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The art of survival: Attempting to tame the wilderness at Tom Brown's Tracker School
By Sandy Lawrence Edry
Originally published March 17, 2002  (Baltimore Sun)


Hunched beneath a large blue tarp that kept out the steady drizzle but not the humidity, a young woman in her 20s with long brown hair furiously moved a stick back and forth against a cedar spindle trying to turn friction into fire.

Not far away, a small crowd gathered to watch as someone steadily scraped the hair and skin off a deer hide, and a few amateur trackers spent some "dirt time" looking for animal prints on a nearby trail.

All the while, I stood next to a pile of wooden boughs, flicking my wrist sideways as I practiced my throwing stick technique - just in case one day I might need to kill a furry little bunny for dinner.

Welcome to Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School, where students spend an intense week learning how to live primitively and love it.

The school, headquartered on a 90-acre wooded farm in northwestern New Jersey, teaches everything from making a fire with sticks and building a cozy debris hut, to tracking rabbits and mice across a dirt trail and making a meal of them. There was also a Bambi-meets-Wilderness-Girl encounter, but more on that later.

All this comes wrapped up with a Native American-flavored philosophy that teaches people to leave the land in as good a shape - or better - than when they found it.

Think of this as boot camp for nature lovers.

"All the stuff that I wanted to learn in Girl Scouts but nobody knew how to teach me, I'm learning here," says Jenny Jai, a 42-year-old cell biologist from the Florida panhandle who took the school's basic class, known as the Standard, earlier this year.

The school, which has been operating for more than two decades, has always been popular, but since Sept. 11 the staff has seen a surge in inquiries and enrollment as many people look for a way to master their environment in the event of another catastrophe.

Learning the skills necessary to subsist in the wild may seem quite different from living through a terrorist attack, but, according to Tom Brown Jr., the school's founder and one of the country's top wilderness experts, the situations have much in common.

"Survival is survival," says Brown, who has written 16 books on the subject. "It doesn't make any difference whether you are in the city or you're in the woods." What his students learn, he says, "easily translates."

My experience at the school predated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, coming instead during a rainy week last spring. Personally, I am not much of an outdoorsman. I never joined the Boy Scouts, never did much hiking as a kid and, until three years ago, the only time I had ever slept outdoors was on a chaise longue in Palm Springs.

So I went to the tracker school thinking that if these folks could teach me wilderness skills, they can teach just about anyone.

A rustic campus

By the time I arrived at the Asbury, N.J., farm late on a Sunday afternoon, the colorful tent city had already taken shape, as many of the 70 other students had pitched their temporary homes on the flat rise at one end of the property.

For those expecting some sort of wild and primeval environment, the grounds of the farm will initially disappoint.

The school is located in a quiet and rustic part of Hunterdon County, near the Pennsylvania border, about 30 miles from Allentown. The school's main instructional area is centered on a relatively small tract of land, marked by a few ramshackle structures, including the converted barn that serves as the principal classroom.

Still, as we learned in the coming days, the farm's abundant plant and animal life had plenty to teach us. (Those who want the more atavistic wilderness experience must wait until they are ready for the advanced classes, which are mostly held at a primitive camp deep inside the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey.)

As I began unpacking my gear that first day, I looked around at my fellow classmates and found them to be a diverse mix of people that included a few red-flannel hunter types, some college-aged neo-hippies, a sprinkling of older baby boomers and lots of nature lovers. About a quarter of the class was female.

But there was one nearly universal connection among these people: They came here because of the legendary Tom Brown, a larger-than-life character who began the school in 1978 to pass on the teachings of an elderly Apache warrior called Stalking Wolf.

As he relates in several of his books, Brown met Stalking Wolf, whom he reverentially refers to as Grandfather, when he was a 7-year-old boy growing up in Toms River, N.J., and went on to spend more than a decade under the Native American's tutelage, learning the ancient ways of tracking and survival.

As a young adult, Brown honed those skills, crisscrossing the continent and living in full survival mode for months at a time, before deciding to dedicate his life to teaching and writing about Grandfather's philosophy and methods.

At the same time, Brown developed a reputation as a master tracker, and is now regularly called on by the FBI and local authorities in missing person cases and fugitive hunts.

(This fall, moviegoers will get a peek into this part of Brown's life, when the movie The Hunted is released. In it, Tommy Lee Jones plays a Tom Brown-like tracker brought in by the FBI to capture a serial killer. Brown served as technical consultant to the film.)

At age 52, the trim, 6-foot-2-inch Brown is intimidating. He doesn't teach many of the introductory-level classes anymore, leaving that to a group of his most talented students. And teach they do.

On most days, wake-up call is before 7:30 a.m., leaving students barely enough time to roll out of their sleeping bags, grab a bowl of morning gruel and take their seats on the barn's backless wooden benches.

The next 14 to 16 hours are packed with lectures and hands-on demonstrations, with only brief bathroom breaks and time to eat the tracker stew that is the school's main, if somewhat monotonous, form of nourishment.

But no one complains. A sign in the barn that hangs above the instructors' raised platform says it all: "No Sniveling."

Survival skills

Obviously, people don't come here to be pampered. They come for the bucketfuls of information they get each day. The coursework revolves around teaching the Sacred Order: shelter, water, fire and food.

According to the instructors, this is the sequence of necessities that must be followed if a person wants to survive - and thrive - in any unexpected wilderness situation.

Living in survival mode, we learned, doesn't mean debilitation. As Brown is known to say, "If you're suffering, then your skills suck."

One of the first things we learned was how to make and use a bow drill to start a fire.

For some folks, this covered ground they had learned as children, but it was new to me. Using an ax and my new knife, I managed to carve the three pieces I needed from a cedar log without severing any fingers.

Then I bent down on one knee, as instructed, and started working the bow back and forth against the spindle. Nothing. Nada. Around me, several students quickly got the necessary heat to form the powder that set their tiny tinder bundles aflame.

Meanwhile, I nearly took someone's eye out when my spindle flew from its place and landed several feet away.

I found somewhat more success in one of the next workshops: trap making.

Dozens of trap varieties exist, but we were taught to make two. The first one is called a figure-four trap and is made with three notched sticks and a heavier log. A piece of bait is skewered on the end of one stick, luring an unsuspecting critter, who pulls at the trap and has his tiny brains bashed in.

After accidentally breaking my first stick in half, I managed to whittle the pieces properly and prop them together to form a nearly perfect figure four. I touched the bait stick just so and - wham! - Wile E. Coyote, eat your heart out.

Not all of the classes entailed hands-on work. Instructors who specialized in skills such as stone-tool-making, rope-making and primitive cooking gave lectures and demonstrations in the barn, while students furiously scribbled in their notebooks.

One of the more popular classes was on "brain tanning."

It started with an instructor taking us outside and showing us how to deftly skin a dead deer. (The unfortunate animal was brought here after recently losing a one-sided argument with a moving vehicle.)

The underside was slit open and then most of the skin was peeled back and removed in one piece. At least this is what I heard was going on, since I was standing way in the back of the crowd, trying to make sure I had at least one person's body blocking my view at all times.

We then moved back inside the barn to hear about the tanning process.

Thinking the worst was behind me, I followed. The teacher, a young blond woman dressed in a buckskin dress she made herself, spent a few minutes describing various ways to preserve the hide. Next thing I knew, someone else brought in the deer's severed and sliced-open head - from which Wilderness Girl pulled out Bambi's brain.

Apparently, smearing the mushy gray stuff onto a hide is one of the best ways to preserve it. At that moment, I thought of becoming a vegetarian.

Other students weren't nearly as squeamish. In my class, most of the students were actually craning their necks to get a better view. Sandra Hopkins, a 56-year-old psychiatric nurse at Maryland General Hospital in Baltimore, found the lesson inspiring.

Hopkins came to the tracker school with a friend last August and had no previous wilderness background. Now the nature newbie and her buddy are actively looking to buy hides.

"She is already making moccasins," says Hopkins of her friend, "but my life goal is to make a teepee."

As a vacation destination, this school obviously isn't for everyone. The super-long days sitting in a drafty barn aren't easy and the subject matter isn't always appealing. On top of that, the pseudo-mythical trappings of the school's philosophy might turn off some people - especially when the instructors start offering thanks to the fish people and grass people.

(According to Grandfather's philosophy, all objects - animate and not - are imbued with a life spirit and we should give thanks when they sacrifice themselves for us.)

But if you are either into or can get past the spirituality side, the school certainly doesn't shortchange its students.

"It helped me refocus the second half of my life," says Hopkins. "It intensified my desire to spend more of my retirement in nature and also be a good steward of the environment."

Hopkins is already planning on returning to the school to take a course on Grandfather's philosophy. And when she's done with that, she has more than 30 other advance-level classes to choose from, ranging from advanced tracking to Apache scout training, that are offered in New Jersey as well as Florida and California.

As for me, I came away from my week with nearly three notebooks crammed with material and more than 30 hours of lectures on tape. And while I may not be ready to enter the woods armed only with my wits, I did manage to achieve fire on my fourth day, and I learned enough (I hope) to ensure that I won't be eaten by a bear or die of exposure in the wilderness.

I'll leave the brain-tanning for the others.


Most people who attend the tracker school have read at least one of Tom Brown's books, and some can quote him chapter and verse. If you want to prep yourself before you head into the woods, here are a few suggestions.

  • The Tracker: The True Story of Tom Brown, Jr.

  • The Quest: One Man's Search for Peace, Insight and Healing in an Endangered World

  • Tom Brown's Field Guide to Wilderness Survival

Ideal Day

7:30 a.m.: Wake-up. Some students are already trudging through the muck from last night's rainstorm, carrying buckets of water to the outdoor shower stalls.

8 a.m.: The first lecture of the day, given by school director Kevin Reeves, explains Grandfather's philosophy of awareness, which comes from observing nature. He calls it "the doorway to the spirit."

10:30 a.m.: An instructor draws a series of animal tracks on a white marker board and students are taught the classification system that differentiates species. We are taught to read "the ground as if it is a manuscript that is wiped clean when it rains."

1 p.m.: Lunch. A steaming portion of tracker stew, a concoction of rice, veggies and chicken or beef that is boiled in a big pot and served with a green salad.

2 p.m.: Construct a crude shelter from fallen logs and dead leaves. A couple of students volunteer to spend the night in these shelters and share their experiences with the class. Mental note: Don't sit next to them at breakfast.

4 p.m.: Go into the woods to gather edible plants such as dandelions and plantains. You will eat these at some point.

6 p.m.: Dinner. The good news is we won't be eating tracker stew tonight. The bad news is that we have to gut and clean the fresh trout ourselves.

8 p.m.: Learn to camouflage yourself, de-scent your body and stalk animals.

10:30 p.m.: Class dismissed. Head for your tent, or hang out with other students - and know that you are a survivor.

Copyright 2002, The Baltimore Sun
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