It was a soft morning along the hard road to camp, with a thousand shafts of sunlight illuminating the woods. In the heavy morning fog they appeared as silky laser beams piercing through the forest canopy.
Spider webs highlighted by the morning dew spanned the trail and it was impossible to avoid them. It isn't a web in your face that bothers most travelers, rather it's a fear of the web spinner. I walked while holding a stick in front of me.
As I trudged along, memories of previous journeys over the same route played through my mind. I recalled past trips by the events and discoveries: a spotted fawn, a patch of ladyslippers or a porcupine in a tree. Woods-travelers tend to collect such memories and, despite our familiarity, the forest always offers up a surprise.
Shafts of sunlight illuminate the woods through a heavy morning fog.
(Photo — Joe Hackett)
Although I hike often in the summer season, the majority of my woodland wandering occurs during the fall when the forest is more open, the air is cooler and the days are shorter.
In the fall, hiking is typically a function of the hunt, rather than a sole pursuit. On occasion, I'll use a mountain bike to quickly and easily access an area to hunt. At other times, I'll drift along in a canoe.
But on this particular morning, I chose to hoof it on the shoe-leather express. I'm usually more observant while walking, even though I move along at a fairly fast pace. When I use a canoe or a bike, I tend to pay attention to the conveyance, rather than the ground I'm covering.
Of course, the less I travel, the more I'll see. It is a valuable lesson for a hunter to learn. It is difficult to discern the movements of a deer or a bird when on the move yourself.
It's also easier to alert such game when you are on the move. A hunter sitting on watch takes far more game than a hunter on the move.
As these thought were rambling through my mind, I took some time out to rest on a log. In short order, a big doe walked into the open and stared at me. If I had been on the move, she would have been the one watching me go by.
Slow down and enjoy!
What's that, scat?
I remember the cartoon vividly. There was an old Indian chief, surrounded by a group of young braves. The elder was poking at a pile of dung with a stick as if he was inspecting it to show the group of young men. Turning to another elder he explained, "When you are too old to hunt buffalo, you teach others to read buffalo stuff."
Many times, I've felt like that elder. And I've discovered that anytime I talk about poop or flatulence, teenage boys will pay attention as if some magical spell has come over them.
I've also found that a lot of knowledge can be imparted when an audience exhibits such rapt attention. Whatever you call it - poop, crap, scat, poo or a dump - kids will listen and snicker a lot. Just don't make the mistake of explaining that the process of investigating a pile of poop is actually called "science."
Such a formal declaration is sure to scare them off, since science sounds too much like schoolwork. However, it is a fact that scatological scientists continue to make new discoveries while investigating fossilized dinosaur dung. Kids find this to be a really neat fact.
Paleontologists use coprolites - fossilized dung - to find evidence of a dinosaur's diet. Dung can also provide a record of where the creatures lived, even when there is no other fossil evidence available.
Locally, scientists from the Adirondack Wildlife Conservation Society utilized scat-sniffing dogs to locate moose poop last fall. The dogs discovered hundreds of piles of moose droppings across the Park. DNA samples were taken from the scat and used to determine the density of moose in the region. Similar scat studies have been conducted in Asia to estimate the population of tigers in the wild.
Along the coast of Antarctica, scientists actually used scat to discover nearly a dozen colonies of emperor penguins. Surprisingly, they did it from space by studying satellite photos of the Antarctic for stains of their reddish-brown guano.
Scat can be used to reveal not only the animal species that deposited it, but also their sex, what they were eating, where they were traveling, where they sleep, how they live and how they mark their territory.
Fox, coyote, mink, otter and fisher commonly mark territory with droppings, either on a stump, a prominent rock or often at a road or trail intersection.
Scientific studies of scat have also been conducted to protect polar bears, cougars, elephants and even wombats in Tasmania.
Ed Kanze, a local naturalist who has spent time in Tasmania, offered an interesting sidenote on wombat poo.
"After seeing wombat scat, I wondered if it really hurts them to take a poop," Kanze explained. "Because their scat is not formed like a pellet. It comes out like a cube, square on all sides. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."
Kanze also volunteered another interesting observation.
"Along with the collection of animal skulls that I use for naturalist programs, I also have a collection of scat, which I keep in small jars," he said. "I've always believed that whitetail deer droppings had the aroma of a fine cigar. At one event, I mentioned this fact to a gentleman who was a cigar aficionado. He opened the lid, took a sniff and sure enough, he agreed."
The manufacturers of Cuban Cohibas have nothing to fear. I expect it would be very difficult to roll a batch of doe droppings into the shape of a cigar.
For the natural detectives in your family, discovering who left the poo is not difficult to do. There are a number of fine guidebooks on the market. I use Scats & Tracks of North America, by Natural Guides, LLC.
Although it sounds crazy, scatological observation can be an interesting and entertaining pursuit. And it offers a wonderful opportunity for getting kids involved in the outdoors.