Sherlock Holmes, expert tracker

Why I track

A question I get a lot is, why do I track? It’s not a straightforward answer, and up until recently, not a question I could answer truthfully.


Most people equate tracking with the ability to follow an animal’s footsteps through the wild. That’s not inaccurate, but it’s an oversimplification. Tracking is also about observation and critical thinking. Can you find the clues left behind by the animal? Can you unravel the story being told? Finding and following a set of tracks is just the beginning. Knowing why the animal was there, what it was doing, where it is headed, and how to anticipate its next move – that’s tracking.


I started my tracking education over a decade ago. I stumbled into tracking accidentally. A random book in a small bookstore in Point Reyes Station, California started me on my path. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, but there’s also been a feeling of separation. I’d walk through a forest and just see a wall of green. What pulled me into tracking initially was a simple idea – tracking is the ability to read the landscape like a book, to know what is going on around you and why.


When I began tracking, I was an analyst working for the government. Tracking started as a hobby. A way to see more while hiking and camping. It wasn’t until the awareness training began that I saw a connection to my day job. Understanding how to expand my observational skills and reasoning applied to much more than just tracking.


When I was working in the Intelligence Community, I found it amusing how often analysts quoted Sherlock Holmes when discussing tradecraft. Even though fictional, there was something about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character that resonated. Sherlock’s observational skills, attention to detail, and deductive capabilities were impressive. But there was something else there as well. The speed of his intellect was intimidating, but some of his abilities were basic, a level of awareness anyone was capable of if they put in the effort.


It wasn’t until I dug into tracking and awareness, examined the principles behind the art that I began to realize the connection points to my work, hunting bad guys. Tracking an animal, learning its habits to build a pattern of life, knowing how it interacts with and is impacted by its environment. These same principles applied to tracking people and organizations. I also found that the awareness skills I was learning were applicable well beyond just when I was in the woods following a trail.


As my awareness abilities grew, so did my skill as an analyst. In time I became a methodologist, designing analytic tradecraft. I worked with a variety of analytic shops at home and abroad. I was a problem solver, helping analytic teams with difficult targets. My job was to take complex problems, boil them down to their fundamentals, pull in the best practices of seemingly disparate disciplines, and create a workflow that enabled the team to use all their available data then teach them how to apply it.


Conan Doyle created Sherlock based on real people. Most of the models for the famous detective were physicians. Conan Doyle, though known for his writing, was himself a doctor, trained in Edinburgh, Scotland. There’s a well known story of one of these doctors diagnosing a new patient with a rare tropical disease after only a brief conversation and seemingly little diagnostic work. When pressed by one of the interns on how the doctor was able to jump to such a conclusion based on so little data, the doctor provided a breakdown of his analysis. The assessment began as soon as the doctor walked into the room. The patient, though not in uniform, carried himself with a military bearing clearly identifying him as a soldier. The deep tan lines on his neck and hands also marked him as a soldier, and one who’d returned from deployment, likely someplace with more sun than the British Isles. His accent was Scottish. The newspapers recently reported a Highland Regiment had returned from the Caribbean. (All of this was deduced in the initial greeting between doctor and patient.) When asked about his symptoms, the likely aliment was one of two issues. The doctor checked the patient’s vitals for the most common, and seeing no evidence moved to the second, for which there was evidence - the tropical disease, rare in the UK, but not in the Caribbean.    


You can almost hear Sherlock in the background, “It’s elementary my dear Watson…” Awareness is about leveraging all the information we have access to, using our subconscious mind to our advantage, applying a scientific approach to creating and weighing different hypotheses, testing those theories, and drawing conclusions that help us understand more about the world we live in.


When I first set out to build tracking flashcards, they were just for me. I was looking for a simple study aid, couldn’t find any, so built my own. I shared my flimsy, 3x5 notecards with other students who saw me using them. The results were usually the same, "Can you make me a set?" That’s when an idea started to creep in - why not clean these up a bit and produce them at scale? I built my first crude prototype (a process that took much longer than I thought it would), and then another thought crept in, self-doubt. I’m not an American Indian and I’m not a master tracker. So, who am I to teach tracking? This question haunted me for a long time. But then something shifted. I realized I was looking at the situation the wrong way. What can I add to tracking and awareness? How can I use my ability as a methodologist to pass along what I know, and in the process possibly expose people to a way of seeing and connecting with the world around them?


What I’ve attempted to do with these cards is share what I’ve learned (and am still learning, hopefully that will never end). The cards are more than just how to identify an animal’s tracks. I’ve also included the foundational elements of awareness. How to shift from the everyday frantic pace we live in, Beta brain, into the more relaxed, productive Alpha state. An approach to meditation that goes beyond sitting still in a dark room, where the practices becomes dynamic and a part of everyday life, used whenever needed. (Yes, meditation is an important part of tracking and awareness!)


One final thought, a concept from the analytic world I use when tracking, a quote from Richards Heuer, a world class analyst and methodologist, “Intelligence analysts should be self-conscious about their reasoning process. They should think about how they make judgments and reach conclusions, not just about the judgments and conclusions themselves.” (Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.) Beware of bias and ego when tracking. Whether your assessments are right or wrong is not as important as the process and what you learn along the way.


A tracker’s ability is measured by their level of awareness.



Silva Tracking


Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.