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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
Tom Brown's Field Guide to Wilderness Survival
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
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
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
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
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