I am here not talking about some formal education but that of being aware (studying up a bit) on the animals that live in the habitat we are hiking and also understanding the various plant types and their interrelationship (who eats what). For example, when I am hiking in an area that I am aware that porcupines live, and I hike in the early morning (porcupines are largely nocturnal but often feed in the early morning) I am automatically looking for signs of porcupines. If I see small fresh prints in an area where there are willow or similar deciduous stands of trees about or I see fresh nibbles on new shoots of low greens or grunt sounds, I am likely seeing the signs of a porcupine. By following the grunts or prints you may just be invited to observe their breakfast meal that is if you can be present but not manifest. It is also a great help if you have a basic animal prints and scat chart with you for reference.
The two signs I alluded to above were first that the hoof prints did not display any sign of shoes (horse shoes). The second, as I noted earlier, was that nowhere were their signs of man associated with the hoof prints. I found no shoe or boot prints, no paper or other associated debris or signs. Lastly, the movement through heavily brushed or treed trails with downfalls etc. isn’t the pattern for the normal trail rider.
The goal is to think through all of the alternatives to what you are seeing. Eliminate all that are not confirmed, and likely the remaining alternative is the correct one.
If you keep working on your seeing, your evaluating, and your discerning, you will likely enter into a world of activity heretofore unavailable to your past hiking experience. The eyes of the forest are watching but it is to our cunning to discover who they are and what they are up to. This is what hiking is all about for me.
I hope to meet you on the trails of adventure.
With hiking stick in hand,