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'Tracking' Teaches Skills For a Successful Career
By Rachel Emma Silverman
From The Wall Street Journal Online
CareerJournal.com (July 3, 2001)

MEDFORD, N.J. -- Dead-end job got you down? Before doing anything rash, follow the footsteps of a committed group of enthusiasts looking for career-enhancement and self-fulfillment in the art of animal-tracking.

Software developers, engineers and even Hollywood movie stars are getting into "tracking," a study of survival in the wild that emphasizes observation and analysis of paw prints, blood droplets, stray feathers, tooth marks, matted vegetation, hair traces, even animal dung ("scat"). For hard-core trackers, an odd amalgam of camouflage-wearing hunters, tie-dyed vegetarians and Spam-in-a-bomb-shelter survivalists, the tracking lifestyle exerts a powerful draw.

Now, thanks to a far-reaching word-of-mouth network, lawyers, bankers and managers have discovered the tracker movement. A major hub of it is Tom Brown's Tracker School, based in Asbury, 45 miles west of New York City. The school's owner is Tom Brown Jr., a 51-year-old "master tracker" and author of 16 tracking books, including the field's 1978 classic text, "The Tracker."

Mr. Brown, a chain-smoking, Ted Turner look-alike, has taught thousands of acolytes how to fend for themselves in the woods and on the job. The school claims to have trained 50,000 students, including law-enforcement officers and military personnel including Navy SEALs. In fact, the school offers a "search and rescue" class, and many trackers volunteer to help law-enforcement officials hunt down missing persons or fugitives. Some of his disciples have organized their own schools and stay in touch via the Internet.

At week-long classes costing $700 to $750, students at Mr. Brown's school learn to "fox-walk," so they create minimal disturbance. They are instructed how to cover themselves with mud and vegetation, so they blend in. By analyzing tracks and surroundings, top trackers can tell whether an animal or human is hungry or full, scared or relaxed, feeble or strong.

Among tracking enthusiasts are Bill Hill, a Microsoft Corp. researcher who was on the development team for ClearType, a software based in part on tracker philosophy that makes computer text more legible. Others include Greg Buis, the back-to-nature contestant on the original "Survivor" TV show. Donald Spates, a homeless man from Omaha, Neb., has saved up money from odd jobs and then taken a bus to New Jersey to take some classes at Mr. Brown's school, where he has learned to build an urban hut out of debris and light a fire in all kinds of weather.

In February, Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro came to a campground in Medford, near New Jersey's Pine Barrens, to take lessons from Mr. Brown in tossing tomahawks and sparring with knives. He also observed trackers smearing themselves with mud and leaves. He was preparing for a role in an upcoming tracking movie, "The Hunted," directed by William Friedkin and also starring Tommy Lee Jones. (Mr. Brown is a technical adviser on the film.)

At a "healing" class at the Medford campsite, about 80 students recently foraged outside for roots and rocks, then assembled at wooden picnic tables in a gymnasium to practice various techniques on each other. A concession shop sold Tom Brown's Tracker School T-shirts and New Age music tapes. Staffers' cell phones sometimes rang, interrupting Mr. Brown as he invoked the spirit of his deceased mentor, an Apache Indian.

One 10-year veteran of tracking is Jack Skoczek, a 44-year-old avionics engineer at Priester Aviation Service, which maintains corporate and private jets in Wheeling, Ill. Mr. Skoczek, who is responsible for quality control, says tracking helps him concentrate on details. "I'm the guy who signs off on the aircraft," he says. "I can pick up many of the problems or situations before they become a safety issue. I would have to attribute that to simply to the awareness that I've gotten through exposure to tracking: Sit down and look at everything and take a bigger picture rather than tunnel vision."

Some classes at the Tracker School, such as "Way of the Coyote," are focused on developing skills for use in the human realm. Such classes can help people read colleagues and competitors better. In a business setting, a tracker would keep mum about his employer's plans while gleaning as much information as possible from outsiders. It means "you are far more aware of your competitors' activities than they are of yours," says Kevin Reeve, the school's director.

Deciphering animal tracks assisted Mr. Hill at Microsoft with his development of ClearType software. The 51-year-old researcher says he gained insight into the way people read and recognize patterns while tracking coyotes and elk near his home. Among the projects he's planning next: a waterproof electronic book loaded with field guides, maps and a global-positioning system, which he figures he and his co-workers could use while tracking coyotes and squirrels during breaks from work at Microsoft's roughly 300-acre wooded campus in Redmond, Wash.

Back in the 1990s, when Mr. Reeve was an employee-relations trainer for Apple Computer Inc., he used his tracking acumen to detect clues that portended job cuts. "I began noticing that people were going into meetings together who weren't normally meeting," he recalls. "Some were meeting more frequently. It's like when a fox is walking along the treeline," he says. "Birds are going to start calling, and their behavior indicates that a fox is there. Even if I can't see the fox, by listening to the birds, I know it is there." He studied which executives reserved conference rooms, and soon he compiled a list of departments he thought were likely to be hit by job cuts.

Two weeks later, Mr. Reeve's list proved to be almost completely accurate: His department was cut.

Not all students take to tracking, as Mr. Reeve found four years ago when he tried offering training to corporations in week-long sessions. "People were like, 'Are we done playing yet?'" Mr. Reeve recalls. "Some people had a difficult time finding the applicability of the skills." He hopes to try again soon. "I really believe there's a great opportunity there," he says.

For some students, a course at the Tracker School is a life-changing experience. A surprisingly large number of students relocate, quit jobs or even leave spouses after discovering tracking. Mr. Reeve actually warns students not to do anything rash at the end of the school's Standard Class, the prerequisite in basic skills that all students must take.

"It's not the school that changes them," Mr. Reeve says. "It's nature that changes them. For the first time in many of their lives, they've had a very powerful connection to the natural world."


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