Ray Mears has been tracking animals since he was a boy.
It can be difficult to achieve this kind of intense mental connection to a trail (particularly when you have a film crew in tow). But, given time, you can train yourself to do it. When you’ve got the knack, it’s incredibly useful.
You must always have the utmost respect for potentially dangerous species such as leopards, of course, but I never underestimate any animal I follow. One of the trickiest moments during the filming was a close encounter with a grizzly bear in British Columbia. Everything seemed to be fine – the bear knew that I was there, and that I was not a threat – but then I noticed the faintest hint of stress in its demeanour.
Something was clearly distracting the bear, but what? I was puzzled. Then I glanced behind me and saw a production assistant waving his arms around, trying to take a souvenir snapshot on his compact camera.
Where the wolves roam
We also went to the wilds of Idaho to track wolves. These predators are incredibly mobile, so picking up their trail is often far from easy, plus I had to contend with the added complication of the season changing from winter to spring.
The thaw revealed elk droppings from the previous autumn’s rut, which looked beautifully fresh because they’d been preserved by the snow, alongside new elk spoor left only recently. You can differentiate between these because, during the rut, a male elk’s diet is severely disrupted. It virtually stops eating during its efforts to establish a harem of cows, so its droppings have a very different texture.
At one point, the producer gave me a challenge: could I find an inactive wolf denning site that the crew had located prior to my arrival? Since at least two-thirds of each day would be taken up with talking to the camera, I knew that I didn’t have much time.
So I did what any self-respecting tracker would do: I followed the eight-day-old trail of the film crew. Sometimes you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve!
The human trail eventually led to a path crossing an alpine meadow, where I found the fresh tracks of at least four different wolves. This was a clear indication that within the past eight days the den had been reoccupied by an alpha female to give birth and raise her litter.
We had to work secretly, because Idaho’s hunting season would open the day after we finished filming and we didn’t want to give her location away. In the 1990s, 35 wolves were released into the wild here and they thrived; today, there are more than 800 in the state, leading to pressure for their numbers to be controlled.
While in Idaho, we met members from the Nez Perce tribe, which had sponsored the wolf reintroduction programme. To them, the wolf is a brother, from whom they learn hunting skills. It’s an animal to respect – one that has many similarities to humans, living as it does in a close social group.
While I accept the need for wolf populations to be managed, I wish that more of us could learn to respect this beautiful animal like the Nez Perce.
The call of the wild
Tracking is a life-long pursuit. It has taught me patience, determination and to listen to the song of the wild. It has sharpened my senses. Most important of all, tracking has given me deep respect for the animals I have been able to follow.
Students of tracking often ask me how they will know when they can really track. All I can say is: one day they will know. There will still be room for improvement, but they will have learned to employ one of our oldest skills, which defines the peculiarity of our species.
WOLF DIARIES: Ray recounts his experience of tracking wolves solo
One day during the filming of my new series I got the chance to track a wolf on my own, having shaken off the crew (they were shooting aerial footage from a helicopter). I had found a beautiful set of tracks to cast, but while mixing the plaster I suddenly had a feeling that the wolf wasn’t far away.
The plaster would take 20-30 minutes to set, so I quickly climbed a hill overlooking the area and lay down in the short sagebrush.
Just 15 minutes later, my tracker’s inner ‘alarm bell’ went off again. I scanned the landscape and detected movement: it was a large alpha male. Fortunately, he was upwind. He approached within 20m before moving off.
It was a fantastic moment. I have the cast of his paw print, as big as my hand, in my office. But the memory is the most important thing.