The Art Of Survival

Attempting to tame the wilderness at Tom Brown's Tracker School.

March 17, 2002|By Sandy Lawrence Edry | By Sandy Lawrence Edry,Special to the 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's Tracker School, where students spend an intense week learning how to live primitively and love it.

The school, 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 the 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.

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