Animal Tracking Basics

Below is an excerpt from an expert tracker,  Jonathan Poppele. He wrote the book Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition:

Tracking is the study and interpretation of the footprints and other signs left behind by animals as they go about their lives. Tracking does not necessarily mean following a string of footprints to locate the animal that made them. It means understanding the footprints, scrapes, chews, digs, and scat that we inevitably run across when we are out in nature. Tracking begins with identifying the animal that left the tracks and signs behind for us to see, and grows into an understanding of the intimate details of that animal’s life.”

Animal Tracks Gallery

fox walking pattern. The animal is registering – meaning that the hind foot steps in the front foot track. Animals who register are trying to conserve their energy.


River Otter plunge hole and slide
Photograph by Lawrence Wade

Two  river otters – body Slide – push off – body slide        Photo by Lawrence Wade


Owl making an attempted to kill a mouse. The left wing is on the left – tail is below and head is above. photo by Lawrence Wade


Crow Wing prints in the snow. The bird must have been flying low, but did not land.
photo by Lawrence Wade

Opossum Tracks w/ tail drag
photograph by Faith Frankel, Boonton, NJ.
Faith said that she lives in town and the opossum lives somewhere in her yard.

Animal Tracking Tutorial 101

In winter, studying animal tracks will give you a lot of information about who is active in your area. The best snow depth to read animal tracks is 1-4 inches. When there is more snow, it is difficult to see the patterns that each animal leaves. Tracking is all about looking at patterns and knowing where an animal is most likely to be found.

There are three basic groups of track patterns to learn.

Mouse tracks show the drag of the tail
Photo by Cindy Eyden

Rabbit Bounding Track
“F” is the smaller front foot. They hit the ground first.
“H” is the larger hind foot which jumps over the front feet.
Photo by Lawrence Wade

Squirrel Tracks – often end at a tree
“F” is the front foot which hits the ground first
“H” is the larger hind foot which hops over the front foot.


2. Walkers – “big foot” and “little foot”
In identifying the three species below, the important things to look for is the size of the track and the position of the front foot and the hind foot. Also, the beaver and muskrat are only found in wetland areas, whereas raccoons are found in many different habitats     including wetlands.In all cases the hind foot is larger than the smaller front foot.


Raccoon tracks
The arrow shows the direction of travel
“H” shows the larger hind foot
“F” shows the smaller front foot

muskrat Tracks
Muskrats rarely leave their huts in the winter, unless they run out of food or the population is too high.  Photo by Lawrence Wade

3. Straight-line walkers

Both deer and fox step with the hind foot falling exactly in the track of the front foot. Thus, the pattern in the snow appears that the animals are two-legged. This behavior is called “registering”and it helps the animal to conserve energy when walking in deep snow.

Fox Tracks crossing the creek.

deer tracks showing the hoofs










After you determine whether it is a hopper, straight line walker, or a “big foot-little foot”, Look at the pattern closely and notice how many inches there are between tracks or clumps of tracks. Also, think about the habitat you are seeing the tracks. Some animals are restricted to certain habitats (ie beaver, mink, and muskrat are found in wetlands).



fox tracks

Dog Tracks

Foxes leave a neat pattern in the snow because the hind foot steps in the front foot track (registering). Registering helps a fox to conserve energy, when walking in deep snow. It’s cousin, the dog,  does not register and leaves a much sloppier track. Deer also register, with the hind foot walking in the front foot track. Also, a deer hoof is easy to see when the snow is packed, and they usually drag their hooves. However, in deep snow, the hooves are more spread out and the dew claw is visible in the back of the track.

Mink Tracks along Minnehaha Creek
One foot is slightly ahead of another
Photo by Lawrence Wade

Expert tracker and author, Linda Spielman, made the following comment about mink:

Larry, I see that you have put the mustelids (weasel family) in the section with the straight-line walkers, but they don’t belong there. Sometimes mink are more like the hoppers but at other times they lope or gallop like deer and dogs. Mink are known to walk, but not very often. Maybe you need a fourth category. 


A Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast
by Linda J. Spielman
Paperback, published by Countryman Press, released July 4, 2017     192 pages, 6 X 9 inches
ISBN-13: 978-1682680643

My book contains between 6 and 12 drawings for each of 40 species, each drawing meticulously and accurately copied from one or several photographs.

Each species treatment also includes written sections that discuss important details and point out differences and similarities between different species. Gait patterns can be as important as individual tracks for identification, so the typical gaits for each species are illustrated with diagrams and explained in written discussions. Measurements are given for tracks and gaits, and there is also a short section on habitat, sign, and scat.

By focusing on the tracks themselves and limiting other topics I was able to produce a book that is easily carried in a day pack and yet remarkably comprehensive. My book arises out of my own experience tracking northeastern mammals, but the approach will be beneficial for trackers in any region. A Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast is available from major booksellers. I can also ship it directly to you. You can send a check for $15.66 ($13.00 + $2.66 media mail) to Linda Spielman, PO Box 955, Dryden, NY 13053. I welcome your comments; visit, or contact me at


Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition
by Jonathan Poppele.
Published by Adventure Publications


Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition is a pocket sized guide to the tracks and sign of Midwestern mammals. Excellent illustrations and quick identification tips help you get started. Track pattern illustrations, scat photos and descriptions of other signs that animals leave behind provide more clues to help to with identification. The information is easy enough for beginners yet detailed enough for experienced trackers.

Praise for Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition
“There are many great guides to identifying animal tracks. A few are truly excellent and some others are surprisingly misleading. Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition by Jonathan Poppele is a book that surprised me. It has fantastic track drawings, accurate information, and a very smart organization method. This book is inexpensive and worth adding to your library.”–Jonah Evans, tracking expert and State Mammalogist for Texas Parks and Wildlife.
The book is widely available at State Parks, Wildlife Refuges, major book sellers, and online book sellers. The Second Edition is scheduled for release by January 2021. Readers can order directly from the publisher, Adventure Publications 1-800-678-7006.


Posted in Nature Notes, Winter | 7 Comments

Call for Stories and Photos

Call for Stories, Poems and Art

Have you had an interaction or made a connection with a living creature/plant that touched you? Would you like to share a story, a photo, a poem,  and art? Don’t be shy! All contributions great and small will be celebrated.
To see some examples from a previous  group post  see below:

Send your stories, poetry, art and a photo. Try to limit your text to 2 paragraphs (some of us may have a hard time doing that).  Send your material to:

The last day to send a story will be Friday January 21, 2022. The stories will be posted the week of January 24, 2022.

Below is an example sent in by Ken Brown

Photo by Ken Brown

I didn’t know that male and female Robins are so maternal! These two have nested on a floodlight next to my home-office window for the last three years. Both apparently forage for nesting material and food, but while his partner is building the nest, he constantly brings her nesting material and earthworms or grubs. When laying starts the mother rarely leaves the nest and the father double his food-gathering efforts. After the bright-blue eggs hatch, both parents look after the nestlings. However, after they feather, the male increases time spent tending them, I expect so the female can re-build her strength for the next laying – at least two times over a Minnesota summer. What an inspirational partnership.
Ken Brown



Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Oceanography Lesson 4 – Rivers in the Sea

Oceanography 4 – Rivers in the Sea

Ocean Currents, Prevailing Winds, and the Coriolis Effect

From: Whales in the Classroom – Oceanography
              By Lawrence Wade

Graphics by Stephen Bolles

The ocean currents of the world play a very important role in our ocean system. The currents move throughout the oceans like the blood that moves through a body. They are “rivers in the sea” and they circulate ocean water throughout the world. Although the oceans are surrounded by continents and have been given special names (Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, etc), the water is actually mixed by currents into one huge planetary ocean. In fact, if you could follow a drop of ocean water, you would find that it would travel from one end of the Earth to the other.

There are two great forces that create our ocean currents. The prevailing winds cause the water to move. Just as the currents are the blood of the ocean, the prevailing winds are the breath of the ocean. The prevailing winds blow continually and set the water in motion.



The second great force that creates our currents is the Coriolis Effect and it is caused by the rotation of the Earth. If you were a drop of water north of the Equator, you would move throughout that ocean in a clockwise direction. If you were a drop of water south of the equator, you would move in a counter-clockwise direction. This force give currents their direction of flow.

Coriolis Effect

The prevailing winds generates the ocean currents. However, the Coriolis Effect causes the currents to be deflected 45° from the direction of the prevailing wind.

What to do:
Download page 40 (map below), then draw the accurate direction of the ocean current from the wind arrows. The green arrow is an example of the direction the ocean currents take in relation to the wind in the Northern Hemisphere and another in the Southern Hemisphere.

Download page 40

Use the key at the end of the post to determine how well you did on page 40.

Ocean Currents, Continents and the Coriolis Effect

When a current comes in contact with a continent, the water builds up and must either flow north or south. The direction the water takes depends upon the Coriolis Effect. As you know, in the Northern Hemisphere the currents moves clockwise and in the Southern Hemisphere it move counterclockwise.

What to do:

Download page 41. Now complete the flow of the North Atlantic current system by drawing an arrow to show the direction the current flows after it comes in contact with Europe and North America.

Page 41

Download page 41

Use the key at the end of the post to determine how well you did on page 41.


The Big Challenge

Now are you ready for the “big challenge”? You will be plotting the ocean currents in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
Buenos suerte ( good luck)!

What to Do:
Download pages 42-43. Apply what you have learned in the previous exercises and complete diagram below. The South Equatorial current in the Southern Pacific Ocean is completed for you.

In addition to plotting the currents, label three “Current Superstars”.

1. Gulf Stream – is in the North Atlantic Ocean and flow NE along the coast of North America. The Gulf Stream flows as fast as 10 miles/hour.
2. California Current is in the North Pacific Ocean and flows south along the West Coast of North America. The current creates an environment rich with sealife.
3. Peru Current –  is in the South Pacific and flows north along the west coast of South America.  It is one of the richest areas in the world for sealife and fishing.

Download page 42-43

Use the key at the end of the post to determine how well you did on pages 42-43.

Keys to the exercises.

Posted in Whales & Oceanography | Leave a comment

Animal Homes

Animal Homes

This is a great time of year to study Animal Homes.  Below you will see a Youtube video I created in a park near my house.

As you are watching the video, follow along and try to figure out what type of animal home you are seeing. To help you identify the animal homes use the handout below, from my book, Nature Seeker Workbook.

From Nature Seeker Workbook. Lawrence Wade


To download handout, click here:  Animal HomesPDF copy


If you would like to view another Old Naturalist posting on animal homes that shows the inside of different animal’s homes go to:


Inside a Fox Den


How do you tell the difference between a Crow/hawk/owl nest and a squirrel nest? Look at the two photos below and see if you can tell the difference.

Squirrel Nest
photo by Lawrence Wade

Crow Nest

The Crow/hawk/owl nest is made mostly of sticks and is flat on the top. Whereas the squirrel nest is mostly leaves and is rounded at the top. See if you can tell the difference when you are taking your own nature hike.

Photo by Weston Yost (My Grandson)

Using  your Animal Homes handout what type of nest is this? This nest is made out of paper.  If you are thinking, bald faced hornet, that is correct. Before the first hard frost the queen leaves the nest and hibernates under a log nearby. All of the workers die after the first hard frost. Do not bring the nest inside your home unless it has gotten very cold. The larvae may still be alive inside the nest, if so, they will hatch into adult hornets inside your home (scary!).

Now see if you can make a bar graph based upon the animal homes you found:To download the handout, click here: AnimalHomesBarGraph

Frequent Contributor, Dale Antonson added an observation:

In September of 2020, I was hiking through Minneopa State Park near Mankato, MN. Along Minneopa Creek, I discovered this three story home within the network of roots under a magnificent oak.  It was a magical place.

Photo by Dale Antonson


Posted in Animals, Mammals, Nature Notes | 2 Comments

White-Tailed Deer

White Tailed Deer

photograph by Dale Antonson

If you live in a suburban area, white tail deer can be pests eating  hostas and vegetables in your garden; destroying a young tree by making it a rubbing post during the rutting (mating) season.

But white tails are the largest wild mammal in our neighborhoods, and are incredibly beautiful and sleek. There is something special about taking a morning hike and watching doe and yearling bound away with their tails “flagging” in the air.

White-tail “flagging”
Photograph by Larry Wade

Below are some stories about white-tail encounters:

  •  My wife and I were hiking and our dog, Hug, was barking wildly ahead of us. Hug had recently weaned her pups. We rushed up to see a wobbly newborn fawn nursing from Hug’s teats. The dog was standing with a bewildered look on her face, not sure if she  should try to take bite out of the fawn or lick it. Time slowed down to one frame per second. My wife, picked the fawn up and cradled it. Then we both realized what she has done and she laid the fawn down in the weeds. We continued down the trail, wondering if the whole event had even happened.
    Larry Wade

Photograph by Dale Antonson

  • I had the good fortune to have a free hour to spend before our worship service last Sunday, so I ventured over to Lake Ann in Chanhassen for a hike in the beautiful forest there. I was alone, so I prefer to move through the woods carefully and quietly. I was pleased to come upon a pair of deer. I paused and took some of the photos for this posting. Look carefully in the photo above and you can see the doe who blends so well into the background (circled in red). As I began to walk away from them and  the buck began to follow after me, which made me a little nervous. Thankfully, I was able to move up a hillside and lose his sight line.
    story by Dale Antonson
  • Many years ago, I was working with a group of 6 graders at a nature center. We were doing a deer study near a deer feeding station. I was showing the students how you could tell the age of the deer by looking at the scat (poop). I was getting less than 10 % interest from the group. So, having a few milk duds in my pocket, I reached down pretending to pick up some deer scat. I said to the group, “You don’t need to be so freaked out, because deer scat tastes pretty good”. Then I popped the milk dud into my mouth. I’ll never forget the look on those kid’s faces. Their jaws dropped and eyes bugged out, as they tried to fathom what had just happened.
    Larry Wade

 If you have a favorite white tail story post it in the comments section.

Photograph by Dale Antonson

Special Facts about Deer




Flagging is an alarm signal to other deer in the herd, telling the herd that danger is near. The white tail of the deer goes up and the deer bounds off. Before a deer flags, it may warn others in the herd by stamping the ground with its foreleg.



Growing antlers still in “velvet”.


The antlers are grown and shed each year. In late spring, the buck’s antlers begin to grow. The antlers of a healthy buck can grow as much as 1/2 inch per day. The antlers are covered by a thin layer of skin called “velvet” which is hair-like, short and fuzzy. Under the velvet are thousands of tiny blood vessels. High levels of calcium in the blood helps the antlers grow. Also, during the breeding season, the neck swells to almost twice its normal size ( See Dale Antonson’s very first photo).

The size of the antlers depends upon the age and food available to the deer. In areas where there is very little browse (food) available, the antlers remain small even if the buck is an adult. In January and February, the antlers begin to drop off (ordinarily just one at a time). Antlers have been called “nature’s drug store”, since they are rich in vitamins and minerals. After falling on the forest floor, antlers are quickly chewed up by mice, squirrels, fox, and other animals of the forest.

Deer Bed

Deer Bed

Deer bed down in the evening and remain there most of the day. Deer will not bed in windy areas because they need to conserve their body heat in the winter. Most deer beds are found in areas protected from the wind, and on south-facing hillsides. South-facing hills are warmed by the sun sooner on cold wintry days and allow deer to conserve body heat.


Hoof A deer actually walks on its hoof which are the toe nails of two toes. The other two toes are called dew claws and are positioned a few inches above the ground. Dew claws help slow a deer if it is sliding down a hill. The unique shape of the foot allows a deer to run up to 30 miles/hour in short bursts. Deer are also capable of jumping eight feet high from a standing position.


Deer are herbivores, meaning that they feed only on plants. Their diet varies with the season. In summer their main food is the leaves of green plants; while in the fall they may rumeneat acorns; in the winter they eat primarily buds and twigs. A deer eats six to eight pounds daily of plant material. In the winter, they may get as little as two or three pounds and still survive. A deer has a total of 4 stomachs, allowing it to get more nutrition from the food it eats. The deer is a ruminant mammal. A ruminant feeds on plant material and then stores the food in its first stomach (known as a rumen). Then later when it laying down in a safe area, it “burps up” the food and re-chews it. This is a called “chewing the cud”. Many mammals ruminants including cows and goats. Chewing cud allows an animal to get more nutrition out of its food.

Deer have excellent eyesight and can detect the slightest movement. Even the blinking of an eye can cause a deer to “bolt”. However, deer are color blind. So if you are hunting and wearing “blaze orange” for hunter safety, deer will not be afraid of the color. Their hearing is excellent and their ears can move, allowing them to pick up sounds of possible danger. Possibly their strongest sense is their ability to smell a scent from a distance of over 1/3 of a mile.

Deer Population Study

Do you have a deer herd in your neighborhood? What is the population make-up the herd? By recording some simple field observations, you can get a good idea what age groups of deer live in your neighborhood. Below are three tools for studying deer populations including: scat analysis; measuring the size of deer beds; and analyzing hoof size.

Deer bed

What to do: Go out into woods looking for deer signs: including scat, tracks, and beds. You will need a tape measure to determine the deer bed size. When it comes to analyzing scat, count a clump of scat as one observation. Make a tally for each of the signs that you find. The number of tallies that you make for each age class, will give a good idea what the population structure is in your neighborhood.

Petroglyph Canyon de Chelly

Petroglyph Canyon de Chelly






Posted in Animals, Mammals | 2 Comments

A personal note….

Dear Readers, Friends, Students, and All Who Love the Earth:

I have been in the publishing business since 1994. This journey has given me so much joy, but now it is time to let go of that part of my work.

For that reason I am pricing all inventory of my three books at $10/ book which includes shipping and sales tax. To learn more about each book and purchasing, go to the sidebar and click on the book you are interested in.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Going Solo in the BWCA

Holly Einess has a Biology degree from St. Olaf College and is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. Her dream is for humans to welcome nature into their everyday lives and to live in kinship with their fellow creatures on this planet.

“You’re in good health and fit right now and you’re not getting any younger; if you’ve been wanting to try this, now is the perfect time,” says my husband Brian reassuringly. So I quiet the what-ifs and, both nervous and excited, set off for my first-ever solo trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). I hit the road at 6 am, pick up a canoe in Ely at 10, get my permit at the ranger station (where I’m told the summer’s drought has resulted in higher-than-normal bear activity–gulp), and head for the put-in.

About a mile down the road the canoe starts sliding sideways. Uh oh. I pull over, cinch the straps tighter, and take off. Again, the canoe slides to the side. Again I pull over, now slightly panicked, thinking this is the sort of thing Brian usually handles. And I tell myself, “Well, he’s not here. So you get to figure it out yourself!” I move some straps around, and once again set off. This time the canoe stays in place (hallelujah!).

At the entry point I get help lifting the canoe off the car, load up, and start paddling. Then portage. Then paddle some more. And portage again. And paddle. And portage. And I’m IN! Lake One. I nab the first open campsite I see, put up my tent and hammock, and text Brian, letting him know I’ve made it in safely. (I send the text with no small amount of humility and abashedness, having for years opined loudly, to anyone who’d listen, “No cell towers in view of the BWCA! If people are going into the wilderness, they should leave their phones at home! Disconnect for a few days!”) Hearing back from him is surprisingly comforting.

My campsite (at tip of pine needle). Red and blue dots indicate campsites, red lines indicate portages. My entry point is at the top of the map (#30: Lake One Access*). 

As I take the trail up to the latrine I’m suddenly very aware that I’m BY MYSELF. My usual camping friends aren’t sitting around the fire grate preparing supper, or getting ready to head out fishing. It’s just me. I feel a little disoriented, the memories of their presence on past trips coming alive such that I almost expect them to be there when I return to the campsite. And a truth I’ve always known about myself comes into sharp focus: I am not a loner.

It’s relatively early—4 pm or so—but I‘m hungry. And hey, I’m on my own! I can eat whenever I want! So I “make” dinner (boil water and re-hydrate a freeze-dried backpack meal), then grab my kindle and binoculars and settle into my hammock.

I notice the sun getting lower in the sky. Savor the lingering warmth. Appreciate the pointy tips of the fir trees. Very briefly consider opening my kindle and doing some reading. Do not open my kindle. Feel the breeze on my cheeks. Am aware of the quietness of my breathing; of the way my chest rises and falls. Compare the blue of this particular sky to the blue of other skies. Hear a bird calling. See that the sun is about to dip out of sight. Watch the sky change color near the horizon—yellow, orange, a deeper blue. Welcome a bright planet as she appears low in the sky, then a faint star high overhead. Join the star party as more and more show up. Start to feel chilled. Realize I’ve spent three hours doing nothing. And it was time well spent.

I awake at first light and emerge from my tent, eager to see whether one of my favorite Boundary Waters phenomena—Mist on a Still Lake at Dawn—is in effect. It is, sort of. Way off across the lake. And I turn into a petulant three-year-old, nearly stomping my foot, the voice in my head saying “I want the mist HERE!!!” and the grown-up voice calmly responding, “Well then, why don’t you GO to the mist?” And with the gleeful realization that I can do just that, I skip down to the canoe, hop in, and paddle to the mist. Oh, what a lovely hour I spend, feeling the chill of the damp air on my skin, drinking in the near-full moon floating in the sky, watching the rising sun appear like a bonfire.

Back at camp I once again boil water (this time for tea and instant oatmeal; I am truly loving not having to wash dishes!), then pack a lunch (cheese, crackers, and salami) and go paddling some more. It is another perfect day of mid-70s, sunshine, and light winds. I chat for a bit with a couple camping around the bend from me, pulling up to their shore to get some love from their golden retriever, Grace. I meander past islands, getting out to hike around one with passable trails, and eat lunch at an empty campsite.

I return to my site mid-afternoon and go for a swim in the chilly water, then stretch out to dry on a sunny rock and nearly fall asleep. Rousing myself, I consider my options for what to do next. I’ve sometimes wondered how wild animals—squirrels, for example (or even my dog, for that matter)—decide how to spend their day. I presume they don’t consciously plan. And yet… do they operate purely on instinct? Or is it something in between?

I check in with my mammalian self, and discern what’s pulling me. Another walk! So I head on foot toward the portage, again grateful for the semblance of a trail, and do some boulder-hopping over the lake outlet to get there, pausing for a time to enjoy the sound of running water. The portage is short, but still makes for a sweet little out-and-back, especially as I’m unencumbered by canoe or gear.

I return to my campsite hungry, and once again dine unfashionably early. Then into the hammock I go, this time reading for a good while before welcoming that first luminous evening planet.

The next morning dawns cloudy and still. I decide to paddle back to the put-in to retrieve something I’d forgotten in my car. I only entertain doing this because I heard the day before that there’s a way to get into Lake One without doing any portages, and I’m eager to check out that option. So off I go, raingear at the ready. All along the way the shore is reflected in the water so perfectly that I have moments of near-vertigo, losing track of where land and water stop and start. A loud slap and a disappearing tail tells me I’ve startled a beaver. I wait a moment until he reappears, little ripples bunching up in front of his face as he swims to shore.

I’m back at camp within two hours, arriving just as it starts to rain. I shelter briefly in the vestibule of my tent, but am feeling antsy to move to the appealing campsite I’d passed earlier, worried it might get taken by others. As soon as the rain lightens I quickly pack up and head out, and am relieved to find my new site unoccupied. There’s a break in the rain just long enough for me to get set up and have breakfast. As I’m rinsing out my oatmeal bowl it starts up again, so I crawl into my tent and sleeping bag, read for maybe 10 minutes, and fall happily to sleep. I wake periodically, appreciating the sound of the rain on my snug, waterproof tent, then drift off again. This goes on for several hours, until I’m well rested and the rain stops for good.

Because I had a late breakfast and slept through lunch, I once more have an early dinner. A family with young children is camping within earshot. Their entertaining chatter includes lots of “Daddy, look at this!” and curiously, “One-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one two, one-two …” How lucky those kids are, to grow up in a family that values wilderness experiences.

I set up my camp chair on a rock that juts into the water and do a little writing in my journal. The retreating clouds create lovely skyscapes, their reflections in the water equally beautiful.

The temperature is quickly dropping. I keep adding layers until I’m wearing nearly everything I brought, including long underwear, two fleeces, a winter hat, and gloves.

I stay in my chair, alternating between reading and stargazing, until full dark.

I wake before first light and have breakfast by moonlight, savoring the absolute silence. It’s still early when I push off, gear loaded somewhat haphazardly, knowing I don’t have any portages on my way out. The wind kicks up as I paddle, and as I struggle to keep a straight course I see a head pop out of the water a little ways off, then another, and another. Otters! One of them, head tilted back, chews with relish some tasty morsel, arcs out of the water, and dives back in. All three tussle and play, disappearing underwater, then bobbing again to the surface in a new spot. I set my paddle down and let the wind have its way with the canoe as I twist around to keep an eye on the fun.

The otters’ course takes them in the opposite direction to mine, so I carry on and eventually pull into the landing. Several parties are loading up for departure, including a couple with a dog and a 2-year-old. They tell me it’s their son’s first trip to the Boundary Waters; from the fresh, outdoorsy look of them, I suspect it won’t be his last. They offer help lifting my canoe onto my car, and I gratefully accept. It’s not lost on me that my first-ever solo BWCA trip included plenty of interactions with and help from others; a reminder that even when doing things alone, I’m still connected to and can lean into a larger community.

I tell my husband on the drive home that I haven’t decided whether this was a one-time, check-it-off-the-bucket-list adventure, or whether it will become an annual event. Either way, I intend to continue looking for ways to step outside my comfort zone, taking things I already love and expanding them a bit. I may not be getting younger, but my life still has room to grow.


Posted in Nature Notes, Photography/Art | 17 Comments

Oceanography Lesson 3 – Mapping the Sea Floor Depth Across the Atlantic Ocean

From: Whales in the Classroom – Oceanography
              By Lawrence Wade

Graphics by Stephen Bolles

Before starting this lesson, I recommend that you do the previous lesson on the Features of the Sea Floor. To do that lesson go to:

We can’t start mapping the seafloor across the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to France, until we know something about how sound travels in water.

key: 1. five times faster   2. approx. 4 seconds for the echo to be received





Download Ocean Floor Depth Chart which is shown below
Depth Chart


2. Double check the depths that you calculated using the key  at the end of the post.

3. Download both pages of the ocean floor graph shown in miniature  below:

Download page 1 and 2 of the Ocean Floor Graph which is shown above
Depth Graph page 1

Depth Graph page 2

3. Once all of the depths are calculated, plot the depths on the graph on the next two pages. The depths at 60°W, 55°W, and 50°W are already plotted on the graph.

Let’s plot the depth at 48°W together.

According to our depth chart the depth at 11,520 feet. Place a ruler across the graph at that depth. Find 48°W and make an imaginary vertical line to the ruler. Plot the point where the vertical line and ruler meet. Plot all of the remaining depths in this fashion.

4. Connect all of the points. The line that develops is a profile of the ocean floor from Nova Scotia to France.

5. Look at the graph and label the following topographic features of the ocean floor:

a. Continental Shelf
b. Continental Slope
c. Abyssal Plain
d. Ocean Ridge

6. In the space above the graph make a three dimensional sketch of the actual sea floor.

Key for the Activity:

Depth chart:


Ocean Floor Graph

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Oceanography Lesson 2 – Features of the Sea floor and Climate Change

From: Whales in the Classroom – Oceanography
              By Lawrence Wade

Features of the Sea Floor

Graphics by Stephen Bolles

The sea floor has many unique features. The mid ocean ridges are undersea mountain ranges that extends 42,000 miles throughout the Earth. The ocean trenches form the deepest areas of the oceans. There are undersea volcanic peaks called seamounts.

The drawing below shows some of the distinct features of the mid ocean topography. There is a second page showing the undersea coastal features. Download both the mid ocean and coastal pages. 

Mid Ocean Topography

 Download Features of the ocean floor
Features of the Ocean Floor 1
Features of the Ocean Floor 2

So You Want to Be an Oceanographer

Read the descriptions below of the ocean floor and label the geologic features on your downloaded pages. Even better make your own drawing of the sea floor and label each of the features.

Features of the Ocean Floor

Abyssal plain – The abyssal plain begins at the base of the continental slope, usually at least 2 miles (10,000 feet) deep. Much of the ocean floor is abyssal plain. These plains form the ocean basins of the world.

Continental shelf – The continental shelf is the gradually sloping shelf (less than 400 feet deep) that extends from shore. The distance that the shelf may extend from shore varies greatly (10–100 miles). Sea life is abundant in this area. In fact, many of the great fishing grounds of the world are on the continental shelf.

Continental slope – The continental slope is that area in which the ocean floor plunges from the continental shelf to the deep sea abyssal plain. The drop-off can be significant, often more than 10,000 feet.

Estuary – An estuary is a salt-water bay that has a river emptying into it. Estuaries are important nursery areas for fish, shorebirds, and other sea animals to lay their eggs.

Guyot (guy ́-ot) – Guyots are flat-topped seamounts and also called tablemounts.

Island – Islands are the tops of ocean mountains that rise above the surface of the water. On the island of Hawaii, the twin peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea rise almost 14,000 feet above the sea. If you add in the depth of the adjacent sea floor (16,000 feet), these volcanic peaks, beginning at the ocean floor, are comparable in height to Mt. Everest.

Mid-ocean ridge – Mid-ocean ridges are undersea mountain ranges that extend approximately 42,000 miles and cover 23% of the Earth’s surface. This is the largest geological feature on the Earth, yet it was not explored extensively until the 1970s. The ridges occur where mantle material rises to the top of the Earth’s crust and spreads out to create a new ocean floor.

Ocean trench – Ocean trenches form the deepest areas of the oceans. The Mariana Trench is more than 7 miles deep. Many of the trenches are several hundred miles long and several miles wide. The ocean floor is very slowly disappearing into the ocean trenches, moving at a rate of approximately three inches per year.

Seamount – Seamounts are undersea volcanic peaks that are not part of an undersea mountain range. The top of a seamount forms a cone.

A Trip to the Ocean Floor  –   A Guided Imagery

Take a journey in your mind into the oceans and explore the ocean floor. Swim through the breakers of a sandy beach and move to the edge of the continental shelf. Think about the steepest drop-off that you can imagine (mountain or building) and know that it is a short drop compared to this one. From the edge of the continental shelf to the floor of the abyssal plain it is over two miles—or greater than eight Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. You slowly swim down the continental slope to 10,000 feet deep. The pressure is enormous on your body. But it doesn’t bother you today.

It is dark in the abyss, but somehow you can see. You can see the great abyssal plain that stretches for hundreds of miles. You quickly move across the plain and can see the mid-ocean ridge, a huge mountain range that rises up above the plain. Most of the mountains in the mid-ocean ridge rise over 6,000 feet above the plain, but some of them are so huge that they rise above the water and form an island. You follow one of the tall ridges to the surface, then sink back to the depths. Along the mid- ocean ridge you find the place where the sea floor is being formed from molten lava. You can feel the heat because this lava is coming from below the ocean floor, in the mantle of the Earth itself. Just for a moment you imagine going into the core of the Earth.

Continuing your journey across the ocean, you leave the mid-ocean ridge and drop into another abyssal plain. It stretches a great distance, like a barren desert. At the far edge of the desert you see a huge canyon, called an ocean trench, that is over fifty miles wide and hundreds of miles long. You float above the ledge that leads into the ocean trench, the deepest of the ocean’s deep. As you swim down three miles beneath the surface… four …. five …….six……. seven miles, the pressure continues to build. Under normal circumstances you would be crushed, but not today. Finally you reach the bottom of the trench, it is a dark and lifeless place. As you swim upward, you can feel the pressure lessen on your body.

Finally you come to the edge of the continental slope on the other side of the ocean and can see it rise towards the surface. As you move up the edge of the slope, you start to see light above you. You continue swimming until you reach the surface of the water. Open your eyes, your journey is over.

Conservation Issues

 Climate Change and Global Warming

Global warming is caused by excessive amounts of pollution (mostly CO2) in our atmosphere. Under normal conditions some of the heat from the sun is absorbed by the Earth, but most is reflected back into space through the atmosphere. When excessive amounts of CO2 and pollutants enter the Earth’s atmosphere less of the sun’s heat is able to escape and more is redirected back to Earth, causing global temperatures to rise.

If the Global Warming increases too much in the future, the average temperature of the Earth might rise as much as 10°F.  Drought, hurricanes, forest fires and extreme temperatures are what we call Climate Change. We are seeing the effects of Climate Change throughout the world. Also, the rise in temperature might cause melting of the polar ice caps. When this happens, sea level will rise and flood most of the cities located on the coasts, including New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The average person can do a lot to reduce this problem. The burning of fossil fuels (oil and gas) at power plants and in automobiles is a primary cause of global warming and climate change. Individuals can conserve energy by reducing electrical usage in their homes, buying fuel-efficient automobiles, car-pooling, and using mass transit. Planting trees is another important activity that will help reduce Global Warming and Climate Change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the air, and thus reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

What Is Your Carbon Debt?

Every year humans are putting larger and larger amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere by driving automobiles. Living plants that absorb CO2 cannot process the amount of carbon that is being emitted into the air. To deal with this carbon debt, there is a growing conservation movement to plant more trees on our planet.

Download the following worksheet  to determine how many trees you should plant to pay your family’s carbon debt for their automobile. The trees may be planted over several years since they will continue to remove CO2 from the air for over a hundred years.

Download “What is your Carbon Debt?”

What is Your Carbon Debt?

Key for Features of the Ocean Floor

Features of the Ocean Floor 1 key
Features of the Ocean Floor 2 key

Example for “What is Your Carbon Debt?”
Example – What is your Carbon Debt?

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Oceanography Lesson 1 – Pangaea and Plate Tectonics

From: Whales in the Classroom – Oceanography
              By Lawrence Wade

Graphics by Stephen Bolles

The Earth itself has many stories to tell because it is always changing. One of the stories has to with the continent known as Pangaea. The Earth has not always looked the  way it does now, with all of its beautifully shaped continents.

So you want to be an Oceanographer

1. Download the cutout pages  6 & 7 below to build the supercontinent of Pangaea. Use the mid ocean ridge as a guide, since many continents broke apart along it. [Hint: start with Africa and add South America.]

  1. If you have an Oceanographic Map, find the Mid-Ocean Ridge on the oceanographic map and show students how the continents have spread apart over the past 180 million years.
  2. Have students put a title on page 7 “Pangaea”

4 Students can cut out the continents  by their general outline or put a continent underneath the page 7 in the correct location and trace it.

  1. Show the students how Greenland, North America and South America are to the West of the Mid Ocean Ridge today, so they must have begun “hugging” the west side of the Mid Ocean Ridge. The same is true of Africa and Eurasia, only they are to the East of the Mid Ocean Ridge.
  2. Start by showing where Africa goes and make an arrow showing the direction Africa moves in (page 9).
  3. Place South America , North America, Eurasia, and Greenland. Show the direction that each continent is moving (page 9) and make sure that the continents are placed on the correct side of the Mid Ocean Ridge. When they are drawn or taped in, have them use a black marker and show where the Mid Ocean Ridge is in relation to the continents.
  4. Put in India and show how it moved northward and literally crashed into Eurasia – forming the Himalayan Mountain Range. It is still pushing into Eurasia today and causing the mountains to grow higher
  5. Put in Antarctica and Australia south of the Mid Ocean Ridge and show the direction they both traveled.

Student Cutout Pages

Page 6

Page 7

Download Student Pages 6 & 7

page 6
page 7

Page 9    Shows the direction that the plates are moving

Finished Student page

To view the entire Whales in the Classroom curriculum go to:

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