Summer is the time when our nature table explodes with treasures found outside. Feathers, shells, sea glass, and exoskeletons find their way home in the pockets of my little explorer. There is one natural treasure that is a little trickier to bring home: the tracks of the animals out enjoying the long summer days and warm nights. We have found deer, raccoon, and heron tracks close to home. And now we’ve found a way to preserve those fleeting animal clues and bring them home.
Plaster of Paris (Get a big tub; you’ll end up making more than you think.)
A “frame” for your tracks (We often use the top of a plastic drinking cup cut in half. You can also create a frame from natural items like sticks and stone. It just needs to contain the plaster.)
An old jar for mixing plaster
Field guide for identifying tracks
Begin by mixing the plaster with water according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Make sure you get the plaster off the bottom and sides of the jar.
Then place the frame around the track. When using a plastic cup top in sand, it is easy to push the cup down into the sand around the print to keep the plaster from seeping out.
If the print is bigger than a cup top, you’ll need to improvise with other containers or sticks. Just make sure whatever you use can bury deep enough around the print to contain the plaster or you will end up with something like this.
Give your plaster one last stir and pour into the frame slowly.
Then leave the plaster to dry. If you are casting on a tidal shore, be sure to check the local tides to make sure you don’t come back to find your whole effort washed out to sea. You may want to take the drying time to read about the animal whose print you’ve found in a field guide and figure out what he may have been doing in that particular spot.
The plaster will take a minimum of an hour to dry in nice sunny conditions. It can take longer if the air is damp or if it is overcast and late in the day. Touch the top and see if you feel any stickiness. It needs to be bone dry.
Once it is dry, simply lift it away from the ground and gently pop it out of the frame. There will be considerable debris on your cast (sand or soil depending on where you found the print.) You can carefully wipe away the debris with your fingers or use a small, clean paintbrush. You won’t get every bit off, but some sand just adds to the character of the piece.
Now the cast is ready to display!
You can stand a stick or pencil at the top of the frame with the wet plaster in it and then carefully remove it when the plaster starts to harden. This will leave a hole where you may thread a ribbon or string to hang the track. You can also tie a ribbon around the perimeter of the rounded track cast and display it somewhere special. Or just arrange the plaster tracks on your nature table. Don’t forget to tag each cast with a date, location, and the animal that left you the special summer treasure.
Cindy Wallach blogs about raising her kids on board a 44-foot catamaran sailboat at zachaboard.