As an old-fashioned naturalist I am never content to just look at, or take pictures of, animal tracks. Oh sure, I do take a lot of track photos. It’s an easy, clean, and convenient way to take a track home and I am now spoiled by digital technology. But every now and then I need to get back to my roots and make a few actual track casts. By this I mean pouring plaster into a fresh track, letting it set, and then physically taking the imprint home. This is how I started my naturalist career as a child and I still have some of the impressions I did well over 40 years ago. I also collected animal poo, and I’ll have to tell you about my prize acquisition of a bear dropping (found in the woods- as if to prove that age old question about bears) but that will have to wait.
Plaster casting is easy but it is also messy and quite inconvenient. Come to think of it poo collecting is rather messy also, but I digress. When casting, you will make mistakes and sometimes your plaster mix will be bad. This is probably why some folks regard it as a Boy Scout trick – done once for a badge and never done again. I was a scout long ago, so I am not here to belittle that institution (although to this day some of the worst fire-starters and woodsmen I know were scouts). I am here to show you a track trick which is not in the Boy Scout lexicon. Winter track taking.
Every time I see a really nice example of a track I am tempted to cast it. Even a six-toed-cat print may get my attention, although I think it better to simply cut off the cat’s actual foot and take that home. No, not really, my fingers just got ahead of me on the key board – muscle memory you know. Anyway, I usually come up with some such excuse and end up leaving the track (and cat’s foot that made it) behind. I’ll take a picture to fill the creative gap.
Last week when taking the garbage out I spotted a ‘possum track in the ice. One of the neighborhood ‘possums is in the habit of checking out our garbage cans on mild winter nights. He is unable to get into the containers, but walks by anyway – perhaps hoping for a miracle of some sort. Opossums dream too, you know. As a matter of fact he takes the same route as the six-toed cat. This time the hopeful marsupial walked past when the snow was still slushy, and left his imprint to freeze solid.
Here was my track (see beginning photo). I thought that I’d like to cast this one “just because.” Unfortunately the temperature was 21 degrees F and the track was made of water. Plaster of Paris would not work in this case. This compound generates heat as it sets which means the track would melt away long before the plaster hardens. Fortunately, I recalled the Water Putty trick.
I remember the first winter track I took. I think I was 8 years old. Somehow a farm duck had gotten loose from one of the neighbors and it walked right through my backyard. I had read about using Water Putty to cast a snow/ice track and decided to give it a go. Because the compound doesn’t heat up, it can faithfully take a winter impression. I tried it and it worked nicely. I dutifully labeled the pulled track as “domestic duck” and added it to my track collection. I have not tried it since.
As an adult 8 year old, I ran into the house and pulled down a small carton of Water Putty. Mixing the powder at a ratio of three to one, I produced a creamy pourable mix and gently filled the opossum impressions to over-flowing (see above). Giving it a few gentle jiggles to settle it in, I then left it to set for the rest of the day. In the late afternoon, I poured warm water on the ice, loosened the track set, and carefully pulled it out.
The results were pretty darn good (see below). The looser snow produced a grizzled effect that outlined the smoother impressions of the pads. The ‘possums hind foot impression, complete with a thumb print, was the best.
So there you have it. Here’s your chance to begin your own trip into track nostalgia. There’s no need to wait for summer as long as there are icy feet trekking through the slushy snow.