You'll have to excuse me, but when I go for a hike in a forested park, it's probably not the same walk many of you would take. That's because I am a tracker. When I go for a walk, I seek the not-so-obvious. Examining scat and peering through "runs" in the bush, listening to the warning calls of birds, or locating the area where deer had slept the night before are the kinds of things that make a hike all the worthwhile to me. Sure, I enjoy seeing deer and other animals scurry about, but I get as big a thrill poking at fox scat.
And so it was when I recently ventured into Hoffman Park in Union Township, Hunterdon County. This 354-acre park, minutes from Exit 11 on Route 78, was a gift to the Hunterdon County Park System and Union Township from Albert and Joyce Hoffman. Albert was the owner of a very successful company that produced high quality soda. What is now the park was once the family's farm.
The park features hardwood forest, grasslands, ponds and several easy walking trails, or if you are like me, the opportunity to investigate dozens of animal trails off the beaten path.
Wildlife is abundant here, from deer to coyotes and fox, to many species of birds, including the bobolink, American kestrel, bluebird, Eastern meadowlark and Northern harrier. In the winter, cross country skiing is very popular. Some people enjoying biking the trails.
As for me, the walk is what it is all about.
As I start down the trail at Hoffman Park on a summer day, I am relaxed and free from expectation. I know there are mysteries ahead and the thought of solving them fills me with anticipation. I am going tracking. When a banker reads a newspaper report of the stock market, he is reading the activities of the previous day. When I walk down the trail, I too am reading the paper. The ground is the paper, and the tracks are the words that tell me what occurred here in the past several hours.
As I step onto the trail, I stop to listen to the birds. It is just past 9 a.m. and the birds are chirping away as the new day takes hold. I listen for any sign of alarm in their calls and I am confident that all is calm in the woods. There are no predators out and about right now.
The first tracks I encounter are that of an Eastern cottontail. I observe how the small rabbit worked along the edge of the trail, feeding along the way on the tender grass shoots, until something startled it and it ran down the run to its warren.
Next I look for the cause of the rabbit's retreat and I find it in the tracks of the red fox. The fox is working patiently along the edge of the trail. I see from the tracks that the fox stopped at one point to listen for mice scurrying in the leaves. I can see where he stood alertly and scanned with his ears. His tracks betray his intent to leap as I can see where he lowered his rear quarters in anticipation of a jump. But today the mouse was lucky and escaped before the fox leapt. The fox moved patiently down the trail to try again. But the rabbit was quicker.
I return to the main trail and as I walk along, there is a meadow on the left, a pond on the right and woods farther down to the right. I slow down and watch for movement. On the far side of the meadow, I see a doe and her yearling. They are moving slowly away. The mother moves cautiously, and the yearling imitates her movements. As they near the edge of the meadow by the woods, suddenly they scurry for deeper cover. I watch as birds move to higher positions in the trees, and the squirrels, who had been actively feeding on the ground, vault to an alert position - their tails flicking in a defensive posture. Something is alarming the animals, and I think I know what. I step off the side of the trail and stand motionless. Within a few short minutes, a pair of hikers come into view. The woods are astonishingly quiet as they round the bend. All the animals and birds are frozen in stillness. I step from the trail and startle them. I ask if they have seen any wildlife, but they have not. They continue on their journey and I on mine.
Before long the birds and squirrels have returned to their normal activities, and I am amused watching two squirrels chase each other up and down the trunk of a tree in a territorial dispute. They make quite a squabble.
A bit further down, off the trail, I see the tracks of a young female raccoon. Hunting is serious pursuit for her this day. Her tracks cross the trail and head down towards the stream nearby.
Shortly thereafter I notice scat on the trail and immediately recognize it as coyote scat. I pick through it and find hair mixed with berries and nuts. It was a tasty meal for this coyote.
Finally, I am drawn to the stump of a tree where I sit in the sunlight and look back along the trail. My watch tells me I have been on the trail for over an hour, but it seems like only minutes. I have no destination or deadline. I am not walking to any place in particular, I am just wandering. As I look back, I see I have only traveled about 75 yards. Yet I feel as though I have lived an entire day in that single hour. Time and destination are dead weights that drag me down and bind me to others expectations. To wander freely is to experience true awareness, not as society measures it, but as a Tracker measures it.
Hoffman Park is easily accessible from Route 78. From the west, take Exit 11 and follow the circle around to the left and cross over Route 78, following the signs for Pattenburg. Immediately after crossing Route 78, turn left at the light. Proceed to the remains of an old church and veer right onto Baptist Church Road. Proceed on Baptist Church Road under a railroad bridge and shortly thereafter turn left into the park entrance, which is marked by a large brown sign.
Tom Brown, Jr. is the founder of Tracker School, a nature, tracking and wilderness survival school, originally based in Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon County. The author of numerous books on the outdoors, Brown is a frequent expert guest on TV news shows and is often featured in regional and national publications. For more information about Tracker School, check out the website.