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Game Trails: Nature’s Trail Crews

Follow four-legged trail blazers down paths you'll never find on a map.

The trail was narrow and gnarly, weaving its merry way along the top of a cliff. It flirted with 50 to 100 feet of free fall, just inches to one side of our overloaded, backpack-hefting bodies. I cursed the trail’s makers under my breath. “How did they get across here?” I wondered aloud between gasps. And what possessed them to try?

My backpacking buddy Mike and I had been following a series of trails for several hours, alternately blessing and cursing the sure-footed creators of this teetering high-alpine pathway. Were we the victims of a trail crew run amok? On the contrary, this trail was a gift created by the split hooves of countless mountain goats seeking the same secluded meadow. For us, the lush expanse at the toe of a giant ice field was a dream campsite come true. For the mountain goats, it was a high-mountain smorgasbord.

Following game trails can be everything from simply convenient to exhilarating to downright frustrating. But they’re definitely worth considering under certain circumstances, including:

  • Anytime you’re navigating cross-country in trailless terrain.
  • When you’re forced to bushwhack because the trail is poorly maintained.
  • When you choose cross-country navigation over existing trails for the extra challenge.
  • If you become disoriented and need to find a lake or stream crossing to regain your bearings.

The trick is knowing when your agenda matches that of the resident trailmakers. What might seem ad hoc to you generally has a greater purpose in an animal’s scheme of existence, which is controlled by such basic needs as safety, food, water, and propagation. Your most pressing need, however, might be getting across to the next valley before nightfall. If that valley happens also to be a frequently used feeding area for the local bighorn sheep, you’re in luck.

Wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer, who has been tracking wildlife in Banff National Park for more than five years, told me backpackers should keep in mind that these trails are often used generation after generation. “It’s much like you going over to a friend’s house,” he said. “More than likely you know a few shortcuts along the way.” Wes Bradford, warden of Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, has been tracking wildlife for 15 years. He adds that the movements of animals through a landscape also has a lot to do with their need to conserve energy. “Their environment is often so incredibly harsh,” explained Bradford, “they instinctively follow weaknesses in the landscape, wasting as little energy as possible.” All of which makes them a good bet for backpackers as well.

You can find game trails almost anywhere that herd animals roam, with bears, wolves, and coyotes sometimes using them, too. Above treeline, game trails can provide stable footing across shifting, ankle-twisting talus slopes. Such trails have often saved me from dropping down into the trees where a thrashfest of bushwhacking would have taken me nowhere fast.

When getting above treeline isn’t an option, taking advantage of game trails can be tougher. According to Heuer, well-used animal pathways can be quite difficult to find in woodland areas, although Mark Hebblewhite, an ecologist working on the same tracking study as Heuer, does offer some suggestions: Because animal trails exist for a reason, they often can be found circumnavigating entire lakes and following major river systems. “Critters tend to move between patches of available habitat,” explained Hebblewhite, “searching out sources of water and food. Most valleys have one or two game trails along the water drainage.”

If you’re at the edge of a lake or pond, for instance, and a trail isn’t immediately evident, try moving slightly farther away from the water until you cross a pathway. Or scan the lake edges for a break in the vegetation or a cluster of tracks on the shore. It’s a good bet there’s a trail leading back from that spot. Likewise, if you’re struggling through undergrowth along a drainage gully or creekbed, simply crossing to the other side may yield a well-traveled pathway. And if you happen to stumble across a trail in the middle of nowhere, chances are it will eventually lead you to water, especially if it travels steadily downhill.

For safety’s sake, and just to fully appreciate your newfound secret passageways, you should get in the habit of checking the clues to see who else is around before you meet them face-to-snout. Here are a few pointers for determining what type of animals might be using a trail and how recently and often:

Look down frequently. Tracks are perhaps the most obvious feature to watch for, especially after a rain or recent snowfall, and in soft, sandy soil. They’re one of the most reliable means of determining how long ago animals have used a trail, and are particularly useful in avoiding confrontations with predators. I was once backpacking with a friend off trail in a remote section of Canada’s Banff National Park when we came upon what looked like a large grizzly track splayed in the mud beside a tumbling creek bed. We were both tired and hungry after a long day of bushwhacking, so we pretty much ignored it. Several minutes later we almost tripped over a massive sow with cub. I’m lucky to be writing this today and will never again ignore such a sign.

Note clearings beside the trail. Deer, sheep, elk and the like will frequently bed down in the buffer zone beside a trail. Often they’ll scrape away rubble and duff from under a tree limb or beside a bush in search of acorns, grass, or other forage. During the spring, goats and sheep in particular will shed clumps of woolly hair while sleeping. Look for noticeably compressed or dished-out beds about 3 feet by 5 feet, and telltale droppings in the immediate area.

Scan trees along the sides of the trail for claw marks or tufts of hair. Bears and bison in particular have certain rubbing spots they use for satisfying hard-to-reach itches, and probably also for marking territory. Look for “bear trees” with spots where a bear has clawed, chewed, or rubbed the bark off anywhere from 3 to 6 feet off the ground. If the bear has visited recently, you might notice hairs still stuck in the bark or sap, and possibly even a musky bear odor. Smooth-barked trees such as aspen or beech may also have short, blackened scars from the claws of climbing black bears.

Look for telltale browse trees. Deer can create a distinct browse line where they’ve bitten off tender twigs along a whole row of trees. Deer browse is marked by the ragged edge of the twig. Moose leave an even more obvious wake, straddling and bending over saplings to get at the tender top leaves. In the fall, look for marks on small trees where antlered animals have scraped the dead velvet off of newly formed antlers. You might even see tattered strips of the velvet clinging to the battered brush. Those with sensitive noses may also detect the musky scent left as a territory marker.

Whether you seek out game trails or only use them in an emergency, there’s one final point to remember: These networks were created by generations of animals for survival, and interfering with animals’ travel patterns could mean a serious disruption to their lifestyle. If you spot animals using the trails you’re on, watch them carefully for signs of agitation, and give them a wide berth. “There have been times when I’ve chosen to bushwhack rather than force a potentially uncomfortable confrontation with an animal,” Mark Hebblewhite cautioned. “It’s all about respecting an animal’s individual space.”

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