But Officer, my teacher told me to


Tracks I failed to make a cast of

Raccoon tracks I neglected to make a cast of

The four-years compressed into one-year learning extravaganza called the Maine Master Naturalist Program has gotten me into trouble more than once. I have been attacked by toe-biting insects and found myself deep in the woods with an angry goshawk. My last assignment had me talking to the police, or, had them talking to me.

This semester has been a blur of animal tracking, twig and bark ID, and lichen life-cycles. I am cramming my brain with apothecia, soredia and isidia (how lichens reproduce) and have been putting off the easy project of making a plaster cast of a mammal print.

It has not been procrastination so much as wrong place, no equipment. I followed a raccoon along the water’s edge near Milbridge and saw dozens of deep, perfect paw prints. The raccoon had been eating clams. I could have had an impression of a front left paw, a front right, hind feet, and all together. They were in a tidal area that was not too wet, so the tracks were sharp-edged and clear. They were also 15 minutes from my car, which was half an hour from the nearest possibility of buying plaster of paris. I also had a brand new bucket of plaster purchased just for this project raring to go back at home, so I did not want to buy another. There would be more tracks.

To be better prepared I made a track making kit. This got me all pumped up. I fancied myself a cheesy detective from some 1950’s comic strip ready to pour forensic impressions of some perp’s shoeprints or tell-tale tire tracks. The snow came, though, and the kit stayed in the trunk of the car.

There were deer tracks along the stream near the house, but I really wanted something more interesting than that. I’d really like a bobcat. I did not bother with the deer prints, there would be better tracks.

Our next class was suddenly days away, and I needed this off my list. I had to prepare a lesson plan on animal adaptations to darkness, and lichens to collect, and twig buds to draw. I could always do the bobcat later. My neighbor Miles walks his big fluffy white Alastians past our house everyday. The prints are pretty good, for a domestic animal. I resigned myself to a dog print.

I took my kit, in an old battered shopping bag, and donned some raggedy clothing that would not be bothered by plaster spatter. I walked down the road and picked a well-formed paw print. Squatting, I placed a plastic cuff around the print, to retain the plaster, and poured the white powder and water in a bowl.

That’s when I heard the crunch and looked up to see the front grille of a big, dark pick-up truck not far from my nose. The plaster and water need to be mixed, so I stirred madly. A pair of boots came into my sight. I looked at a rough scuff on the left foot and slowly raised my eyes to the shadowy face that seemed a mile above me.

“Are you in trouble?” this apparition asked.

I stand up explaining the prints, and the class, and when his face is in focus I see it is just a concerned-looking officer my daughter’s age. Or, okay, maybe younger.

I think we decided I was not in need of restraints, and both got excited about the prospect of seeing a bobcat. The officer said, “Just seeing prints would be great!” Could this be a future Maine Master Naturalist? He already understood that seeing prints even without the animal is pretty cool. With an admonition to keep well out of the road, he left me to finish making my plaster paw mold.

Police cars can be intimidating even if you are innocent.

Police cars can be intimidating even if you are innocent.

I checked before going to bed, but the wind and cold had not allowed the plaster to harden as I wanted. I left it for morning. If it failed, several fellow MMNP students had various appendages from road kill in their freezers they said I could borrow. Mix up plaster, press in paw. Easy. I even have a cat I could perhaps convince to walk across a bowl of plaster. She walks across wet paint all the time, why not a tray of wet plaster?

At seven am, the footprint had set. The print was in gravel, and all the gravel bits stuck into the plaster. This was nothing like the pristine white textbook examples we had been shown. I shoved it into a box and went to work.

Checking weekend emails one came up from a woman I bike with who lives in Ohio: “Why the ?@#$ would someone be cooking outside in front of my house? Then I saw it was you. At 5 am there was a weird plastic thing by the road. What’s up?”

My ugly cast of a dog print, coated with grit. Fail.

My ugly cast of a dog print, coated with grit. Fail.

Total confusion until I realized my neighbor here in Otter Creek who has never emailed me before shares the same name with a cyclist friend. I explained, and she (the neighbor, not the biker) offered to let me take prints from her resident squirrel.

First the cops, then the neighbors. This Maine Master Naturalist stuff has some unexpected challenges. I am saving my gritty, pathetic print, but still holding out for a bobcat. Or at least a cleaner, neater print. I will settle for a domestic feline if I must. I draw plans for a footprint trap, and glance over to gauge the size of my cat’s leg. She was just there. She was. Izme? Kitty? Come back…

Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.