The Variegated Nature of Trails

Autumn in Glacier has been this year particularly fine and delicious.

Yesterday morning I woke up at 430.  Not a common occurrence, especially as I’m still in a post-Classic torpor of only wanting to go fishing and beer drinking (fishing season is about over, so I need to get back in shape).  The plan was to leave the house by five (did it), get to Avalanche by 6 (a bit late, donut stop), so we could bike to Packers Roost by 7.  That stretch of the Sun Road is currently closed between 7 and 5 so construction trucks can blast up and down without slowing for bikers (laaame!).  We made it, and started hiking in the pre-dawn, with an eerie cloud ceiling a few hundred feet above.

We was myself, not M (who was going to go but refused to get out of bed), and Jake of Hike 734.  Jake’s a week, three trips, and about 50 miles away from hiking all the officially recognized trails in the park in one year, a fine achievement.  As it turns out, quantifying “officially recognized” is not the simplest thing, and the research Jake did to arrive at the list he did is quite interesting.  Mineral Creek used to have a pack trail running up through its head to Fifty Mountain, but construction of more scenic trails and decline in guided horse packing trips saw it fall into disuse, such that today it’s not a trail by most human definitions.

Jake on the Mineral Creek trail.  Yes, we were quite certain this was the actual, official trail.

This was a bit of an odd blind date.  Not only had Jake and I never met before, nor communicated directly, our only previous acquaintance was from me calling him out online several months ago.  M had met and hiked with him since, and while I felt a bit sheepish for my lack of couth, I was confident that anyone who tackled such a project with the dedication Jake’s shown would be good company.

And so it proved to be.  We got an assist from some USGS guys who were, by bizarre coincidence, headed our direction to do invertebrate surveys, but for the most part Jake and I were left to our own devices to find our way upstream.  It was a classic piece of route finding.  In places profligate use by elk combined with old sawn logs and occasional markers on trees to make the route fairly plain.  In others floods, fires, and time required serious sleuthing to make coherent headway.  On the whole we did  well, but not without several major lapses in vision on the way out which had us using much more time and energy than was necessary.  I blame short sleep and a weak breakfast for me not being on my game in that respect.

Glacier geology never disappoints.

It’s not for everyone, but hiking Mineral Creek has a lot to recommend it.  It burned emphatically in 2003, and is still very open for all it’s length.  In the wake of the pine pogrom that is a major fire the aspens and cottonwoods and scrub maple have made a great recovery, and this time of year are in fine form.  That the trail was at one time so well used by humans, and has had so long to return towards nature, makes it a great showcase for when animals might use human routes, and when they don’t.  We hiked out, found the old patrol cabin site (the official end of the trail) and returned without incident, enjoying a condensed class in trail finding and good conversation along the way.

There were a handful of mandatory, and very slick, creek crossings.

The timing of this was particularly fortuitous, as I’ve spent the past week working on a BPL article about on-trail route finding.  The premise being that in most cases while hiking one will, or at least ought to, be following some sort of trail, be it human or animal, and that the basic guidelines for following a hard to find human trail are the same for following an intermittent animal trail.  Yesterday confirmed and reinforced the ideas I’ve been writing about.  The following is a bit of the early draft.  I’d welcome any feedback.  (I’ve excised the many great photos and the expository text which will go with them.  You’ve got to have some reason to read the finished product!)

Know your trail builder

Knowing who built the trail is invaluable for efficient route finding.  Certain kinds of people in certain eras built trails in vastly different ways, and the norms of trail construction and marking vary hugely from place to place.  Different animals also create different kinds of trails, deal with obstacles in different sorts of ways, and go from place to place in different manners.  Knowing as much as possible about all of these things will allow you to assess the situation and extrapolate accurately when the trail becomes faint before your feet.

When following an animal trail, knowing which animal(s) primarily use and thus maintain it is vital.  Different animals travel in different ways, which are variably suited to human locomotion, creating a hierarchy of preference for human travelers on game trails.  This being the case, every hiker in North America who plans on traveling off human trails should be conversant in the tracks of all the major fauna: bison, bears, moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goat.  (Alaskans should add caribou.)  Knowing a fox track from beaver is cool, but if your best option is following the trail made by either you need more assistance than I could hope to provide, either in print or in person.

The various species of deer and elk make similar sorts of trails.  They can be good, for human purposes, but more often they’re only ok.  Deer are slim and slide through brush with extra-human ease, and elk compensate for their size with long legs.  With the exception of elk migration trails in places like Yellowstone, neither deer nor elk have occasion to move long distances across terrain in a way suited to backpackers.  Being grazers, they and their trails are too leisurely and perapatetic.  Elk and deer trails might be good way to get through a thick band of brush, but won’t serve so efficiently for covering big distance.

Moose seem to be more purposive moving from one habitat zone to the other, and because those zones are usually very wet they are in turn attached to major drainages and thus highly useful for human travel.  Moose travel over surprisingly rugged mountain terrain as they move from zone to zone, and insofar as this is true route find in a way very suited to humans.  Alas, adult moose in the lower 48 stand 5-6 feet tall at the shoulder, with the majority of that being leg length.  Alaskan moose are even taller, and all moose if left to their own devices create trails wholly unsuited to human physiology.  They step over and through obstacles which can occupy humans for minutes.  One one long ridge traverse in the Bitterroots of western Montana I thought a moose trail would deliver me safely from the alpine zone 5000 vertical feet down to the trail in the valley bottom.  Instead, I found myself bushwacking through scrub the moose stepped over and crotch deep in a bog which bothered the massive animal not at all.  If you find yourself following a moose trail, know that you have rough going ahead, but also know you’re most likely taking a fairly efficient route to somewhere useful.

Bears make great trails.  They’re broad shouldered and short legged in a way which suits the stride of a human wearing a pack very well.  The only limitations are that even big bears are shorter than people, and that in most places below Canada there aren’t enough bears for them to make their own trails.  Even in most places in Glacier and the Bob, both home to healthy Grizzly populations, bears almost always choose to follow human trails (the density of bear tracks on a trail pre-hiking season in the late spring is amazing).  There are a few places, like the above photo, were enough bears take a high pass from one drainage to another that an enduring trail has been worn in.  You can tell the pigeon-toed pad marks, worn into vegetation by bear after bear stepping in exactly the same place, immediately, and know you’ve found a good trail.  The bear trails of coastal Alaska are legendary, and reportedly better animal-made trail cannot be found.

Except, perhaps, with bison trails.  Bison have huge bodies and short legs, and while they can jump like LeBron are loath to do so unless absolutely necessary.
Bison also tend to travel in big groups, and will wear a hidden highway through impenetrable 10-year old spruce which is a marvel to behold.  As mentioned before, there are not a few places in Yellowstone where the Bison trails are much better traveling than the people trails.  The only drawback to following these wilderness wonders is that there are so few places in North America where a backpacker can do so.

Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats are not trail builders to follow lightly.  As a rule, both go places into which most backpackers would hesitate to follow.  In my experience goats are the bolder of the two, and I only consider the most established goat trails worth following.  There are a vast number of these in Glacier National Park and other places with healthy goat populations, many so established and so convenient for the high alpine hiker that they’ve become human routes.  Many of the constructed trails above 5500’ in Glacier were no doubt goat trails 200 years ago.

Sheep are a bit kinder, and as mentioned in the introduction saved my groups bacon years ago in the desert.  Following that sheep trail was an act of faith, with the neatly cloven tracks all too often leading towards seemingly impossible blankness.  I was still a climber in those days, and regularly climbed 5.12 and soloed 5.9, and I found some of the places the sheep went to be moderately hairball.  But the sheep, as with any of the animals discussed here, almost certainly know the best way by virtue of generational memory.  It’s a good idea to trust them.

The best animal trails of all are well-established multi-species game trails, which seem to evolve when there is only one good way around a certain obstacle.  When the virtues of a bear trail and a moose trail are combined the result is almost mountain bikeable, and on several occasions during the 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic my partner and I found just that (see above).  Alas, outside Alaska or Canada few wilderness tracts exist big and human trail-less enough to see these marvels spring forth.

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10 thoughts on “The Variegated Nature of Trails

  1. Dave, it was my pleasure hiking with you to Mineral Creek. For the record, that was by far the most challenging of all the hikes on my list and will probably go down as the most infamous… only for the trail. Great chatting with you and loved your route finding expertise and I think we both fared relatively well in spite of our lack of sleep and occasional low blood sugar count.

    In regards to your article, another angle to finding old people trails is to consider whether it was a pack trail or not. That was evidenced by yesterday when the trail took a precipitous route down, we figured it was not the official trail as we knew this was an old pack trail and there were better “pack options”. When you go climb Elk Mountain or head on over to Jackson Glacier, you quickly realize that these didn’t have horses in mind first.

    Other than that though, I’ll keep my eyes open for sheep trails when I finally am free from hiking just trails. 😉

  2. How many articles have you written/are in the pipeline for publishing at BPL? The site doesn’t have a way to sort by author (that I can find). If you intend to be a frequent contributor I would be much more inclined to become a paying member over there.

    1. As of this date only a few have been published: the Parcour de Wild race report I co-authored with Kevin Sawchuk in late 2009, the Continental Divide article earlier this year, the Classic article, and my article on Hiking in Grizzly Country. There are many more than that finished and in the editorial cue (my Hok ski review might go up this week), and even more than that in either the testing, research, or writing phase.

      So yes, it’s safe to say I’ll have a presence there for the near future, at least.

  3. Hey Dave, as always an excellent article. I work in the Great bear Rainforest area which is steep and cliffy. I find that the deer trails are excellent ways to help with navigation here because the deer tend not to go where the cliffs are unnavigable without a rope. If I find a deer trail I know that I can get down the cliff.

    1. Thanks Jenn, good to know such guidelines translate to most places. In the Colorado Plateau we would say that if its green, it goes. Meaning the vegetated slopes usually went without ropes. Not true I would imagine in the rainforest.

  4. Dave, excellent! I’ve been waiting for that review, was going to buy it standalone, but knowing you’ll have more content is the deciding factor.

  5. I’m looking forward to your trip report from the Ptarmigan Goat Trail Traverse (see Edward’s Guide). I didn’t pack a camera when I did it back in ’05. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

  6. I should point out that my previous comment was meant to spur you into hiking that route someday – not to imply that you’ve already done it and I’m waiting to hear about it.

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