True Tracks →
Celebrating our 20th anniversary
By Tom Brown, Jr.
My first wilderness survival class started modestly enough. I
took a couple of college students into the dense woods of the Pine
Barrens of New Jersey for a week of training.
Twenty years later. through my Tracker School, we teach more than
3,000 people a year. I absolutely never imagined that the school
would grow like this. But once it started to grow I've never looked
You could say that the foundation for my school began in early
1977 when I appeared on NBC's Today Show and talked to Tom Brokaw
about tracking. Up until then, I was mainly known for my ability to
track down lost children and hunters, as well as aiding law
enforcement officials in tracking down criminals. During that time I
acquired the nickname, "Tracker." Brokaw asked me what my plans for
the future were. I said I was interested in writing a book about my
life and opening up a school. Within days of the broadcast, I was
inundated with book offers and the formation of the school came soon
The first "class" was actually held in late 1977, several months
before the school was incorporated in March of 1978. The first
official classes were held intermittently in Wanamassa, N.J. In
November of 1978, the school really grew, not long after Reader's
Digest ran a condensed version of my first book, "The Tracker"
After the Reader's Digest article appeared, I was getting calls
and letters about the school every day. I started running classes
every three weeks to accommodate everyone. It was an exciting time
for me and the school.
By the end of 1979, I realized that there was a need for a
permanent site for the school and found it in on a farm in Asbury,
N.J. in Warren County. We officially opened the school's doors in
1980. After several years in Asbury, the school was moved briefly to
another site. For the past 10 years, the school's main site has been
in Bethlehem Township in Hunterdon County (although the school still
boasts an Asbury mailing address).
Someday I hope to hold classes all around the world. Not just in
New Jersey and California as we do now. Our goal is to have regular
classes at four permanent sites conveniently located around the
United States to make it easier for our students to get to us. And
we'd love to someday have classes in Germany and Japan, as well as
in other countries.
The more we grow, the better chance we have to make a difference.
East Meets West
Primitive skills community joins forces
For years, Tom Brown, Jr. and Larry Dean Olsen, arguably the two
dominant figures of the Primitive Skills Movement in the United
States, had not spoken.
Olsen, the founder of the Anasazi Program, a wilderness program
for troubled teens, is widely recognized as the father of the West
Coast Primitive Skills Movement. Tom Brown has spearheaded the
Primitive Skills Movement from the East Coast for the past 20 years
through Tracker School.
The two first met over 20 years ago but until this past spring,
had not spoken since. Over time, rumors begat rumors, seemingly
putting the two and their followers at odds. But earlier this
spring, the two met in California to iron out their differences, or
more accurately, the misconceptions about their relationship. "I've
been interested for a long time to lay to rest any thought or idea
that I might be involved in a big controversy or vendetta of any
kind that has to do with Tom Brown and myself," said Olsen. "There
had been things said that were unverifiable and after hearing some
of those things at a Rabbitstick rendezvous (a yearly gathering that
brings primitive skills students together for a week) it just
clicked in my mind that this needed to be put to rest. So I wanted
to get together to bury the hatchet, which we have done."
"It's time to have a common theme, a common focus," added Brown.
"As a whole we've got to put our petty differences and everything
else aside and look for a greater vision -- something we can all
work for instead of working against each other. That vision is
staring us right in the face -- the total destruction of our planet,
one way or the other, and how it's up to us to stop it. It has to
start with getting rid of all the rumor and innuendo that's floating
around. That kind of stuff takes away energy and your focus. We've
got better places to put that energy and focus."
|Larry Dean Olsen and Tom
Brown Jr. met for the first time in over 20 years
||Tom Brown Jr. and Larry
Dean Olsen meeting in California.
At Brown's school, wilderness skills are the basis of most
courses. Students learn the ways of Earth's earliest men, thus
allowing one to feel secure with whatever materials are at hand,
whether it's a rock or sticks. Native American philosophy is also an
important part of the classes.
Olsen's program connects teens to the natural world in a very
loving way, as well.
"You can live comfortably with Mother Earth," said Brown. "It's a
good feeling to know that you can take care of yourself and your
family without all the modern conveniences. You wear a backpack, but
that can be like a ball and chain. You can't go very far. You run
out of provisions, you're back to society. And that's breaking the
chain. I'm not saying, go out all the time in survival situations.
No, go camping, but when you've got the survival skills and you are
no longer afraid of Earth Mother or the wilderness, then it's not a
wilderness anymore, it's home. That's the lure, the mystery of those
skills we teach."
"The sense of discovery is important to people," noted Olsen. "We
think the world has been explored completely and I suppose people
have walked just about everywhere now. But they still haven't
personally discovered anything to speak of. Yet it's to be found by
Even while there has been some feeling of being at odds over the
years, both Brown and Olsen have essentially always had the same
philosophy about the world in that there is a sense of urgency to
fix the Earth before it's too late.
"Simply, we've got to stop being a society of people that kills
our grandchildren to feed our children," declared Brown. "We've got
to have people realize that we are at war and it isn't just in the
neighborhood. It isn't in just one city. It isn't just in the United
States. It's across the world. The Earth is a living entity, a
spiritual entity, a gift. We might be on borrowed time. It's time to
go to war. It's time to stop fighting with each other and go to war
to save the Earth."
"I once asked Dr. Hugh Nibley, a great environmentalist who has
written a whole library of books, what would you say if it was your
last words?" said Olsen. "He said there are only two things we can
do, 'forgive and repent.' That's all that he said. I've tried to
live by that and figure it out all these years. But when you really
get down to it, he's right. We have to repent of how we treat people
and the Earth and we have to forgive anybody that's involved in it
from any level. Because until we do that, we can't reach their
hearts. I really believe that people are not that bad. And if we can
be pure ourselves, we can touch their heart and then the Earth will
Olsen and Brown have begun that process with a simple meeting in
the wilderness of California.
text of an Interview with Tom Brown, Jr. and Larry Dean
Olsen on March 10, 1998
NJCF, New Jersey, Tom Brown Jr.
Team up to Protect Pine Barrens
By Dan Hirshberg
The New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the New Jersey Division
of Fish, Game & Wildlife, and Tom Brown, Jr. are teaming up to help
protect nearly 1,000 additional acres of wilderness in the Pine
In June, NJCF acquired 917 acres of property in the Forked River
Mountain area of Ocean " County with Green Acres funding and equal
donations from landowners Cliff Frazee and Annette and Alan Kirby.
Previously, it acquired over 3,500 acres in the same region. As a
result, the NJCF is protecting more than 4,400 total acres of the
preserve for hiking and other outdoors activities.
Tracker School, which has been holding wilderness classes at the
newly-acquired site for many years, has agreed to provide year-round
caretakers for the preserve. They will be responsible for keeping an
eye on the property and alerting officials to any problems.
"The Pine Barrens are my home away from home and whatever I can
do to help ensure their beauty, I will do," said Brown. "This is a
great thing. A victory for the Pine Barrens. The Foundation should
be commended. The Division of Fish, Game & Wildlife should be
commended. I am glad that we can be a partner in this project."
Officials from both NJCF and DFG&W are not only excited about the
purchase, but with the extensive cooperative effort mounted to save
and protect the land on a long-term basis.
"Large open space gains like these protect our quality of life in
so many ways, including saving us tax dollars," according to NJCF
Director of Communications David Yaskulka. "We're thrilled to be
working with Tom Brown's Tracker School and the DFG&W to keep the
Forked River Mountain Wildlife Management Area a natural wonder for
all to see."
As anyone who has taken a class in the Pine Barrens knows, the
Forked River Mountains are a place of natural wonder and rich
history. They feature cedar swamps, pitch pine and oak forests, open
bogs and marshland.
The wilderness houses the highest concentration of endangered
species in the northern half of the Pine Barrens. These are the
rarest and most endangered plants and animals north of Atlantic City
and include the saw-whet owl, hermit thrush, pine snake, timber
rattlesnake, the Pine Barrens gentian (a small blue bell shaped
flower), meadows of federally-endangered swamp pink (a lily with a
grapefruit-sized pink lily blossom), and thousands of turkey beard
(another lily). In addition, there are extensive forests of Atlantic
The New Jersey Conservation Foundation is devoted to preserving
open spaces throughout New Jersey. Since its inception in 1960, it
has saved more than 75,000 acres.
Establishing a Connection With
By Tom McElroy
This article is on the
Wildwood Tracking website
THE LOST TRAPS
Taught by Grandfather to Tom Brown
By Dan Stanchfield
This article is on the
Wildwood Survival website
Walking my Journey as a
By RuthAnn Colby
On 5 October 1996, I walked into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey
to live for a year as a caretaker for the Tracker School. I left
eleven months later, changed and looking towards a wedding and a new
job as an instructor for the school. As the newest member of the
Tracker Family, I wish to introduce myself to you, students and
friends, through a brief reflection on my year in the woods.
My year in the woods was everything I wanted and nothing I
expected. Following my college graduation and six months of
teaching, I told friends and family that I was going to the woods,
emulating Thoreau, to live simply for a year. I told myself I was
going out to experience all that a girl's childhood threaded with
cooking and sewing lessons had kept from me.
I did not, however, enter the woods wearing buckskin and carrying
as little as a knife and a journal. I went lugging behind me crates
of books, raw hides and scrapers, a sleeping bag, jars of flour,
grains and homemade jam and clothing. I was fully prepared for a
yearlong camping trip.
My year commenced with the building of my shelter. Not knowing
how to wield an ax or saw and clueless as to the demands of
structural support, I had about a month to design and build before
this Michigan-born girl believed winter would have the Pine Barrens
in its throes.
I decided a partially underground shelter would provide me with
the best insulation, so I began to dig. A full week later, I had
created a 5-foot-deep, 8-footacross wound in Mother Earth and
similar pain in my back and arms. But I had learned how to dig.
Stepping up to my next challenge, I had to construct walls that
would hold up the sandy soil walls of the hole. A few (failed) ideas
and a few more tears brought me to a functional cedar wall. Six days
later I had completed the hexagonal roof structure complete with a
window and chimney box.
The nights were certainly cooling off, but my days continued to
be warm enough to move about without a wool sweater and a hat. The
oak's leaves had long since peaked in their colors and were falling
in heaps and piles onto the forest floor, which was fine with me.
Armed with a wheelbarrow and a rake, I worked for seven days,
sunrise to sunset, hauling those leaves for my roof. I left it at
four feet deep over the entire surface and later found that I had
successfully built the only tarpless, waterproof shelter in the
Pines at the time. It had cost me a full month of labor, sweat and
tears and amounted to a similar accomplishment as my college thesis;
and while that book sat on the shelf, this project kept me warm and
As my 23rd birthday approached, I felt a need to honor this
compilation of my years with something challenging and rewarding. I
had felt the luring presence of Grandmother ocean, ten miles away as
the crow flies, and decided the perfect celebration would be a walk
to experience the sun rising over her. I set out at noon the day
before my birthday. It was an unusually hot February day, nearing 70
degrees (F), so I wore shorts and tevas. I carried a backpack with a
bivy sack, water, journal, a can of tuna fish and warm clothes. My
walk was an adventure between possum roadkill, trying on a wedding
dress at the thriftshop I walked by, and the changing vegetation as
I moved from the Pine Barrens into a coastal ecology. A good ten
miles later the sun set and it began to rain and I was hardly
nearing the bridge to Long Beach Island which separated the mainland
from the ocean waves.
My feet had long since begun to hurt and to ease the aches of my
body, I ducked into the natural food store as I passed by. The
beautiful elder who owned the place, with grey-white hair flowing to
her waist, noted the Tracker symbol on my shirt and inquired as to
who I was and where I was going. I told her my story and she offered
me a bed and an early ride to the shore, and as good as that
sounded, I knew I had to finish what I had started. I accepted a
birthday Ricedream moonpie instead and promised to stop in on my
Rejuvenated, smiling with the memory of this lovely woman and
Ricedream on my lips, I walked on towards the six mile long bridge.
I had just entered a wooded area along the road outside of the throw
of streetlights when a cop car squealed a U-turn and halted in my
face, blinding me. Both doors opened and two large armed men
approached me in my darkness with huge flashlights. I was a young
blond woman walking alone along a street in New Jersey. My mission
would seem strange to the average fast-paced citizen, and sleeping
on the beach is illegal anyhow. I fought the urge and logic to turn
and bolt for the woods. Instead I stood my ground and explained that
I was with a wilderness school and out for a hike. Apparently there
had been an outbreak of theft in the neighborhood. The cops thought
me a little strange, but accepted my story and offered mused smiles
as I walked away. "Hey, we're the guys you can trust! Be careful out
there," met my ears through the darkness. I trust first the woods
and the waters, then the eyes and manner of approaching humans. I
thought about this as my feet kept time with the pattering of
The bridge was long. The winds were strong. I was trapped against
the rails and could not hide from passing cars. It was half-way
across the bridge that my blisters oozed and in that warm, rainy
night I realized what a silly adventure I had undertaken. I was
exhausted and sore, too tired now to hardly care about the sunrise.
I was later to learn that the route I had taken was 24 miles one
way. But in that moment I realized, I knew, that I no longer needed
to test myself in this way. I would always search for challenges, of
course, but never again would I need a challenge purely for the sake
of proving to myself that I could do something. I was a girl, yes,
and in this I can do absolutely anything.
In the months that followed I learned to chop wood. It is a skill
inherent to wilderness living, one that my fellow caretakers had
learned in childhood, yet it was not easy for me to learn even this
simple task. I gave up my matches for a month and cooked over
primitive fire. I slept out for a year. I watched everyday as fall
died into winter and found rebirth into spring, then summer. I broke
through the ice to bathe. I scrubbed my clothes by the stream. I
kept time by the sun and lived by its light. I ran miles and walked
hundreds more. I made my first buckskin dress and moccasins and wore
the warmth of the deer. I ate simply and learned to prefer it. I ate
new foods and came to understand food as food, any life as honorable
as the next - mouse, earthworm, grub, hognose snake, pine snake,
flying squirrel, red squirrel. I wrote letters and journals
constantly, working to share and make sense of my experiences.
I struggled between realities, living in the woods yet just
outside Toms River, not far from New York City, an Air Force base
and a nuclear power plant. Between bombings, air traffic, city
lights and the Garden State parkway I never forgot where I was nor
the gift I had been given to slip just outside society to live in
the solitude of the natural world.
I planted myself like a tree. I baptized myself and friends in
the mud. I floated on my back down miles of stream and walked home
barefoot. I killed for the first time. My hands became my most
treasured tools. I found home and comfort in the woods, bushes, dirt
and muck. I learned lessons I never dreamed of seeking.
I had set out to immerse myself in the Pine Barrens and learn all
that it had to teach. I did not master any skills, only practiced
many. I set out to live simply, to seek my strength as a woman, in
solitude. I sought freedom after 18 years of schooling. And I
desired to give myself over to the natural world to be taught:
The Pines gave me warmth, tasty teas, great joy as I climbed to
see the sun's rising and setting. The Blueberries dyed my hands and
filled my stomach for two months. The Oaks provided warmth, shelter,
countless lessons in awareness (ouch) and slowing down. They
reminded me of myself, my body, Mother Earth, of what I love in
The Cedars were my temple. I sought solace, reverence, God, in
them. They taught me not to be afraid. To trust. To believe. To keep
returning, day after day, to honor each day, the self, the land, the
In the Waters I found tranquility, freedom, life! Absolute life.
They quenched my thirst and cleansed my hot, filthy body. I've felt
my body immersed, connecting to the blood of Mother, water of all
waters. Water brings me closer to full and total surrender to the
The Animals taught me how to move, for I did not know. They fed
me. They clothed me. They showed themselves to me so that I could
learn with whom I shared this planet. They watched me and beneath
their eyes I felt safe, as a child under her parent's ever presence.
Sand has been touched, ingested. Sand has taken my weight
sitting, sleeping, has been soothing to my bare feet. It has shown
me thousands of stories through tracks.
I have come to fire and water, trees, earth and rock, simply. I
have come to a place where the Creator and Earth Mother are
prominent figures in my every thought and breath. I have struggled,
denied, run away and ultimately surrendered.
I walked out of the Pine Barrens with all my stuff, yet needing
it a little less. I left in awe of my experience there. I left
knowing my internship had only just begun.
I have returned to Tracker classes, now as an Instructor. Each
day I call upon my experiences and stories as a caretaker to teach
those who have come after me. Each day I call upon the self that
became my dearest friend in the Pines to assist me in my teaching
and in not forgetting the lessons or the hardships with which they
were won. And each day I call upon the Creator to guide me. I look
forward now to a lifetime of lessons and adventures in the beloved
wilderness; and, of course, a wedding!
Transmission of Knowledge
By "Ninja" Joe Lao
I believe in a teacher/student relationship. I often say, that
the only way to truly "know" a skill is to develop a "relationship"
with it. When I say "relationship," I mean it in the truest sense of
the word. You will never be able to really make a stone tool that
will take care of you until you know and understand stone. It is the
same with plants, pottery, fire, water, etc. You need to spend and
take quality time to know the materials, how they form into whatever
you are trying to create, and feel the thankfulness for learning
this skill which will be life sustaining for yourself and others.
Obviously, one skill alone needs a lifetime for proficiency. Just
now, after thirteen years am I truly beginning to understand the
skills of stone tools, fire and primitive cooking (my three fortes).
This understanding came from years and years of going through the
basics and experimentation.
Realizing your fortes and strengths is very important. After a
standard class many students do not know what skill to do or cover
first, but that's OK because after a while they will. There are
students that know right away what skills they gravitate to. Some
students also think they like one thing, but actually realize later
that they like something else, much like picking and changing a
major in college. You should pick your strongest skill to build up
and strengthen. From there use it as a springboard to build up your
weaker skills, as you begin to understand the inter-relationships of
all the other skills. For example, I say during the standard class
that I like stone tools, fire and cooking. This is because with
stone tools I can create hunting and trapping tools to get food,
skill and butcher the catches and use the stone tools to make a fire
apparatus to cook them. Being somewhat of a glutton, I liked
primitive cooking. I soon realized that my ability to cook my food
depended upon my ability to catch food and to make a fire. These
skills depended solely on my ability to make good stone tools.
Unfortunately, many who travel all this way to come to the school
choose to leave the information and knowledge in their notebooks,
their tape recorders and their memories. And granted, at home there
probably isn't much of a support system, not to mention trying to
balance your life to fit in the skills. But what is important is
that you keep going, that you don't stop your momentum of growth.
It's sad that one cannot just return to the Tracker School in an
ongoing program. The school is set up in the most proficient way
possible to accommodate a large number of students that come from
allover the world at a scheduled time. During this period of
scheduled time, the school transmits to the students as much
information as it can (remember no free time).
I like to think of the Tracker School as a school of personal
responsibility. When students leave here they should look for and
find ways to be a benefit to the communities in which they live.
It's overwhelming to try to save the world, so instead, save your
part of the world. That is how the school's vision lives in all the
students. It is my opinion that wilderness skills training should be
much like martial arts training. The "transmission" of knowledge in
the truest sense is done in the teacher/student relationship. The
teacher knows the student's strengths and weaknesses and can adjust
their growth accordingly. People should train on a regular basis
covering and exploring the principals of the skills thoroughly
toward confidence and proficiency before moving on. Grandfather did
this with Tom and Rick. Utilize your class lists. If you don't
already have a group together, start one. Once you have a wilderness
training club formed, no one should really be in charge because
everyone will have different strengths in different skills. Go as
far as finding people who are proficient at a certain skill and ask
them to come in, cross-pollinate. Everyone should teach what they
know well. This way everyone helps develop everyone's growth. I feel
it should be "training" not "demonstration teaching." Start teaching
now, don't wait. The other half of learning, of being a student, is
teaching. Grandfather said to Tom, "You will never truly know a
skill until you teach it." Make your community aware that you are
there and be beneficial. I was born and raised Roman Catholic, and
may times I heard and read this parable: Give a (person) a fish and
you feed (him/her) for a day, teach a (person) how to fish and you
feed their whole community for the rest of their lives.
A word of advice. When I was in Japan meeting with students, they
asked advice on how to go about starting a school. My advice was not
what they were expecting. I said don't start a school. Just start a
club where you can informally show and teach skills to groups. First
learn the experiences of teaching. Teach so you can learn how to
teach. Before I started here at the Tracker School, I started doing
demonstrations 10 years ago for pre-schools, middle schools, high
schools, environmental groups, Boy and Girl Scouts, nature centers,
anyone who seemed interested. In having to transmit this knowledge
thoroughly, I had to clarify it for myself. The questions that folks
come up with that you wouldn't have asked yourself in a million
years are part of your growth. My martial arts teacher, Jack Hoban,
has always said, "Don't wait until you are a black belt to do black
I will be starting a training club here at the school. I ask that
you folks out there with established training clubs send me your
club name and contact information. Anyone looking for a training
club can call or write me and I will refer them to the closest club
in their area.
Taking the First Step
By Nancy Klein
After taking your Standard Class, many of us (I include myself in
these numbers) go home feeling overwhelmed by all the information
you've been given.
So many times I have written students recommending that they take
everyday "one bite at a time." Each day, working on a different
aspect of something you've learned. Maybe it's only a few minutes a
day practicing the bowdrill, setting a trap, or perhaps taking a
short walk where you live and identifying the plants along the way.
Never let yourself think that this isn't enough!
If you've worked a busy day, relax by letting yourself drift back
to the class, remembering friends, or a particular lecture that hit
home. I always call this "changing gears." In our society, it's hard
to balance between the modem, technological world we participate in
and the primitive, more simple existence that draws us closer to the
Earth. This "changing gears" is actually a form of meditation that
slows our mind and pulls us away from the chaos of the world. In the
philosophy class, Tom has us work with our hands to achieve this
sort of shift of consciousness. You can do it by holding a piece of
wood, looking at your notes, or just listening to the sounds of
Yes, I can hear some of you saying that the city doesn't afford
the luxury of listening to the sounds of nature, but remember Tom's
story of tracking mice in the planter in the airport? For those in
the city, you may have to concentrate and focus harder, but you will
be stronger for it. Nature has a pattern of its own that exists
within the confines of the city, you just need to see it once and
you will slip into its consciousness much easier each time you wish
to observe it.
Once you have "digested" the small pieces, you begin to wonder,
as I did, how I could teach others what I had learned. It meant so
much to me to be connected with those of similar beliefs. I wondered
how I could begin a school, where all the money would come from,
what facility I could use; the list was endless and I felt
overwhelmed by it all. After going through my exercise that I wrote
above, I realized maybe a school wasn't what was going to become my
vision. In writing for the "Razor's Edge" (the Philosophy
newsletter), I have stressed the importance of being an individual,
using your own skills and experiences to teach within the realm of
your life and what you do.
Every day we meet people, who, perhaps as we do, believe there is
something more to be lived for, only they don't know where to begin
and never say anything to anybody about their feelings. By just
talking to them, you strike a chord in their hearts. I'm not saying
that this will happen to everyone you meet, but in time, you will
come to recognize those who feel as you do, and the conversations
will flow freely. Your friends may become interested in what you've
learned and some weekend, you could hold a workshop to show them
skills. It doesn't need to be long or formal, just a get-together to
talk and to leisurely talk about what you learned. As they learn,
the workshops can become larger, with more friends invited, or
perhaps a note in the local paper inviting those interested to drop
By starting small, you can hone your skills and become more
comfortable in speaking to others. Offer your time to schools or
groups, outlining what you wish to cover, using your notes to guide
you. One important aspect is to remember not to give too much
information as to confuse those you wish to teach. Yes, it happened
at the Standard class, but you only had one week in which to get the
information you needed to begin to teach others. More than learning
the skills, Tom and the instructors gave you the tools to pass the
knowledge on to others, as Grandfather did for Tom. Again, by first
"changing gears" and taking that "one bite," you have made a
difference and started the wheel turning. It's all about teaching.
Your experience makes you unique and therefore able to reach people
that others cannot. Whether you are in a corporate setting, factory
work, day care, medical...the list is endless, and so are the people
you can teach. The skills we've learned are so important to pass on
to future generations, but also important are the unseen skills of
touching people's hearts with the eyes to see a sunset, or the
beauty of trees. The wisdom of Grandfather and the fisherman, a
story that touched all of us and led us to become the teachers we
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