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Metro program puts naturalists on the right track

Nature University guides people out of the wilderness
by: Jim Clark Metro volunteer naturalist Moonrose Doherty, left foreground, and Diane Kearns, right, examine tracks and patterns during a Nature University tracking class at Camp Collins at Oxbow Park.

It's like walking around a crime scene. They approach slowly and circle wide, careful not to disturb clues.

Then they close in and adopt the 'trackers' pose' - stooped down for deeper inspection.

The group of 27 adults - retired teachers, students, other professionals and wildlife lovers alike - gathered on a muddy bank of the Sandy River last Tuesday to learn how to interpret the movements of creatures that call the place home.

'OK, how many toes does it have?' prompts Dan Daly, a Metro naturalist and one of three instructors in the day's lesson.

That's easy: four, they say.

'Does it have all four claws?'

This one's harder; some of the claws appear to be missing.

'Don't measure the claws,' he tells them. 'They can break off and grow back - they're not a true measurement.'

The class - on the art and science of animal tracking - is one of the most popular field courses of Nature University, a program of the Metro Regional Government.

The 12-week school, offered at no cost for 16 years in a row, started as a training program for people who want to volunteer as naturalists in Metro's parks.

Upon completion of the 40 hours of classroom and field study, they're asked to give back at least 40 hours of their time, the equivalent of leading 10 school field trips through the region's urban green spaces each spring.

The program has seen thousands of graduates who've helped educate children in the parks. Metro now has an active pool of 80 or so volunteers.

But why create a nature school in the midst of a big city?

'We're spreading eco-literacy,' says Metro naturalist Deb Scrivens, who founded the program 16 years ago. 'There's wildlife and natural areas throughout the whole (Metro area). These classes help you learn the language wherever you are - in your backyard, driveway, on the windshield of your car. … This is a town where a coyote rode the MAX train.'

Tracking isn't just a hobby, Scrivens and other naturalists say. As the urban growth boundary expands, tracking techniques increasingly are used to determine which animals are living in the region's natural areas, and what their activities are - information that can influence the management of public lands.

Besides, she says, it's good to be aware of one's surroundings, because animals don't just disappear when they're not visible at first glance. They're likely just out of sight, like the bobcats that have been known to hide in busy urban parks: 'They're sitting there watching you.'

Coyote teachings

Although the Metro program is unique in the region, the idea of a nature school is nothing new.

There's the famous Tracker School in New Jersey that was founded by Tom Brown Jr., who is considered the nation's foremost expert in tracking and wilderness survival. His son, Jon Young, started the Wilderness Education Awareness School just outside of Seattle in 1983.

Both Metro naturalists Daly and Scrivens were trained at Brown's school and use many of his methods, such as using peripheral vision to heighten one's awareness of his or her surroundings. They call it 'owl eyes.'

They also subscribe to 'coyote teaching' - prompting students with questions rather than simply giving them the answers.

Metro's school is different, however, in that it asks students to give back to the community by volunteering afterward. There is no tuition; the adult students provide their own transportation to each site and bring their own lunch. Metro's only expense is the three paid staffers who take turns teaching the courses each week.

The service part of the program was one reason Becky Lerner, 28, of Northeast Portland decided to enroll.

'It's fascinating to learn,' she says. 'I think nature education is so incredibly important. In conventional life for most people, nature has moved into the background. But it's such an essential part of being human.'

Lerner is a writer and nature enthusiast who goes by the name 'Wild Girl' on her blog. Last week, she stood with the group of other budding naturalists, soaking up her surroundings. Oxbow Park, on the Sandy River about 10 miles east of Gresham, is home to a rich array of wildlife, including river otters, beavers, raccoons, squirrels, spotted skunks, elk, black bear, bobcats, red foxes, coyotes, possums, mice, chipmunks, rabbits and a host of birds.

Find out more

• The next session of Nature University doesn't start until January 2012, but Metro offers 'Dirt Time,' a training practicum in tracking that's open to all ages and experience levels. It's held from 9 a.m. to noon the last Sunday of every month at Oxbow Park. Visit oregonmetro.gov/index.cfm/go/by.web/id=11884.

• Portland nonprofit Cascadia Wild offers its next tracking class from 7-9 p.m. Feb. 28. For details, visit cascadiawild.org.

• Seasoned Portland tracker Terry Kem will hold an animal tracking workshop for adults and families, set for 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. May 21. Call 503-797-1650, option 2, or visit Kem's website, deerdance.org.

• TrackerPDX, based in Sellwood, offers a variety of wilderness lessons for children and adults, including summer camps, after-school classes and even hosted birthday parties. Visit trackerspdx.com.