HomePublicationsTrue TracksFall 1998

True Tracks - Fall 1998


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 back.

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 after.

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 recently.   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 each individual."

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 change."

Olsen and Brown have begun that process with a simple meeting in the wilderness of California.

[For the text of an Interview with Tom Brown, Jr. and Larry Dean Olsen on March 10, 1998 Click Here.]



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 Barrens.

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 white cedar.

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 Nature
By Tom McElroy

This article is on the Wildwood Tracking website



Taught by Grandfather to Tom Brown
By Dan Stanchfield

This article is on the Wildwood Survival website



Walking my Journey as a Caretaker
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 dry.

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 return trip.

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 raindrops.

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 life.

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 Creator.

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 natural world.

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 belt techniques."

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 nature.

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.

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 all are.



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