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Retired American Airlines pilot Barry Martin has been called the best animal tracker in San Diego County. I asked how he first came to be interested in this arcane discipline.

A lanky athlete with probing eyes and a cleft in his chin, the 54-year-old Martin told me his interest was born when he was about 9. His family lived on a hillside overlooking Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle. Their house stood in a clearing surrounded by forest. Not long after the family moved in, Martin and his brother were roused from sleep by their sister, who whispered that two deer were in their back yard. Martin remembers rushing downstairs and sitting beside the sliding glass door that faced the rear of the house. It was dark, but he could make out shapes of a white-tailed doe and her yearling, nibbling grass near the family's patio. The sky grew lighter, and the sun began to rise. The doe looked up, and she and the fawn began to head for the woods. But she stopped and turned to look straight at Martin. He says it felt as if she were asking him, "Well? Are you coming?"

Martin says when he got home from school, he looked for the trail the deer had followed. "As I walked from the clearing into the woods, there was this total change. It had been raining, and although it had cleared up a bit, it was still drippy, and the silence was incredible -- like walking into a cathedral. But I just stood there for the longest time and soaked it in, and suddenly something shifted. It was like I had been welcomed and drawn in further."

He says he realized that the marks on the ground were the tracks of the deer he'd seen that morning. He could see how the doe's were larger and the yearling's were smaller. "I could follow these tracks and figure out what they were doing during that day! That began my secret life."

That year Martin spent as much time as he could in the woods. "I tried to figure out what was going on, what animals were there." He endeavored to follow the tracks he encountered. He'd sit for hours in the top of a pine tree, observing the world below him. His family then moved several times, but "I would always seek out the natural places." He studied raccoon tracks in the almond and walnut orchards near Modesto.

After college, he became a Navy pilot and flew on active duty for seven years. In 1985 he was hired by American Airlines. Based in San Diego, he and his family settled in Rancho Peñasquitos in 1987. He says it took him only a few days to discover how close he was to one of the entrances of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, the city's 3200-acre nature park that stretches from Interstate 5 to Interstate 15. He began venturing into it.

Martin says one day he brought along his daughter, who was about 12. As the two of them wandered into a riparian area, Martin marveled at the animal tracks he was seeing: coyote, bobcat, raccoon. Father and daughter came upon the 170-year-old adobe ranchhouse that serves as the preserve headquarters, and Martin began chatting with a couple of rangers. When they told him they were setting up a volunteer patrol group, the pilot signed up.

Around this time, Martin learned about the work of renowned tracker Tom Brown Jr. Two years older than Martin, Brown grew up on the edge of the Pine Barrens wilderness in New Jersey. A few months after his seventh birthday, he met his best friend's grandfather, an 83-year-old Apache elder named Stalking Wolf. "His dress, his mannerisms, and everything about him exuded intense and limitless knowledge," Brown has written of the Indian: "To me he was the spirit of the wilderness and possessed all the knowledge I could ever hope for."

After Stalking Wolf's death in 1967, Brown reportedly spent another ten years perfecting his wilderness skills, and by the late 1970s law-enforcement agencies called him for help in finding missing persons and fugitives. In 2003, some of those skills were fictionalized in a movie called The Hunted starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro. Brown founded a tracker school in 1978 in New Jersey. The school has instructed thousands of students in tracking, camouflage, and spiritual healing. After reading several of Brown's 16 books, Martin journeyed to New Jersey for instruction. He says he found Brown to be "an interesting character. I think as a sort of a defense mechanism he comes across as being almost mysterious and moody and deep." Over the next few years Martin took eight of the classes, including both technique and philosophy.

Martin's studies of Peñasquitos Canyon were also unfolding. "I decided, well, maybe I need some help with this." He wrote an article for the Friends of Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve newsletter, soliciting volunteers to help him with an animal survey. "Back then, development was threatening to totally cut off Peñasquitos Preserve from the adjoining open-space areas," he recalls. He thought a survey of the wildlife could help prove that the preserve was a healthy ecosystem and show that "one of the reasons it was healthy was that it was connected to other areas."

Fifty volunteers responded to Martin's call, and he condensed Brown's week-long "standard" class into a weekend training session. From that group of 50, "We eventually derived the Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve Tracking Team." Since then, additional teams have been organized at Mt. Woodson in Ramona, Preserve Calavera in Carlsbad, Rose Canyon, Daley Ranch, Mission Trails Regional Park, Blue Sky Ecological Reserve, Box Canyon, and Volcan Mountain.

The San Diego volunteers cover 50 or so "transects" identified by the San Diego Tracking Team, the umbrella group that coordinates all the individual tracking teams' activities. "For our purposes, a transect is a trail," Martin explains. "We'll take an established trail, and at specific intervals we'll walk down it." Trackers record tracks, animal droppings (known as scat), and other evidence of the animals' presence. "If you have a little side trail that runs into that trail, you go down it approximately 10 or 15 feet...to see what animals are using it."

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