This past May, I was invited to attend a tracking class by my friend Dave Reeder. It was going to be held near Phoenix, Arizona and taught by a gentleman named Freddy Osuna of Greenside Training, LLC. I’ve never tracked, I’ve never been to Arizona, I love heat, and can think of several bad guys who got away over the years because there’s never a witness when you need one, and I had no idea which way they went.
Accuweather indicated that Phoenix was going to be 105 degrees during my stay. My friends all told me it was going to be a dry heat. I didn’t care how hot it was, I was just tired of Illinois cold. I was looking forward to baking. I wanted to find a big rock in the sunshine and lay on it and cook. Phoenix did not disappoint, and neither did the class.
The first morning, we met at the STA Training Group's location, about a half hour northwest of Phoenix, for the use of their classroom. Freddy started the day with a very brief introduction and short powerpoint. Freddy was humble and made it obvious from the start that he was passionate about tracking and wanted to instill that in us. His teaching style was to explain the training point for each exercise, and have us see it and experience it for ourselves so it was clear and real for us. EDIP(Explain, Demonstrate, Imitate, Practice) works well for me, so I had an easy time learning. So many instructors fall in love with the sound of their own voices once they get a taste of teaching, but Freddy is not that kind of instructor and I found it incredibly easy to learn something that I had no prior experience with. Freddy also is the kind of guy who leaves his ego at home and didn’t feel the need to constantly impress us with war stories. The brief powerpoint consisted of a short series of slides illustrating tracks in different mediums such as mud, sand, silt, hard dry dirt, or tracks that are nothing more than discolorations, displaced material or pebbles, or bent grasses or branches. I bought Freddy’s book, Index Tracking: Essential Guide to Trailing Man and Beast, and found it to be an easy read, helping everything come together faster in the class.
We then discussed what makes up a track, or “the criteria for definitive spoor” and learned about directional indicators. Each day began with drills in a spoor pit, or a square patch of ground that had been raked to make it conducive to prints/sign/spoor. Freddy could control the tracks that way and we studied tracks left from walking, trotting, running, or carrying a heavy load in one arm, for example. We started with simple exercises where three people each stood in front of a cone, and took turns walking a couple steps away to a different cone. All in between steps were raked over and we had to measure, sketch and name each set of prints, then compare them to the second set, and determine who went where. In one drill, Freddy walked through the spoor pit, making four direction changes, and smoothed over everything except the toe digs from each of the four directional change prints. Each toe dig was covered by a small cone so the next one(s) couldn’t be seen, and there were 5 or 6 dummy cones added to the mix, with nothing under them. We started with the first toe dig and had to figure out which cone he went to next. Freddy taught us several ways to solve the problem and when we put it all together, success came easily. We did several drills like this so Freddy could control what we had to work with and it was easy for us to learn each training point for the exercise.
One exercise entailed counting the number of steps a subject took between point A and point B, with the ground in its natural state. The ground was very hard, baked dirt, with the occasional dry grass, or tiny pebbles. We also learned various light manipulating techniques which allowed us to get less/more light at the right angle to make the sign really pop, despite being in high noon bright sunshine. Once we got that handled, we headed out to the field to track.
The exercises we conducted in the field also started easy, from tracking a subject or subjects over sand or softer ground, and progressed to harder packed ground and rock washes. We microtracked for a day and half, then were introduced to the concept of index tracking. Once we got faster at finding spoor and were able to see the bigger picture of index tracking, we could see the direction of travel, find the next gate, confirm the track and repeat. It was very cool when we were able to put it all together.
I found it easier during day two’s practical to not get sucked in to the microtrack, but to keep head up, use direction of travel to find the next gate or track trap, maintain environmental awareness and clear areas of immediate threat, then bound ahead to confirm the spoor. “These are the first lessons you must master before you begin the trailing process. You cannot catch anyone by microtracking with your face to the ground, but the better you are at it, the less you will have to do it.”, says Freddy. The more familiar you are with what spoor looks like, the faster you can recognize it and from increasing distances.
I was impressed with Freddy’s patience with us as students. While working through the drills, he would ask us to explain what we saw and how we interpreted it, let us answer fully, even if we were wrong, then pointed out the parts we had missed and let us reinterpret the information and come to the correct conclusion. Anytime we were identifying spoor or direction of travel, he was very interested in what we were seeing, what we were not seeing, and how we were processing that information.
Freddy started working us individually, then had us hand the track off to the next tracker, then we worked in pairs, then in teams, taking turns being forward security, rear security, team leader, utilizing hand signals to keep everyone on the same page. There was very little down time, other than a break to eat lunch or eat dinner.
Freddy allowed students to make mistakes and gave them enough leash to let them realize on their own that they made a mistake and correct it, then had the student verbalize what they had seen, when and how they realized the mistake and what they learned upon reexamination.
We were also challenged to be aware for indicators other than footprints, such as sounds, or lack thereof, blood, urine, spit, etc. If you notice the sound of cicadas returning to areas you have passed, but not where you are going to, you may be very close to your quarry for example. Stop, look, listen, and smell. We were cautioned against assuming or trying to force a track to conform to our assumptions, else we would find ourselves wasting a lot of time chasing a ghost, or a horse.
I was impressed by the various types of camouflage and how difficult it is to spot when in its appropriate environment, especially when wearing polarized sunglasses. Those lenses made tracks easier to see, but hiding bad guys more difficult to see.
We operated with rifles when we weren’t doing controlled drills and constantly reinforced the importance of not losing awareness of the surroundings/team leader when appropriate.
Night tracking made it all come together. The darkness was nice because there were fewer visual distractions and made it easy to focus on what we had been taught and stay disciplined to the techniques. The darkness made the big picture of index tracking really sink in...find identifiable tracks, get pace and direction of travel, then bound ahead, find sign, confirm direction of travel, repeat. We first learned tracking at night with white light and I found a brighter light held low to the ground, shining parallel to the ground to be much easier to find spoor with. Once our eyes got a little more tuned to the new visuals and we were finding it easier to find spoor and index track, Freddy then turned our attention to how dangerous tracking at night with bright white lights is, since not only do we light up the ground and what we are looking at, but ourselves and any other good guys nearby, as well.
Freddy then introduced us to GLINT, a green laser light he invented that projects the green laser as a line on the ground, not just a dot. The closer the laser is to parallel with the ground, the further ahead the line projects, then give it a wiggle back and forth and footprints seem to jump out at you. Line up a few steps and look out ahead at where the laser is pointing to and you have your direction of travel. The neatest thing about GLINT, is that all you see when you are out in front of the user, is a small green dot, leaving the user, surrounding area, and other good guys in darkness.
Tracking the next day was even easier after having had the night experience. We would identify spoor, on track, identify next index/gate/track trap, clear immediate threat areas, check index/gate/track trap for spoor, and start over. This allowed for a much faster pace when microtracking was not necessary.
The best part of the class was the final exercise when we had to track Dave Reeder across a variety of dry, hard, rocky terrain that had been recently travelled by horse and havalina. He had a half hour head start and once we got into a rhythm, we made pretty good progress. He tried to throw us off a couple of times and we fell for it once, but when we determined that he did not continue in that direction, we returned to our last known, checked a few other track traps up ahead and regained his trail. We all took turns tracking and being various points of perimeter security.
The only casualty was a flat tire on the rental pickup on the last day, on our way out of the training area, headed to rendezvous with the others and have a final debrief. Fortunately, Kate, Ellen and I made short work of it. Something I learned about hiking in hot weather is that if I pack more water than I think I will need, my pack is a little heavier, and I’m motivated to drink more to lighten the load. Given the geography was prone to rattlesnakes, cacti, and most everything has needles or some sort of sharp things on it, I was a tad reluctant to assume the traditional squat position when I needed to offload some of that liquid. I had several opportunities to try out my Go-Girl, and I was very impressed. It was easy to use, modest, clean, and I have to admit that it was fun to have sniper style aim. We also learned that Cheez-its are not good desert food, at least not in the quantity of a whole box.
A local dealership loaned us two Tomcars to assist getting people and gear out to the training area and they were a blast. If you ever have the chance to travel in one, I highly recommend it.
I’m very excited about this new skill and intend to get better by passing on what I learned to friends, and hopefully they will do the same. Not only is it a viable skill for multiple facets of life, it was very relaxing and cleared the head, kind of like shooting. Greenside Training has a web page and a Facebook page with upcoming classes listed, but be aware that it is addictive and you’ll find yourself stopping in the most random places because you think you see a socketed pebble or a heel strike.