Matt Kolan leaps like a giant wool-clad weasel along a snowy Vermont roadside while a group of graduate students watch. He's teaching that an animal track is more than a mark in the snow, but also a lens into a world of animal intentions decipherable by those with skill. But gaining that skill takes what trackers like Kolan call "dirt time."
Kolan, who graduated from UVM's Field Naturalist program, is a lecturer and doctoral student in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. He's had a lot of dirt time.
Kolan demonstrates a "lope" for his Place-Based Landscape Analysis course. He again gets down on all fours, butt up and head down. He charges forward through the snow.
"When you start to move yourself like an animal, your perspective changes," he says, standing up. And trying to understand an animal's perspective, Kolan believes, starts to carry the tracker into a story about how it lives. "Different gaits tell us something about how an animal feels."
A few hours later, the students cross a red fox's businesslike tracks on an embankment. Its gait suddenly lengthens to a gallop as it crosses the frozen river, perhaps wary of being spotted by coyotes or people on a nearby bridge. Backtrack a bobcat track for a day and see how the cat follows a contour, how it stops to look downhill for any lunch that might be afoot.
Like many good stories, the superficial plot of where an animal goes reveals larger patterns that can then guide conservation or assist in highway or wildlife corridor planning. Matt Kolan's dirt time is telling part of that story.